Brad Pitt’s character in Fight Club mocked the idea of having a perfect masculine body. Then took off his shirt and became that idea's new standard. Pitt’s razor sharp abdominal lines and lean, puckering pectorals are a version of an ideal that vast chains of health stores packed with questionable products along with countless men’s magazines have sought to promulgate.
Finally men’s bodies have the chance to appear alongside women’s on grocery newsstands as disembodied pieces of meat, fit for your skin bin or for Jeffrey Dahmer’s freezer. In the age of powerlifting and steroids, all this working out all the time shit has made Greek statues of high antiquity look like “before” pictures. And as I discovered, in a world where you’re only as valuable as your price on the market, a perfect physique has become a luxury item that puts shark fin soup to shame.
I have weight trained for my entire adult life, mostly on a strict vegetarian diet and entirely without the aid of pricey supplements. These abstentions are transgressions against bodybuilding orthodoxy, damning me to an eternity in Purgatory. But alas, my heresy does not end there. For I am guilty of the true cardinal sin of modern bodybuilding: manual labor.
I’ve worked as a mover for long enough that I’ve started to consider it skilled labor. I’ve become an expert in real estate, trends in modern furniture (it all sucks), and the irrefutability of my own class position. Most importantly, I’ve learned that among bodybuilders in my generation, and especially those with disposable income, the only thing more imperative than looking like Zeus atop Olympus is having the crippling fear of lifting a goddamned finger outside the gym.
Of course this is anecdotal. Perhaps it’s a macho shithead version of Carrie Bradshaw’s columns that absolutely nobody asked for. But after packing up someone’s cabinet full of GNC supplements for them, lugging stationary weights and other exercise equipment down the stairs to a truck they could have just as easily rented, and grinning with gritted teeth through friendly discussion of how hard my job must be given the weather, “I couldn’t help but wonder,” as Carrie would say, what the purpose of all this bodybuilding is.
One day a co-worker was nice enough to shed some light on this for me. An obsessive Googler of all things related to our business, he had been reading bodybuilding forums in which panicking young men lament their decreased results in the gym because of real world, manual labor. After lifting heavy objects for sensible reasons, these men were too tired to work out!
All of a sudden my customers made perfect sense to me. The deployment of a superior physique in the accomplishment of practical tasks has nothing to do with modern bodybuilding. Lifting things besides stationary weights is for the shit workers. (Which is why most of these guys can’t even be counted on to put their weights away after using them. That’s for the help to worry about.) The perfect body must remain unsullied by something so vulgar as physical labor.
The image of the worker with what Marx, in his doubtlessly hottest passage, called the “work-hardened bodies” of the industrial proletariat, does not capture modern bodybuilding. Instead, it’s an ad absurdum perversion of the male physique that serves as the ideal influence: the beauty pageants of oiled up contestants who do nothing but train in gyms, eat a diet based on pure joyless utility prepared for them by a chef, and wreck their bodies with chemicals, who strut around and flex for judges to scrutinize the appearance of their strength. Then the lights go down and somebody else puts the set away. Tyler Durden would punch these dudes in the face.