The Rise of the Twigginator

sf personal trainer

Welcome to my blog. Before I embark on various rants and ruminations, it’s probably good to clarify some things.

First and foremost, I LOVE my job. I’ve trained the same people for many, many years. We sweat, we talk. We sweat some more … often times copiously. Then we talk again. I derive immense pleasure from the relationships I’ve built with my clients over the years. Many of them have become good friends, even after our professional relationship has ceased. In a decade of personal training, I can count on two hands the bad days I’ve had at the “office.”

So why is there any discontent?

Well, in my little insulated bubble of a world, a few blocks from AT&T Park, all is bliss. I throw some tires around, demonstrate proper form on various exercises, share some laughs, and take satisfaction in the progress my clients experience. The regimen is much more complex than that, obviously; but the point is that on a “micro-level” I’m extremely satisfied with my job.

But on a “macro-level,” the fitness “industry” is broken: built on pernicious myths and perpetuated by crass commercialism. The shallowest manifestations of the gym culture are held up as exemplars of health.

For men, that often translates to bulging biceps and monstrous pecs — never mind that many of them totally ignore their lower bodies.

For women, it’s much, much worse. There is one overriding concern: be skinny. At all costs. But being “skinny” is not necessarily a barometer of fitness. Most supermodels would struggle to run up a small hill.

To the extent that almost all other facets are health are routinely ignored, the mainstream fitness industry could aptly be called misogynistic. And that includes most publications geared toward women — many of them written by women.

A cursory glance at books geared toward women contain key buzzwords: “skinny,” “thin” “drop three sizes,” etc. For men, those buzzwords are replaced by phrases such as “jacked” “shredded” and “pumped.”

It’s a bizarre and brazenly commercial approach to fitness. Want to appeal to women? Write a book called “Skinny for Life!” Targeting men? Just change a word. “Shredded for Life!”

How did we get to such a binary definition of fitness? There are a myriad of factors, but I’ll argue that the primary transformation came in the decade roughly between 1966 and 1976. Those ten years saw the rise of a cultural behemoth whose wretched stain still permeates the fitness world.

The Rise of the Twigginator…

Today’s male archetype has had a rather short shelf life. Historically, what has constituted the “male ideal,” was inextricably linked to performance, and barring that, to a certain “aura.” In either case, an amalgamation of swollen muscles was not a factor when considering iconic male beauty.

There is an obvious caveat: until very recently, the paradigm of male beauty was white. While that has certainly improved, for almost a century, the mainstream media viewed issues and objects through the prism of their experiences — and for many years, the media was mostly white and male.

The nascent years of Hollywood, (defined here as the 1920’s up to the commencement of World War Two), was really the period of time where iconic male images first became ingrained in the public imagination. These “heroic” figures were almost always clothed — no one really had an inkling what they looked like semi-naked. Furthermore, seeing these individuals without clothing might have been to their detriment.

Think of Babe Ruth, undoubtedly among the most famous athletes of the Twentieth Century. In fact, Ruth is almost universally acknowledged as the first modern-day sports superstar. He shattered home run records every year. He personified the uninhibited, carefree ethos of the Jazz Age. He commanded an enormous amount of money. He was front-page fodder for an entire decade.

And, before he became one of the greatest home-run hitters of all time, he was on track to become one of the greatest pitchers of all-time.

In short, Babe Ruth was a fantastic athlete, the most celebrated sportsman of his era. (In fact, I would argue that the short list for influential male athletes includes three names: Babe Ruth, Muhammed Ali, and Michael Jordan)

And yet… Babe Ruth was fat.

He had a pot belly attached to spindly little legs that barely looked capable of supporting his girth. He looked vaguely comical. But Ruth was lauded for his athleticism, not for his physique.

If there was an antithesis to the Sultan of Swat in the Jazz Age, it was Charles Lindbergh. Where Ruth was garrulous, Lindbergh was an introvert. Ruth partook in all the extravagances of the Jazz Age. Lindbergh, a pillar of rectitude, abstained.

And, while Ruth was fat, Lindbergh was very thin. At least that’s the way he appeared beneath layers and layer of aviation garb. But he did look dashing. And he had courage and determination, as befitting the man who first traversed the Atlantic on a solo flight.

Did Lindbergh have a six-pack? We don’t really know. There is no historical record of it. What about Joe DiMaggio, so graceful with his baggy pinstripes fluttering in the wind? Again, we don’t know.

Bobby Jones, the world’s first famous golfer, in his sartorial splendor? We don’t know. Bill Tilden, so elegant in his tennis whites? Ditto. These athletes were famous for what they did, not what they looked like.

What about Cary Grant and Clark Gable, icons of the Silver Screen? Always resplendent in fine suits, hair coiffed, and perhaps a drink (or cigarette) in hand. They were admired by women and emulated by men. And, although they were certainly handsome, their physiques were largely a matter of conjecture.

There were a few exceptions, to be sure. Jack Dempsey, the most famous heavyweight of his era, and Johnny Weismuller, the Olympic swimmer who portrayed Tarzan, were semi-clothed in the public eye. But, in comparison to the male archetypes prevalent today, they seem downright scrawny.
Which is odd, because they were both among the most decorated athletes in their respective sports.

