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AEJ 99 DenhamB MAG Sexual mores in the Weider muscle building course of the 1950's


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Wed, 8 Sep 1999 07:33:31 EDT





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OF THE 1950s


Bryan E. Denham, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Communication and Mass Media
Southwest Missouri State University
901 South National Avenue
Springfield, MO 65804
(417) 836-4156
E-mail: [log in to unmask]

Paper submitted to the Magazine Division,
AEJMC National Conference, August 1999, New Orleans
OF THE 1950s


Joe Weider has been involved with bodybuilding since the late 1930s, and today
he operates a health and fitness empire in Woodland Hills, California. His
organization produces exercise equipment, nutrition supplements, books, and
magazines, such as Muscle & Fitness, Flex, Shape and Men's Fitness. This essay
looks back to the 1950s and examines the sexual mores he advanced in a
mail-order course designed for young men interested in weightlifting. As
discussed in the paper, substantial differences existed across the glossy
magazines that he produced for gay men throughout the 1950s and his mainstream
mail-order course, published late in that decade. The information in Sex
Education for the Bodybuilder, the publication examined here, is linked on a
conceptual level to contemporary queer theory, in that the normative and deviant
sexual activities discussed in it seem to reflect perfectly the social
constructs and norms of the time, while differing markedly from those of today.

OF THE 1950s

        In the late 1940s and early 50s, a dramatic change took place in the way
scantily clad men appeared in mass-mediated publications. For the first time,
magazines appeared that sought to do just one thing: Celebrate the male physique
solely for its aesthetic appeal (Hooven, 1995; Waugh, 1996). In the decades
prior, pictures of men performing rigorous outdoor tasks and lifting weights did
appear, chiefly in magazines such as Physical Culture by Bernarr Macfadden
(Ernst, 1991), and Vim by Joe and Ben Weider (Waugh, 1996), but the men always
had a reason, or "alibi," for showing off their muscles. Not until amateur
photographer Bob Mizer of Southern California began photographing well-sculpted
Hollywood hopefuls did photos published almost exclusively for gay men appear.
        Mizer started taking these photographs in 1948, and when his attempt to
establish a modeling agency, the Athletic Model Guild, failed to materialize, he
may have assumed his stint as a talent scout was over. In fact, just the
opposite occurred; the demand for his photographs increased dramatically, and by
1952 he had his own magazine, Physique Pictorial (Hooven, 1995; Waugh, 1996).
        As Hooven (1995) explained, "It had no editorials or articles, no ads for hair
restorers or wheat germ, just images of the male physique, as near to nude as
the law would allow" (p. 32).
        "The question was," Hooven (1995) asked, "who would want to take or publish
photos of men for their physical attractiveness except a homosexual? In other
words, what Mizer and the others did was all but unthinkable for that day and
age-they came out" (p. 54).
        Indeed, with more than 100 publications appearing at one point (Waugh, 1996),
physique magazines emerged throughout the 1950s. As Hooven (1995) noted,
"Without presenting anything overtly homosexual, each issue was so clearly
designed by and for gay men it was obvious to even the youngest and most
inexperienced of them" (p. 72). The magazines, in short, were not simply a part
of gay culture, "they virtually were gay culture" (p. 74).
        Canadian Joe Weider, who had published bodybuilding magazines throughout the
1940s and into the 1950s, and who continues today at the helm of magazines such
as Muscle & Fitness and Flex, observed how well publications such as Physique
Pictorial were doing. By 1952, Hooven (1995) noted, Weider had altered the
photos in his own bodybuilding magazines, specifically American Manhood, to
focus on slimmer, more handsome males in posing briefs that accentuated the
        Waugh (1996) shed light on the movement to which Weider had become attached:
        At its peak, between 1955 and 1965, the 'physique' movement comprised a vast
        international network through which circulated thousands of magazines,
        photographs, and films, not to mention subsidiary merchandise. The entire
operation was
        predicated on bodybuilding as a channel-and at the same time a camouflage-for
        sexualized male body. Despite its fundamental disavowal of our desire for those
        pectorals and disarming grins, the first commercial and popular incarnation of
gay culture
        in the age of modern mass media is a key to the formation of contemporary gay
        cultures, politics, and sexualities (pp. 176-177).

