In my Sociology of Gender course this week, we discussed what it means to talk about gender as subject to variation and why this matters. I typically go over four kinds of variation to which gender is subject and talk with students about how this helps us begin to understand what it means to talk about gender as “socially constructed.” If it weren’t, then why or how would it be subject to such wild variation? Gender varies cross-culturally, it varies throughout history, it varies over the course of an individuals’ life, and it also varies contextually. This last one often requires a bit of explanation. And I often use my research with bodybuilders as a way to discuss this issue.
I initially started this blog to think more critically about both how social spaces get gendered and sexualized. But I have also always been interested in tying performances of gender and sexuality to the specific contexts in which those performances emerge. In graduate school, I studied a group of bodybuilders for about a year. Much of the existing literature at the time framed male bodybuilders as an insecure population—and indeed, this is how they are culturally portrayed as well. There’s an excellent ethnography by Alan Klein entitled Little Big Men that helps to bolster this claim. We like to think of bodybuilders as overcompensating for some other weakness. And consistent with Klein, I found many bodybuilders insecure—but I became much more interested in where they seemed insecure than with the simple fact that they seemed insecure.
I began my study simply observing them in the gym and gradually began gaining enough confidence to approach them to ask for interviews. The men are extraordinarily large and many of them emit incredible sounds while working out. So, it’s easy to get a bit squeamish. They’re sweaty, they’re enormous, they’re lifting massive objects, grunting and yelling at each other—it’s pretty intense. So, asking for an interview might seem like an easy task, but it took me a couple weeks to work up to actually approaching one of them.
I’m not sure what I thought would have been a worst-case scenario of asking one of them for an interview, but what happened might have qualified if I’d bothered to consider it beforehand. I think I was primarily afraid of one of them hitting me. It was actually a recurring nightmare throughout the study despite the fact that all of them were incredibly kind to me. The first man I asked for an interview—whom I call Hank—laughed at me and told me to “Get lost!” The rest of them laughed too as Hank recounted me coming up to him to the others as I walked off.
Hank was many things on the day he told me to “Get lost!” but I don’t think anyone would have called him insecure. I kept coming to the gym, and about a week later, Hank came up and offered to do an interview in between his workouts that day. He walked into the gym around 10:00, walked by me, then turned around and walked back and said, “Hey, if you still wanna’ do that interview, I could do it in like 2 [hours]. Cool?” I remember thinking to myself, <<Be cool, Tristan. Don’t get over-excited.>> And I said… something uncool and over-excited. I left the gym, went to a coffee shop, and for the next hour looked over my interview questions and tried to get myself mentally prepared to sit in a room alone with Hank for an interview. I was terrified. One might even have called me insecure.
I got back to the gym, Hank completed his workout and he came up to me and said he just needed to dry off and collect his things. We both walked over to a small office on the side of the gym. One of the managers—interested in my project—loaned me his office to conduct interviews. I followed Hank in, he sat down in one of the chairs, I asked if I could close the door, and I still remember the look on his face when I turned around after having closed it. I realized, in an instant, that Hank was more nervous about this interview than I was. The door closed, and Hank became insecure.
I thanked him for agreeing to talk and tried to put him at ease by letting him know that he can opt out at any time and that I’m really just interested in how he got into the sport and what his life is like. He seemed to calm down a bit, and we talked for about two hours. He opened up and after that day, I found more of the men I’d been observing start trying to schedule a time to be interviewed.
What I ended up publishing out of this study had much less to do with all of the life stories I learned about while talking with them. Rather, I got interested in how their performances of gender shifted (sometimes subtly, but often significantly) by context. Elijah Anderson calls this “code switching” and coined the term for talking about a different kind of behavior. In his ethnographic exploration of inner-city life, Anderson became fascinated with the ways young men casually engaged in dramatically different presentations of self, depending upon context. “Code-switching” refers to an ability to adapt between “street” and “decent” settings. It’s not a book about masculinity explicitly, though he’s primarily talking about young men. Bodybuilders engaged in a similar behavior and—I would suggest—we all do to some degree.
A great deal of the early research surrounding bodybuilders sought to try to explain this odd desire to become so large, to devote so much time in such a painful pursuit for a body that might be exalted in bodybuilding magazines, (some) gyms, and competitions, but was thought of as odd, gross, or deviant by many. Rather than finding bodybuilders to be these strange creatures so different from “the rest of us,” I found that—like Garfinkel’s classic analysis of Agnes—these men might be able to tell us something about the rest of us because, for one reason or another, it is more easily identified in their lives. Bodybuilders like to live, work, and play in contexts in which their bodies and performances of gender (what I call “gender capital” in the paper) are favorably evaluated—just like most of us. Context had an incredible impact on what they do, but also on how they feel.
I’m currently working on an interview study on man caves in contemporary couples’ households. But, my work with bodybuilders taught me to remember that the interview itself is a context, and one in which we all have various identities “on the line.” And it may, through no fault of our own, invoke certain performances, answers, and identities that might not have been displayed otherwise.