The Athletic Aesthetic

In studying American sports culture this semester, I have focused primarily on the social implications of our cultural understandings of sport. From abstract ideals like the Olympic Movement or masculinity, to our spiritual conceptions of sport practice, to everyday cultural political references to athletics, it has become clear that athletics and American cultural life intersect and communicate on several different levels. For my final blog post of my independent study, I’d like to focus on how our conception of athletics has supplied an unrealistic conception of the healthy body in the US and examine what the implications of that conception. Through images of the athletic body, we have projected our hegemonic codes onto the visual manifestation of sport and our society suffers as a result.

The idea for this blog came from a commentary piece written for Sports on Earth in which sports writer Patrick Hruby comments on the disparity between the acceptance of steroids for hollywood actors and athletes. He uses several examples of actors who dope to fulfill the athletic aesthetic for the sake of entertainment, receiving no backlash, and compares them to athletes who encounter societal expulsion when they use performance enhancing drugs (PED). He then proposes that if we have this double standard, we should allow athletes to use PEDs, because they face similar pressures as actors do in reaching a certain muscular density. After all, professional athletics are about the show, too, right?

Um. Wrong. I’m going to go ahead and shut down the idea that steroids should be legal in athletics for the sake of entertainment because that’s (A) cheating and (B) wildly unhealthy. However, Hruby does make a good point in illuminating the double standard we have for our role models, one supposedly derived from the conception of the athlete. Steroid usage amongst professional actors has become commonplace because we expect that male images resemble Greek athletic Gods. Hruby points out the evolution of James Bond (from Sean Connery to Daniel Craig) exemplifies this conception, because now the male hero doesn’t just have to be smart and courageous, he must also project his masculinity onto his body.

Hruby uses the particular example of Tom Hardy (aka Bane from Batman) who openly admitted to using steroids to fit the part, for which he received no formal backlash from the movie industry or otherwise. He said in an interview with Men’s Journal that doping was the only way he could get the part. The fact that our idea of athleticism is so skewed that actors have to reach for superhuman supplements to sell movie tickets speaks to a misconception of the bodies of athletes, one that has trickled down into the cultural psyche of both American men and women.

Hardy gained 30 lbs of muscle prior to shooting (
Hardy gained 30 lbs of muscle prior to shooting (

“Bigorexia” and the Masculine Body

Muscle dysmorphia is a rapidly growing eating disorder amongst men characterized by a pathological preoccupation with overall muscularity. Psychologist Philip Mosely wrote on the disorder and commented on its societal implications. He writes, “worryingly,  today’s society tells us that the steroid-enhanced, lean, muscular physique embodies not only the healthy lifestyle to which we should aspire, but also the minimum physical standard that all men are expected to attain” (6). The idea of a healthy lifestyle is crucial, because it depicts these wild standards as normative behavior.

The sport of body building began with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s cult film “Pumping Iron.” The fact that Schwarzenegger has since become a pervasive actor and political figure speaks to how much empowerment we grant the muscularized male body. As Mosely points out, in this conception of masculinity, smallness entails weakness which in turn characterizes the patriarchal structure in the image of the muscular idea. In a study referenced below, 71.4% of American respondents indicated that the number one indicator of masculinity was muscle. In case you didn’t know, the definition of masculinity has to do with the characteristics associated with the traditional conception of men. As of late, muscles have become implicit in that definition.

There are toddlers in tiaras, but on the men’s side, there’s this:

It appears that American culture suffers from a type of muscle dysmorphia when we consider our male athletic stars. But female athletes don’t slip through the cracks untouched. Instead, they experience what a group of researchers at Springer call the female athlete paradox, in which women desire the muscularity as a function of athletic competitiveness but must also maintain a certain amount of femininity to conform to society’s expectations. This dilemma results in a completely different muscle dysmorphia, instead of getting ripped, or huge, women feel that the ideal athletic form is to be toned. 

Again, we encounter this ambiguous concept of the ‘healthy lifestyle.’ The researchers note a societal connection of health with fitness (which isn’t all that absurd, but has certainly been hyperbolized in popular culture) stating that  “current societal trends that value physical exercise as a desirable lifestyle create the expectation that a woman’s body should not only be thin, but also firm and well toned” (Springer, 3). Now we’ve thrown around terms like muscular, thin, toned and healthy of which certain combinations are logically incompatible and physically impossible.

Google image is social commentary in itself.
Google image is social commentary in itself.

What strikes me the most about these developments is that through the historical uprise and rising pervasiveness of figures in professional sport, the patriarchal and hegemonic dialogue has the most immediacy not in how an athlete looks. Big? Muscular? Toned? That person probably works hard, has a sense of dedication and self control. That person is someone we should aspire to be like. Small? Skinny? Heavy? That person has no work ethic, is not an athlete, cannot be beautiful.

Here’s the thing. Just like everyone else, athletes have many different body types. A weight lifter will look dramatically different than a long distance runner, who probably has a different shape than a gymnast who likely doesn’t play much beach volleyball. ESPN does what they can with their Bodies Issue to show the different bodies athletes can have…by having them take off their clothes, dip in oil and pose for photos that are going to be photoshopped, air brushed and sold by the thousands. The photos are beautiful, indeed, but how each athlete is depicted illustrates how much of our traditional cultural conceptions we build into the image of the athlete.

For the most part, the men are sweaty, active, and muscular (I will grant the exception to Gary Player, but he’s the grandfather figure.) The women, for the most part, are active as well, with the exception of their pin up photos, where they are sitting next to the pool, cooking, or surrounded by white. Notice, as well, there is no grandmother figure.

035_E072213BWWXXX.A006vs Screen-Shot-2013-07-10-at-8.13.05-AM

So it appears that we create ideals based on how traditional ideology wants us to see them. I’ve discovered as much through this semester, whether it has to do with athletic spirit, or masculinity, or femininity, America historically takes athletics and molds them to fit patriarchal, capitalist structures. The upside, however, is that in all of the research I conducted, it seems evident that we recognize the err of our ways. Recognition leads to reinvention, and I hope that my work has contributed enough to the dialogue to perpetuate that change.


Hruby, Patrick. “PEDs in Hollywood Are Not as Stigmatized as in Sports.” Sports on Earth, 1 May 2014. Web. 15 May 2014.

Mosely, Philip. Bigorexia: Bodybuilding and Muscle Dysmorphia. Wiley Interscience. 1 Sept. 2008.

Steinfeldt, Jesse A., Hailee Carter, Emily Benton, and Matthew Clint Steinfeldt. “Muscularity Beliefs of Female College Student-Athletes.” Sex Roles 64.7-8 (2011): 543-54. Web.

Although this is my last blog for academic credit, it likely won’t be my last blog filled with social commentary (because, me). Nonetheless, thank you for your feedback throughout the last three months, it has directed my studies and made them feel substantial. If you missed any entries, here are the links to all of my work:

The Olympics


The Other Name Thing

Be a Man

Be a Man: Results

Jocks and Paradox

Football, Color and Touchdown Dances

Do You Believe in Miracles? 



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