        In addition to American Manhood, Weider went on to publish magazines such as
Body Beautiful, Adonis, Young Adonis, and Young Physique, all geared toward gay
        As Waugh (1996) noted, Weider recognized early on the potential profits in
gay-oriented publications, and as a publisher, he was so adept that he easily
surpassed others, bringing to light the present study.
        In the late 1950s, Weider offered young men interested in weightlifting a
mail-order course on fundamental training techniques. As part of his "Muscle
Building Series," he produced a supplemental publication addressing human
sexuality. This study explores the sexual mores advanced in his booklet Sex
Education for the Bodybuilder (1958). The study reveals the disparity between
the glossy magazines he produced for gay men and the generic mail-order course
he produced for young men interested in weightlifting. In the former, for
instance, editors searched for ways to make posing briefs "cling" to the
genitalia; in the latter, Weider advised that masturbating was not something a
young man in pursuit of physical strength did. Thus, while gay men may have
looked to Weider's magazines for titillation, subscribers to the "Muscle
Building Series" received advice that smacked of sexual repression, perhaps to
be expected given that time period (Loughery, 1998; Chauncey, 1994).
        Theoretically, this paper is grounded in queer theory, which, in the early
1990s, grew out of scholarship addressing how normative and deviant sexual
behaviors are created through a socially constructed process (for example,
Jagose, 1997).
        Klages (1997) provides an explanation of the theory and how it evolved:
     Queer theory emerges from gay/lesbian studies' attention to the social
     of categories of normative and deviant sexual behavior . . . Queer theory
looks at, and
     studies, and has a political critique of, anything that falls into
normative and deviant
     categories, particularly sexual activities and identities. The word
"queer," as it
     appears in the dictionary, has a primary meaning of 'odd,' 'peculiar,' 'out
of the
     ordinary.' Queer theory concerns itself with any and all forms of sexuality
that are
     "queer" in this sense-and then, by extension, with the normative behaviors
and identities
     which define what is "queer" (by being their binary opposites) . . . Queer
theory insists
     that all sexual behaviors, all concepts linking sexual behaviors to sexual
     and all categories of normative and deviant sexualities, are social
constructs, sets of
     signifiers which create certain types of social meaning . . . For queer
     sexuality is a complex array of social codes and forces, forms of
individual activity and
     institutional power . . .
        (pp. 1-2).

