My metamorphosis happened this way: In the ugly heat of a May afternoon in 1990, 15 years old and recently shafted by my first girlfriend for a football star, I wandered down the street to my uncle’s house and found him weightlifting in the gym he’d installed in his basement. Whether because I was depressed and bored beyond my comprehension or because I was desperate to win back the affections of the girl who’d just ditched me, I picked up a barbell beside my uncle and tried to pump up my noodle arms.
For 30 minutes I followed him through a series of bicep and shoulder exercises, aping his style and form, and the sensation that bloomed within me was one akin to birth. A black belt in karate, a former wrestler and bodybuilder, my uncle seemed to sense that I required a metamorphosis, a complete renewal of selfhood. I’d return to his basement the next day, and every weekday after that for two years straight.
It was not something I had planned or could have expected. Twiggy, long-haired, acned and ear-pierced, I’d been tagged the unathletic sort with a slant toward the artistic, the poetic, the romantic. But the baptism-by-iron that I enacted that first afternoon would alter how I maneuvered through the world—how I was viewed by others and how I viewed myself.
Perhaps the Giraldi men had been hoping for this, because in my family, as in my tiny working-class Jersey town, aptly named Manville—a town that puts you in mind of an auto-shop Springsteen ballad—I was something of an aberration: unmuscled and unmasculine, not a footballer or wrestler, clueless about motorcycles and car engines, ratchets and wrenches. Reared by a single father and his ultra macho brethren, I’d been somehow discovered by literature at the sapling age of 10, was lucky with my Catholic school teachers, wise and robust nuns who saw nothing sacrilegious in Homer and Poe, who pressed the lambent poetry of the Gospels upon me.
Bookishness was a fact to feel ashamed of in Manville, a fact you kept covert so as not to be outed as a pansy, a sissy. I had those town-wide pressures on my back, in addition to the pressures of a strutting patriarchal order, when I began weightlifting with my uncle. We trained five days a week for 90 barbarous minutes, a spitting, sweating, cussing intensity that renovated my pathetic body into 165 pounds of bronzed and fluted muscle, into what I imagined those Homeric warriors looked like on the blood-damp sand of Ilium.
My family’s standards for masculinity adhered to the Homeric: men were mighty and remembered or else they were weak and ridiculed before they were forgotten. My uncle and I brutalized ourselves for size and strength—squats, dead lifts, shoulder presses, bench presses, bent barbell rows, straight-bar bicep curls—and we force-fed ourselves outrageous amounts of tuna fish, egg whites, chicken breasts, viscid protein shakes as appetizing as sawdust. When I returned to school after that first summer of weightlifting people had trouble recognizing me. They poked and clutched at my arms and shoulders to see if they were real, and my ex-girlfriend eyeballed me with what I could only hope was remorse.
By the time I was paroled from high school, weightlifting had transformed into the fanaticism of bodybuilding. The weightlifter wants size and strength; the bodybuilder wants those, too, but he approaches his body the way a sculptor approaches stone. With diet and weights he hones his physique for balance and proportion, for shrink-wrapped skin that reveals muscle striation, the sharp edges of muscle tonus. Remember how Ovid begins his Metamorphoses: “My purpose is to tell of bodies which have been transformed into shapes of a different kind.” The bodybuilder wants that shape of a different kind, wants to look chiseled from marble, otherworldly. Somewhere in War and Peace is an image that has never left me: the body as a machine for living. I needed a better machine.
If my bodybuilding was an attempt to earn the esteem of my family’s hyper-masculine patriarchs, to forge a spot for myself among the manful of Manville, it was also the program of a too-sensitive depressive who felt incapable of navigating such a perilous world. I yearned to be fortified against whatever malevolent agents were out to harm me. Only the vulnerable seek the metamorphosis I’d achieved. The mindset of the bodybuilder, his compensatory masculine conduct, is not unlike the thin-skinned masculinity we are suffering in this dark age of Trump: a bluster covering for paranoia, a weak and frightened inner life manifesting in the armor of threats and rhetoric.