What changed? The seismic shift in male beauty occurred in the 1970s, when the Austrian Oak washed ashore Venice Beach.

When the final chapter of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s life is written, it should be a paean to entrepreneurship. Not bodybuilding. For starters, anyone familiar with his biography knows that a very early age, Schwarzenegger hankered for fame and money. Bodybuilding was simply a conduit to that.

The Schwarzenegger depicted in “Pumping Iron” is Machiavellian.. He had incredible tenacity and drive, and he was witty and charming. Charisma through the roof. And, most importantly, he would do what it took to win. Shameless self-promotion. Psychologically tormenting his opponents. Steroids.

And win he did. Overwhelmingly. And, in the process, he began a revolution in how people perceived male beauty. Although there were a few famous bodybuilders before Schwarzenegger entered the scene (such as Eugen Sandow and John Grimek), none had so firmly captured the public’s imagination.

For the first time, body parts became equally, if not more important than the sum of its whole. Functional movement was eschewed in favor of blowing up one’s triceps, lats, deltoids, and quads.

Historically, this was an anomaly. Never on a scale of this magnitude had male beauty been so thoroughly decoupled from athletic endeavors and accomplishment. Schwarzenegger was famous for looking good…while doing nothing.

Heretofore, this was the sole province of women. But Arnold changed all that. “Bodybuilding” entered the popular lexicon as a synonym for fitness. But it’s not.

Have you ever seen a gaggle of bodybuilders hiking the John Muir Trail? Or cycling in the Tour de France? How about running an 880? The point is that bodybuilding rarely correlates to athletic performance, or even everyday fitness. Swollen pecs won’t help you lug several packages of groceries up a huge hill. But good core strength and cardiovascular endurance will.

Here’s a confluence of events that I find particularly amusing. At the same time the male image has become intertwined with bodybuilding, we have become increasingly obsessed with Paleolithic Times. Witness the surge of books such as “The Paleo Diet,” “The Primal Blueprint” and “Sex at Dawn.” (The latter book is an excellent and illuminating look at how some of our primal instincts have awkwardly been covered up by modern mores.)

Supposing our Paleolithic ancestors had been bodybuilders? Would a sabre-toothed tiger have been reticent to attack a bodybuilder? Would the tiger think “Holy crap, that guy is really jacked…I better chase the guy who looks like he might be able to outrun me?”

Doubtful. All those earth-bound muscles would’ve made a tasty treat. Here’s the point: fitness is a multi-faceted entity. It has many components — cardio, strength, balance, and flexibility chief among them. There is nothing inherently wrong with bodybuilding. Just don’t call it fitness.

The lens through which women have been seen, in direct contrast to men, has always been static. Until the past three decades or so, women have always been depicted as the object of male desire. The only thing that has changed — and it was a huge change — was what body type constituted “desirable.”

From the advent of Hollywood through the 1950’s, the curvaceous figure held sway. The Jazz Age “Flapper Girl” was the one exception to the rule. From the turn-of-the-century “Gibson Girl,” through Mae West, Marilyn Monroe, and Jane Russell, women had curves. They didn’t exist for any reason other than to represent the female ideal, but there were very little deviations from that norm.

Then Lesley Hornby arrived at the epicenter of London’s Swinging Sixties and changed everything.

“Twiggy” had one calling card — she was skinny. As in really, really thin. With her big doe eyes, bobbed haircut, and stick figure, she resembled a teen-age boy. Rather than recoil at such a seemingly underfed apparition, Twiggy was feted by the fashionistas. She was the “It Girl;” a position she maintained until her retirement from modeling in 1970.

The havoc she left in her wake was incalculable. Teen-age girls everywhere, hungering for a role model, aspired to her androgynous mien. The trend to be skinny at all costs, with its attendant eating disorders, emotional trauma, and ruined lives, continued well into the 1990s when model Kate Moss offered her famous riposte to those accusing her of being a bad influence:

“Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.”

Here is the ultimate irony: those women and others of their ilk looked very flabby. Soft. There was no muscle tone or definition whatsoever. Indeed, if there ever was a body composition test to measure fat on some of those supermodels, I’m sure they’d come up pretty high.

Personal trainers are caught up in this maelstrom. It can be inordinately frustrating. In the nascent stages of my career, perhaps when I was less skilled in the art of communication, I had a conversation with a client that went like this:

Client: Can I look like her?
Me: Who?
Client: The skinny girl.
Me: (after a pause) I don’t know. Can you?
Client: That’s my goal. She’s fit.
Me: How do you know?
Client: She’s skinny.
Me: That’s not necessarily fit. That’s just skinny.
Client: Hmmm. Well, my goal is to look like her.

Needless to say, her tenure was short-lived. This theme has repeated itself in various permutations throughout my career. The scale is the ultimate barometer of fitness. A random number (say 125 pounds) is the panacea to all ills. It’s not, of course. But convincing otherwise healthy women to dispense with some arbitrary standard is a Herculean task.

Further complicating things is the fact that the mainstream media is complicit in this charade. So-called health experts rarely extoll the virtues of health or fitness. Instead, they invariably use catch-words such as “thin” “skinny” “shed” or “drop.”

If you are a personal trainer with integrity, these are serious issues you will have to face sooner or later. Do you promulgate true fitness, or do you succumb to the Twigginator?

Welcome to my blog ….