        Scholars have used similar theories in studies of normative and deviant sexual
behaviors and sexual identities among bodybuilders. For example, Gillett and
White (1992) employed a critical feminist perspective and concluded that
hypermasculine physiques among bodybuilders represent attempts by men to restore
and maintain feelings of self-control and self-worth. The authors argue that the
muscular male physique is constructed by social relations etched in gender
ideology (see also, Messner & Sabo, 1990). An additional study by White and
Gillett (1994) examined photographs in Flex, a Weider bodybuilding magazine.
They noted that the muscular male body was considered natural and desirable, the
product of ideologies in gender difference. The authors concluded that the
portrayal of the muscular body as ideal offered resistance to progressive change
and alternative masculinities, something Klein (1989) had observed in a
long-term ethnographic study of the Southern California bodybuilding culture
(see also, Klein, 1993).
        Klein (1989) studied the practice of "hustling" among male bodybuilders,
concluding that while many bodybuilders offered sexual favors to gay men, their
behavior in the gym was anything but indicative of homosexuality. In fact, Klein
concluded that in order to maintain perceptions of heterosexuality, bodybuilders
often engaged in homophobic behavior.
        In a study on the rising popularity of bodybuilding during the early 1980s,
Klein (1987) observed that bodybuilders often related to members of the outside
world in an arrogant manner in order to conceal deep-rooted feelings of
inferiority. Klein has published other studies (1986, 1985a, 1995b) that reveal
many contradictions in the way bodybuilders present themselves - namely, their
sexual identities and social behaviors-and the way things really work.
        The term "contradiction," then, appears to be one that has characterized the
bodybuilding subculture for decades. While bodybuilding has been linked with
sexual fantasy for more than half a century, it has existed on disparate public
and private levels, as Klein has observed. Muscle magazines play a major role in
this ongoing disparity.
        From helping to pioneer gay magazines to offering very conservative advice to
young men interested in weightlifting, Joe Weider certainly played a role in
helping to uphold, construct and solidify normative and deviant types of sexual
behavior. As the information on the following pages demonstrates, Weider ran the
gamut as a publisher. Perhaps he knew how to target different audiences. Or,
perhaps he knew that, if necessary, the mainstream mail order course could be
waved in the face of suspicious postal inspectors and local police officers, who
were under pressure from citizens to keep risque materials out of the mailboxes
of Middle America (Waugh, 1996; Hooven, 1995). He may have known that the
parents of his teenage pupils would have little interest in explaining gay
eroticism to their sons. More bluntly, the parents may have revolted against a
fitness guru who they believed was targeting their offspring for deviant
behavior. As Hooven (1995) pointed out, it took great courage for gay men to
purchase magazines such as Physique Pictorial and American Manhood at local
newsstands; for such publications to show up at the average American household
in the late 1950s may have exceeded the boundaries that mainstream, middle
Americans would accept.
        Weider sought expensive legal advice routinely, and under the alibis "sports,"
"art," and "nature," he and other producers were able to keep authorities at
        Waugh (1996) recalled a situation in Canada in which Weider's attorney brought
into court an image of Michelangelo, which, as an artistic alibi, cleared Weider
photographer Jimmy Caruso of creating unlawful images. "Rather than a legal
safeguard," Waugh noted, "it seems likely that the artistic alibi was an
unspoken protocol allowing producers, the U.S. Post Office, and local police and
dealers to maintain the decorum of the open secret and a functional level of
tolerance between periods when the heat was on" (p. 224).
        Chauncey (1994) provides an excellent discussion of the social atmosphere in
the early decades of this century, the point at which Weider arose both as an
individual and as a publisher. Chauncey explains:
     Bernarr Macfadden, advocate of physical culture and publisher of
     magazines treasured by straight and gay men alike, could barely contain his
loathing of
     the men who sexualized and perverted the male gaze at male bodies. [He
insisted] that ther
     e could be no relationship between the healthy youngster's adoration of a
barely clad
     exemplar of manly muscularity and the depraved sexual desires of a
degenerate . . . The
     overt sexual interest of the fairy in men made the possibility that normal
     admiration of manly bodies might have a sexual component inescapable. It
required men
     whose manliness was already suspect to assert their exclusive sexual
interest in women in
     order to show they were not queer.

     The insistence on exclusive heterosexuality emerged in part, then, in
response to
     the crisis in middle-class masculinity precipitated by the manly
comportment of
     working-class men and the subversion of manly ideals and sexualization of
male social
     relations by the fairy . . . Middle-class men increasingly conceived of
     sexuality-their heterosexuality, or exclusive desire for women-as one of
the hallmarks of
     a real man. It was as if they had decided that no matter how much their
     comportment might be challenged as unmanly, they were normal men because
they were
     heterosexual (pp. 116-117)

