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Pumping iron 

Excess, denial, ecstasy and exhibition

It's been a long-standing joke with me that my mother, who diagnosed me as gay at the age of 5, chose a "cure" that, far from changing me, ideally prepared me for gay life.

To make me more like the man she thought I should be at 5, she enrolled me in a gym. Later, she put a set of barbells in my room. She bought a sun lamp to tan me. She made me protein shakes and took me to the barber for buzz cuts.

If I didn't know her real agenda, I'd assume Mama had some foreknowledge that gay life would evolve from impersonating Judy Garland to impersonating Hulk Hogan.

I've always regarded Mama's effort to change my body as wacky but when I tell people about my early introduction to gym culture, most tell me how lucky I am. It's true that with the exception of my late teen years and early 20s, the gym has been a continual and mainly healthy presence in my life. Even when reviewing restaurants for three different publications made me overweight, I still went to the gym three to five times a week. "Under this layer of foie gras is a man of steel," I said.

I even went when I was into regularly, um, altering my chemistry. I once was so fucked up while I worked out, I couldn't find my way out of a Nautilus machine. I had to yell for help. "Yo, Cliff, stand up," someone yelled back.

My original motive in returning to the gym in my mid-20s, when I was divorced after a five-year marriage, was the usual. It was clear that whichever gender I decided was most attractive, I needed to look better. But my fidelity to the gym long ago turned into something more complex.

For one thing, numerous studies have concluded that exercise is as effective as drugs for treating depression. That isn't an effect of boosting self-esteem by getting in shape. It seems to be a literal biochemical effect. I have prescribed the gym to many clients, but it's a hard sell. I have a fantasy of operating a gym devoted to psychological well-being, but I suspect the average client would rather attend group therapy in a funeral home.

The kinkier appeal of the gym to me was, for many years, its subcultural aspect. I began serious lifting when I lived in Augusta and it was such an unusual hobby then that in addition to my work as a newspaper editor, I ended up becoming a part-time trainer at the YMCA, enlisted by the prosperous parents of some "problem kids." But it was a few years later, in the subterranean, wood-floored weight room of Atlanta's downtown YMCA, that I met serious lifters -- most of them African-American and incredible characters, including several cops who injected steroids in the bathroom. "Jesus is watching," I used to tell them.

It was the early '80s and I was working as editor of Creative Loafing. I got up every morning at 5 to hit the Y for two hours. Then I came to the paper and annoyed the staff by always noting how sleepy everyone still seemed at 9 a.m.

After about two years, I moved to Houston to become editor of the city magazine there. I was laid off after little more than a year, and then the gym literally became my full-time obsession. I met several famous bodybuilders for whom I did some ghostwriting for muscle magazines. One of them put a national sports magazine in touch with me and I was offered a gigantic fee to take steroids and report my experience. I actually bought the drugs, then panicked and declined the offer. That was during the first big wave of hysteria about steroids following a scandal in the NFL.

The world of competitive bodybuilding remains one of our society's oddest subcultures. The obsessive devotion to standards of physical beauty that have become increasingly unconventional, for males and females alike, requires a radical oscillation of excess and denial, to say nothing of the masochistic subjection to agonizing pain. (The author of God's Gym compares it to the passion of Christ.) The use of drugs, while widespread, only increases the threshold of pain to which bodybuilders subject themselves.

While bodybuilding is called a sport, its contests are much more like theater. And I think it's no exaggeration to say that the "pose down," where contestants aggressively compare their physiques before howling audiences, is a remarkable comment on the way the culture views the body, gender and sexuality.

Atlantans will have an opportunity to see that Fri.-Sat., Nov. 18-19, when the NPC National Bodybuilding and Fitness Championships for men and women are held at the Hyatt Regency. The NPC is the pre-eminent organization for amateur bodybuilders. Tickets and more information are available online at www.nationalbodybuilding.com or by calling Pam Betz, 404-876-4467.

I guarantee you that if you've never seen one of these competitions, you will encounter the ecstatic and be thrown into rumination about your own body's history and presentation to the world.

Cliff Bostock holds a Ph.D. in depth psychology.

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