The dungeoned isolation of my uncle’s basement no longer worked for me; every bodybuilder eventually requires complete immersion in the cult, an environment of camaraderie and arousal. I joined a gym just outside Manville called the Physical Edge, a cavernous space of red and silver free weights and pulley machines, mirrors on mirrors, flagrant eroticism, coital workout moans, aromas of oil and sweat, everywhere the iron-to-iron smack of plates under speakers shouting heavy metal, the pre-orgasmic joy of the place, men and women barely dressed (gymnos is Greek for naked). For an 18-year-old Catholic kid who’d dropped God and didn’t miss Him, it was a carnival of flesh and better than any heaven you could have promised me.
No Pain No Gain is the bumper-sticker jargon to which all bodybuilders subscribe, but the jargon doesn’t quite get at the degree to which the pain is a spiritual endeavor, an optimal mode of feeling alive. Self-crucifiers, we had a religious devotion to pumping iron. We relished the deeply sore muscles after a bout of maniacal training. Ours was an of-the-world asceticism (ascetic derives from the Greek askēsis, which rather fittingly means “exercise”). This pursuit provided ballast for the soul. What else did we have to believe in with such ardor?
It took a month for me to be welcomed into the sanctum of the gargantuan, accepted by the priests of iron, hardcore men who lived for the extremity of bodybuilding, who were forever standing on scales and staring into mirrors. Ovid has Narcissus say: “It is my self I love, my self I see; / The gay delusion is a part of me.” We didn’t see any delusion at work, nor did we see how “gay” applied in a rather different context.
Despite our desire for women—we were all of us suspiciously vocal about wanting lots of women—the true aim of our passion, entirely hidden from us, was to impress one another, to gain the acceptance of other elite men, and we supposedly ultra-masculine males had transformed into stereotypical females in order to do it. We repined for the approval of men, shaved and tanned our bodies, dressed in skimpy clothes, were obsessed with calories and grams, always privately anxious about our fragile self-worth, our tremulous sense of control. With one another at the Physical Edge, we made a show of whoops and high-fives, not unlike those syndicates of teenage girls who embrace one another at the mall with shrieking brio.
Many of us had gynecomastia, what we called “bitch tits,” nodes of fatty tissue beneath the nipples caused by an excess of anabolic steroids. Your body is looking for the right testosterone-estrogen ratio, so when you deluge your blood with synthetic testosterone, the body cooks up more estrogen in its quest for homeostasis, and more estrogen means, among other things, the physical traits of a female. It means breasts. Some among our number went under the scalpel to undo the humiliation. The acne harvested by steroids, the high blood pressure, the bitch tits and frequent headaches: tolerable consequences of trying to meet the Western standard of male beauty, much the way anorexic women become famished, hirsute, hideous in their quest to be loved. The male bodybuilder and the female anorexic are opposite and extreme manifestations of the same cultural pressures: men will be strong, women will be thin, or both will be nobody. The equivalence of genders is nowhere more apparent than in a gym.
My three-year jaunt through this underworld of iron didn’t end overnight but coincided with my leaving Manville for college. My salvation would not be available in a gym. I quit feeling ashamed of my unmanly devotion to literature, and began to comprehend that a blustering masculinity is usually the inverse of what it purports to be. Still, I don’t regret those years, not one iota, and I often miss the men and women in search of something bigger. We wanted to be totems, objects of veneration and warning, of the extraordinary and the occult. A tired psychologist will tell you that we wanted these things because we were internally minuscule people with the psyches of hurt birds, and I don’t deny the trace of accuracy in that claim. But the more exciting assessment might be this: We wanted sexiness and seduction and exhilaration, some communion with the sacred in a culture that no longer acclaimed the sacred, and, above all, we wanted kinship. We wanted to belong.
William Giraldi is author of the novels Busy Monstersand Hold the Dark, and is a contributing editor at The New Republic. His newest book is a memoir, The Hero's Body.