        Clearly, the situation in the early decades of this century was a delicate one,
and having come of age during it, Weider understood just how unsettled things
were. The booklet addressed below, Sex Education for the Bodybuilder, may have
been Weider's strongest representation of cultural conservatism. As its content
indicates, social codes and forces were kept in place by a booklet no more
risque than a Boy Scout Manual.
Sex Education for the Bodybuilder
        In this publication, Weider (1958) began by discussing the need to maintain a
healthy sex life, one "free from frustration and the shackles of prudish
convention." He wrote that all too often, boys were raised ignorant of sex and
were taught that it was something evil and sinful--not the power responsible for
perpetuating the human species. Sex drive, he wrote, provided strength and
vigor: "This was discovered centuries ago when male sex glands were injured or
removed. Boys whose testicles had been removed developed many feminine
characteristics such as high-pitched voices, lack of hair-growth on the face,
soft, flabby muscles and other weaknesses" (p. 3).
        Weider continued with a brief overview of puberty and the changes adolescent
males experience during this time. He provided a fundamental review of the male
sex organs, and wrote of the need to avoid "the parasitical infestation known as
crabs." In addition, Weider wrote, "You must do everything in your power to
protect yourself from the insidious ravages of venereal disease" (p. 5).
        In 1958, the public paid considerable attention to syphilis and gonorrhea, and
Weider discussed the two accordingly. He discussed only these ailments, noting
that gonorrhea was five times as common as syphilis, the more devastating of the
two. While the former could cause sterility, blindness, crippling damage to the
joints and heart problems, Weider wrote, the latter could lead to even more
severe consequences.
        "Spirochetes will quietly continue their deadly attacks on the vital tissues of
your body . . . Thus, your liver could be diseased, your arteries weakened, your
spinal cord partially destroyed, or your brain tissues damaged. You could become
deaf, blind, paralyzed or insane. The final effects of syphilis are truly
terrible" (p. 7).
        In Sex Education for the Bodybuilder, discussion of sexually transmitted
diseases seems to have been reactionary in nature; that is, Weider discussed, in
graphic detail, the importance of protecting against the diseases, but made
little mention of exactly how to do so. Perhaps the social climate of the times
dictated that he not discuss, say, the use of condoms as protection against both
disease and unwanted pregnancy. This was, after all, a relatively conservative
period, one in which producers of situational comedies had to decide whether a
husband and wife should occupy the same bed.
        Following his section on sexually transmitted diseases, Weider discussed
nocturnal emissions, pointing out that under normal circumstances, an adolescent
might experience a "wet dream" once every two weeks. He wrote:
     If you have a 'wet dream' more frequently than once every ten days you
should empty
     your bladder before going to bed and refrain from drinking liquids for at
least an hour
     before. You should also keep your mind free from sex-stimulating thoughts
and avoid
     reading sex-arousing stories or looking at erotic pictures. More important
still, you
     should indulge in more physical activities and increase the number, or the
duration, of
     your bodybuilding workouts. Your body can use up the accumulated sex
secretions for
     building greater strength and bigger muscles (p. 8).
        Ironically, perhaps, Weider began to advise his pupils to fight the natural
urges whose freedom he earlier had espoused. While an individual can certainly
use the restroom before going to bed and also refrain from drinking liquids for
60 minutes, can an adolescent male really be expected to keep his mind free from
sex-stimulating thoughts? During puberty, sex-stimulating thoughts pretty much
sum up the entire process.
        Again, however, social forces may have dictated the generic content, linking
the content with contemporary queer theory. As Klages (1997) noted earlier,
"Queer theory insists that all sexual behaviors, all concepts linking sexual
behaviors to sexual identities, and all categories of normative and deviant
sexualities, are social constructs, sets of signifiers which create certain
types of social meaning" (p. 2).
        One of the last sections in Sex Education for the Bodybuilder--and one that
perhaps contains the most interesting content for studying acceptable sexual
behavior--is a segment addressing masturbation. In this section, repression
becomes dominant, as evidenced by the passages below. The author began with a
reasonable discussion of "old-school" thinking, but then offered advice that
might seem impractical, if not humorous. He began:
     Over the years the subject of masturbation has been kicked back and forth
like a
     football. Not so long ago it was considered one of the most frightful evils
of youth. We
     were told that masturbation could wreck your mental and physical health,
sap your stre
     ngth, lead to nervous breakdowns, cause feeble-mindedness and even lead to
     Parents, teachers, and even medical men, vied with each other in their
efforts to
     frighten young people out of this habit.

     Then came a period of reaction, where everything that had been said before
     challenged, denied, and scoffed at. The pendulum kept on swinging, and soon
nothing could
     be found wrong with masturbation, and some authorities were even pointing
out its benef
     its (p. 8).

        Having summarized the change in thinking, he then explained the process.

     What is the real truth about this wide-spread disturbing habit?
     consists of self-stimulation, or the manipulation of one's own sex organs,
until an
     orgasm is reached. This is also called auto-erotism, or self-relief. The
average boy
     starts to experiment with his sex organs around 10 or 11 years of age. He
finds the
     manipulation pleasant and continues it (p. 8).

     In the following passage, normative rulings enter the picture, and
     masturbation, while

understandable, becomes a shameful practice.

     There is nothing wrong, or bad about the fundamental sex urge. It is a
     hunger, like that which we possess for food or air, or water, and just as
     Normally, nature intended this urge to result in sexual intercourse between
a male and a
     female, for the purpose of perpetuating the species. Masturbation is not
part of nature's
     plan and may therefore be considered abnormal. The fact that the majority
of men
     masturbate at some time or other in their lifetimes does not justify the
act, nor does it
     make it any more normal (p. 8).

