It’s an oft-debated subject: is bodybuilding a matter of fitness, or of sheer vanity – bordering even, some critics might add, obsessive? Can spending hours rigorously controlling your diet and flogging yourself on the weights bench, just in order to sculpt that perfect body, really be a healthy lifestyle choice? I would like to argue that the negative stigma so frequently attached to this discipline, arises only when we choose to apply ‘bodybuilding’ as a blanket term, rather than understanding its value on a case-by-case basis.
Take, for instance, 22-year-old Down’s Syndrome sufferer Collin Clarke, who competed in his first professional bodybuilding tournament last month. As of March this year, Clarke managed to shed a whopping 60lbs (remember, bodybuilding is not all about ‘making gains’) to get himself into the lean, muscular shape of his life and fulfill his dream of stepping onto the professional stage. In the final standings, he finished in an impressive fifth place, demonstrating the strength of character to turn his personal struggle into a profound source of strength and motivation in order to attain a well-earned goal.
Now at first glance, as inspiring a story as this is, you might be inclined to think that it nevertheless represents a form of obsessive behaviour; if a fixation on body image is considered to arise from personal insecurity, then surely Collin’s tale is just another example of this troubling complex, right? Well, not exactly. For Clarke, the overall experience meant so much more than just the physical end result. As his coach and personal trainer, Glenn Ubelhor, pointed out, “The improvements in his cognitive abilities, his social skills, and his diction have been remarkable.” The consistent discipline required to compete as a bodybuilder, it seems, gave Clarke the focus, strategic mindset and confidence to develop as an individual as much as a physical specimen. Ubelhor added, “A lot of people have the misconception that bodybuilding is done out of vanity … Collin has proved that is not the case.”
Still not convinced? How about former marine turned fitness model, Alex Minsky. Alex lost his leg four years ago in a roadside explosion while serving in Afghanistan, and admits to hitting the bottle hard during his convalescence, “to numb whatever was going on in my head”. After a series of DUI convictions, however, he turned his attention back to physical fitness and personal discipline, and it wasn’t long before his hard work in the gym saw him scouted out by professional photographer Tom Cullis. Minsky now trains twice a day, following a strict exercise and nutrition regime in order to stay in tip-top condition for his modeling commitments.
Again, there are those who may question the value of this lifestyle choice. When we take into account the negative connotations associated with female/male modelling, and the pressures of today’s ‘size zero’ print culture, it’s easy to read Alex’s career as yet another case study of the media’s intrusions on the body. Yet such a view would completely overlook the control he undoubtedly exhibits over his own life. If it’s a choice between the dumbbell or the double whisky, physical discipline or intoxicated oblivion, I doubt there would be much disagreement as to which is the healthier option. In Minsky’s own words, it’s about “my sanity, my happiness… I’m working on me. For the first time I’m not running away anymore.” Are these the words of a compulsive, obsessive character? No, they’re the words of a man in control of his own destiny, rediscovering direction in the face of personal trauma.
This is not to say that bodybuilding is an entirely infallible or unproblematic practice. Back in May, Brazilian Romario Dos Santos Alves came close to having both arms amputated as a result of Synthol abuse, having already suffered a long battle with depression (Synthol is a supplement consisting of alcohol, Lidocane and a range of other oils, used to aid in the process of stimulating muscle growth and development). Alves started going to the gym with the simple aim of building some muscle and improving his physical appearance, before some of the more experienced bodybuilders he met introduced him to Synthol. The results, unfortunately, brought only misery rather than satisfaction; the former bodyguard was disturbed by the shock his dramatic bodily transformation evoked in public, and at an ultimate low point the fear with which his own children beheld him, referring to their father as a “beast”.
The difference between Alves and the other two men is that he lost sight of his own goals and paid too much attention to those around him. As he admitted to online news publication Inquisitr, “I saw some really big guys in the gym with huge arms and I started to make friends with them. They introduced me to Synthol and I got excited about the results – I lost control.” What started out as an interest descended into an obsession, an unquenchable desire to get that next “Synthol fix”. Bodybuilding has the potential to offer a range of genuine benefits, from personal confidence to valuable life skills such as planning, goal setting and self-discipline. The point at which an individual departs from what bodybuilding means to them personally, however, is the point at which issues are sure to arise.