When you think of the beaches on the West Coast, there are a few images that come immediately to mind; girls in bikinis, surfers and the people who watch over them from Baywatch. But just a little further down the sand at Venice is the famous Muscle Beach, synonymous with World Gym just up the road.
As long as I can remember, those photos of beachside bodybuilders pumping iron and flexing on the equipment have been as much a part of California’s cultural imagery as men who think baseball caps are perfectly acceptable restaurant attire as long as you wear a blazer with them.
So when a friend of ours said that he was entering a bodybuilding competition at Muscle Beach and would we like to come along, all Paul and I could say was, “Uh, duh.”
Now I have to preface this by saying that I hugely admire the effort that goes into bodybuilding; the sheer determination to train, to follow a diet stricter than a vegan monk and the enormous amount of hours that go into the task. The end result may not be my cup of tea, but I tip my hat to the sacrifice.
And wow, does it ever make for a great show.
Paul and I turned up and found a seat on the bleachers at the front and sat back to take it all in. I don’t know if it’s on par with watching Koto drummers in Japan or seeing Opera in Germany, but there is definitely the feeling that you are watching a distinct piece of local culture.
The bodies on all the contestants were toned to the nth degree. Everything that you’ve seen before in photos out there in the blazing Californian sun. But the first thing that you notice is that while all the contestants have the bodies for this Clash of the Titans, they don’t all have the heads.
Schwartzenegger set the pace of bodybuilders not just in physique, but from the neck up too. Arnie has proven himself to be a very bright man, but it helps to look a little bit on the side of Cro-magnon if you’re going to haul around 350 pounds of body underneath you. And that’s where all the training in the world isn’t going to help.
I scanned the guys posing and flexing for the judges and crowd and I have to say, there wasn’t a future Governor amongst them.
While everything rippled Viking-like below, the first guy’s face just screamed “I’m a dentist!”. The guy next to him, “I’m an accountant”. And so on down the line. Librarian, middle management, that guy in the cubicle down the hall, student, lawyer etc.
It reminded me of when I was a kid and we’d take the heads off of our GI Joe and Masters of the Universe Action Figures (not dolls, as my Mum used to call them) and swap them around, the heads never quite seeming to match the bodies. But maybe that’s because GI Joe is Caucasian and Skeletor is purple.
Which brings me to another point about color. After we’d watched the festivities for a while, we caught up with our competing friend Mark and went for lunch. You know that golden tanned color that bodybuilders paint themselves before a competition? It’s actually like a bronzey-green. It is the weirdest thing. It looks great from a distance, up close it’s 1950’s sci-fi.
Lunch was a hoot because the people in the cafe who didn’t know that Mark was in a competition down the beach, thought that …actually I don’t know what they thought, that maybe they were making an Incredible Hulk update? It’s LA after all.
In the afternoon, it was ladies and older men’s groups. And for the voyeur, this is where the serious carnival stuff began. I have always had the queeziest feeling about female bodybuilders. A women with a bikini stretched over tanned pecs with legs thicker than an oak tree makes me very uneasy. It just feels wrong. Is that sexist? I don’t know…
One thing that is definitely sexist is that even the women who at this point are perhaps their most masculine, still have to compete in heels. I’m sorry, but six-inch stilettos aren’t made for walking, let alone standing, flexing and posing more bulk than was ever envisaged slipping into a Manolo.
But by far the guy who stole the show was a senior competing by himself. I mean, this guy was ancient. He’d obviously outlived everyone else in his division. The teeth were too white and the hair too black for any man his age.
And maybe since there was no one up against him, he’d decided that he didn’t have to work out at all. He was as flat as a pancake on the front. Really, the guy was a rail. Because the actual reason he wanted to be up there wasn’t to show off his body, but to show off his balls.
That’s right, his nads, crown jewels, potatoes, rambutans, rocks, nuts, plums, bollocks, two veg, hanging brains, man tonsils.
This guy had the biggest pair I have ever seen on a living soul. Yes, he was wearing a black thong but that only served to amplify their distressing size. Mothers in the crowd were debating whether to cover their children’s eyes.
This guy was a saline injector for sure. There was a fishbowl of water down there and as he turned to each part of the stands and made his geriatric pose the ripples of uncomfortability went through the crowd like a Mexican wave. People mutedly cheered out of politeness and everyone felt much better once the three of him were off the stage.
Mark did well on his first time out, he picked up best newcomer since it was literally his first show ever and he’d only been lifting for a couple of months.
Paul tells me that Mark’s in another comp on in a couple of weeks. Is there any better way to kick off the summer than to once again hang with the biggest, bronziest, ballsiest folks of the West Coast. All I can say is, “Uh, duh.”