        At least two concerns arise from this passage. First, there is no mention of
homosexuality with regard to what nature intended. In recent years, there has
been furious debate over the cause of homosexuality (for example, Herman, 1997;
Pronk, 1993). Some argue that individuals become homosexual through a
sociological process, while others contend that homosexuality has its roots in
genetics. Either way, and perhaps not surprisingly, it is not recognized as an
alternative sexual preference or orientation in Sex Education for the
        Additionally, the author opines that masturbation is not part of nature's plan.
Again, many people in contemporary society take masturbation as a given, and so
must have Weider when he was publishing magazines that attracted gay men.
        It should be noted, once more, that much of what Weider wrote may have
reflected what middle Americans considered appropriate advice in 1958. Had he
condoned masturbation, the parents of his bodybuilding pupils might have
considered him some sort of fitness guru with radical ideas about sex. As the
following passages indicate, conservative parents did not have to worry, for
contrary to his intent of freeing adolescent males "from the shackles of prudish
convention," Weider advocated the status quo with respect to masturbation. He
     Excessive masturbation can lead to the depletion of nervous energy and
     strength. For the bodybuilder, who wants to build big, powerful, impressive
     superb strength, and a magnificent he-man physique, masturbation is
definitely out (pp.

        He continued with a discussion of the dangers "masturbators" risked.

     By far, the greatest dangers of masturbation, lie in the mental and
     realms. Indulging in self- relief is something that one does by himself, in
     hidden from the eyes of others. In other words, it is considered bad and
the masturbator d
     evelops unhealthy psychological feelings. In addition, many masturbators
let their
     imaginations run wild, or use actual photos, to create mental pictures
while performing
     this act. In other words, they are escaping from reality and living in a
sort of a dream
     world, which is in itself a dangerous practice (p. 9).

        Did Weider not help to create this dream world in his gay-oriented magazines?
Below is a final passage that demonstrates how Weider ran the gamut as a
     If you are the slave of the habit of masturbation then you must add still
     negative factor, for no one can be master of himself if he is controlled by
     debilitating habit. To break yourself of this habit, look at yourself as
though you were
     looking at some other person. Ask yourself if you honestly admire what you
are doing (p.

        Though many individuals are embarrassed to speak about masturbation, they might
question whether the practice is truly "debilitating." There may be exceptions,
of course, but not many people have been crippled from masturbating. Perhaps
more than any other segment, then, the section on masturbation in Sex Education
for the Bodybuilder represents a major departure from what many individuals now
recognize as a common and natural practice.
        With respect to contemporary queer theory, the conservative advice on
masturbation is consistent with the notion of social constructs linking sexual
behaviors to sexual identities. Weider suggested a vital young man with a
powerful physique should not masturbate, for masturbation was considered a
deviant behavior. It connoted weakness, as "masturbators" became powerless
against a disturbing habit. Thus, if masturbation was considered deviant, not
masturbating and instead enjoying traditional, heterosexual intercourse was
considered normative.
        These ideas of normative and deviant sexual behaviors reflect the conservative
culture in which Weider wrote. Just two years after Sex Education for the
Bodybuilder appeared, for example, John F. Kennedy entered the White House and
began receiving female visitors on a regular basis. Washington correspondents
knew it, but reporting such a story would have been unthinkable. In general,
issues of sex were not be discussed, especially in a public forum.
        Following his section on "self-relief," Weider moved to a final segment, on
impotence and sterility. In this section, he discussed the fundamental
differences between the two, for at the time, there appears to have been some
confusion among adolescents.
        With respect to contrasts with present-day medicine, the Weider publication
contained no reference to methods used to treat impotent men, largely perhaps
because few methods existed. He also noted that men who had masturbated a lot
frequently found it difficult to have an erection for sexual intercourse,
largely due to psychological factors. The best way to effect a change, he noted,
was to stop masturbating.
        In conclusion, Weider wrote, "I hope that you will read what has been written
here--and above all, to use it well, sensibly and with the utmost consideration
. . . For as you have been freed from the shackles of a prudish and foolish
school of thought, so should you free another from the same bondage" (p. 11).
        While readers in 1999 might consider the content in Sex Education for the
Bodybuilder to be the ultimate in "prudish and foolish schools of thought," much
of what Weider wrote may have been shaped by social forces. The details of sex,
for example, were not something to be discussed, and perhaps by discussing some
of them, Weider appeared progressive.
        Joe Weider became interested in bodybuilding and physical culture long before
many of today's top physique competitors were born. As a bodybuilding promoter,
publisher and businessman, he has enjoyed considerable success.
        In terms of the sexual mores advanced in his early fitness publication, the
primary conclusion reached is that he did not free his pupils from the "shackles
of prudish convention," but rather adhered to the status quo of the
times-something he and other publishers did not do when it came to magazines
geared toward gay men.
        Readers of Sex Education for the Bodybuilder may have been hard-pressed to find
the information therein racy--even in 1958. The copy reads like a basic course
in sex education, and the section on masturbation leans more to the prudish side
than to the free-spirited. In present-day society, masturbation is not
considered a deviant activity, as it appears to have been earlier in the
century. In all likelihood, masturbation was a common practice in the late
1950s, but it was not something to be discussed and brought out in publications.
In this regard, Weider may have been ahead of the curve; that is, by just
discussing it, he may have moved past the writings of others. What he wrote,
however, adhered largely to the status quo and smacked of sexual repression.
        As Hooven (1995) and Waugh (1996) explain, law enforcement officers across
America were under pressure from citizens to keep the mails free from risque
materials. Weider and his attorneys understood this, and they did not press
their luck after enjoying tremendous success with homoerotic magazines. By any
standard, Sex Education for the Bodybuilder could be shown to a postal inspector
or police officer without hesitation. The booklet contained no risque
photography, and the copy was generic and conservative.
        At a time when publishers sought creative alibis for homoerotic material,
Weider produced a mail-order weightlifting course with a supplemental
publication on human sexuality that not only distanced him from his gay-oriented
magazines, but made him appear perfectly in tune with the social climate of the
        In considering this climate, one can look to popular individuals, that is,
those who thousands admired and sought emulate. Dwight Eisenhower, a war hero,
occupied the White House, while a rugged John Wayne appeared on the big screen.
Alan Ladd saved the day as "Shane," and Paul Newman played "Brick" in Cat on a
Hot Tin Roof. Mickey Mantle belted home runs for the New York Yankees, while Roy
Rogers and Gene Autry personified chivalry. Rock Hudson emerged as a major star,
bringing to light the present study. One can imagine how important Hollywood
players would have reacted had Hudson said publicly that he was a homosexual. As
indicated earlier, the term "homosexual" did not even appear in Sex Education
for the Bodybuilder, keeping Weider in tune with the times. Hooven (1995) noted
that gay men who produced glossy physique magazines did the "unthinkable" by
coming out, and books that have traced the history of homosexuality in America
certainly reflect that contention (for example, Loughery, 1998; Alwood, 1996;
LeVay and Nonas, 1995).
        Advancing to the 1990s, one can appreciate how social forces help to determine
what is considered appropriate sexual behavior. In the case of Hollywood, for
example, Sharon Stone played a hip bi-sexual in Basic Instinct, toying with the
male police officers who pursued her as a murder suspect. Bold and attractive,
she seemed virtually untouchable, and people flocked to the theaters to see the
movie. In short, mediated sexual behavior has traveled quite a distance in the
second half of the twentieth century. At a minimum, behavior considered deviant
in the 1950s is not so deviant today, reflecting the notion of sexual behavior
and sexual identity being part of what Klages (1997) called "a complex array of
social codes and forces."
        As for the sport of bodybuilding, it continues to function on different levels.
Weider produced magazines aimed at attracting gay men throughout the 1950s, but
at the same time, he distanced himself from the homosexual lifestyle with his
generic publication Sex Education for the Bodybuilder. Today, Weider continues
to publish bodybuilding magazines, and the ironies continue, both in his
magazines as well as in other bodybuilding publications. As an example, the
magazines feature pictures of massive bodybuilders who have used steroids for
years, yet a given issue of any bodybuilding magazine will feature editorials
denouncing the use of drugs is sport. And, as Klein (1989) observed, the
bodybuilders often find themselves existing as "hustlers" to pay the rent, but
also as homophobic, hypermasculine shouters in the gym.
        Indeed, bodybuilding is, and appears to always have been, a pastime with
inherent contradictions, and these contradictions have appeared in mass-mediated
publications, as well as in the lives of bodybuilders themselves.


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