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We don't have to exclude trans lifters to make strength sports "fair"

Here's the thing about trans lifters: they must be welcomed in training and competition. Any questions about fairness in results or rankings must be LOWER priority than fairness of participation.

If we're going to get upset about a trans woman winning when she "shouldn't" because it's not "fair" then we should be EQUALLY concerned about trans men who end up ranking lower than other men. If you want to make it harder for trans women to win then you should be in favor of making it easier for trans men to win. If you aren't equally concerned about both, then you're not concerned about fairness, you just want to police the definition of "woman." Why?

If we're truly interested in fairness, it's important that the feelings of a few cis women who are salty about coming in second place should not be the barometer for setting rules for the entire sport. What about the feelings of the trans person who won? What about the feelings of the many trans lifters who are excluded or discouraged by explicit policies and by other lifters who see them as not deserving their totals?

Given the above, I don't think concerns about a trans woman's advantages over cis women (whether they exist or not) are all that important. Men aren't entering women's divisions just to get a trophy; I haven't met a man who is interested in doing that, or who would be proud of that trophy.


Usually when we discuss fairness, it's about preventing cheating. Advantages that you have thanks to genetics or training are rewarded. The only advantages that are "unfair" are ones that are obtained outside the rules of the game, like using drugs or bribing judges.

Even if it's true that trans women have an advantage over cis women, then the situation is that trans women, who happen to be trans because that's just how their life turned out, happen to be very strong women. So maybe they win sometimes. Shouldn't the strongest woman win?

I'm also concerned about the lack of a place for people to compete who don't feel they fit into either gender category. If you're non-binary or genderfluid or just beginning your transition or if for any reason you would describe your gender as "it's complicated", why should you have to find a place in a male/female binary at all?

I mean, splitting the field into men's versus women's is an organizational choice. Weight classes are an organizational choice. There are other ways to stratify competition, and even other ways to design what the competition is. (Look at crossfit or strongman for a few other options. In strongman, the events change from one competition to another, and there has been a suggestion that perhaps instead of weight classes people should be grouped into "strength classes" based on, say, what they can deadlift.)

There's a movement in some sports to have a "Mx class" which is open to all genders, and provides an option for any lifter who would prefer not to be in the men's or women's class. I don't think that solves very many problems, although it may have a place especially as a stopgap while we wait for better solutions.

What if?

I'm going to dream big for a minute and imagine that practical concerns are no barrier. What if everybody had to get a DEXA scan done at the beginning of the year, and you were placed into a category based on the total amount of muscle mass you have? That would also eliminate drastic weight cuts, and it would allow gender-agnostic stratification of competition. Maybe I as a 67 kilo woman would be in the same "mass class" as a 52 kilo male lifter.

Or let's say we had better data on how trans athletes' strength changes over time. We don't have this data now, but let's say it's possible to collect as trans people increasingly compete in the sport. What if we could quantify the average advantage/disadvantage, and apply a correction factor? So maybe a trans woman would have 10% subtracted from her total in the first year of hormone therapy, and a trans man would have 10% added. In the second year maybe it would be 5% and no correction thereafter. Or whatever numbers the data would support--maybe it's 40% at first declining to 20% for life.

Neither of these is a perfect solution; men typically have more upper body mass and so total body mass may not be the right measure to use. (Maybe there could be a correction factor for muscle mass distribution, though.) The correction factor for trans athletes could be expanded to include athletes who are otherwise don't fit men's and women's categories; and at that point, why not just combine those categories and just use correction factors to enable men and women to compete together? A downside is that it would require lifters to divulge their medical history, which would be unfair if it singles out trans lifters.

But there are possibilities. We don't have to stick with a system that only recognizes men and women, and we certainly don't have to make life harder on some lifters because of their gender or their transition status. Let's get everybody on the platform before we worry about how they're ranked.

Notes on: Mr. America, the Tragic History of a Bodybuilding Icon by John D. Fair

My reading on the history of strength sports brought me to this book. I'm not interested in bodybuilding for its own sake, but bodybuilding is entwined with the stuff I am interested in.

This book chronicles one lineage of bodybuilding, from the "Mr. America" contest's origins to its demise. We learn who controlled the contest and how it defined itself relative to its counterparts (like Miss America) and competitors (like Mr. Olympia).

It's not a history of bodybuilding and it doesn't get into details about how the athletes trained or how shows were run or won. Instead, there's a lot about the power struggles behind the scenes: which specific rich white guys were in charge of what, and what they wanted Mr. America to be. I lost track of how many bodybuilding federations there were, and which acronyms were which. There was a lot of discussion of pros versus amateurs, without getting into why that distinction mattered or even how it was defined. That kind of thing.

The book starts with the first bodybuilding competitions, which were often run by magazines and were photo contests. If you look good posing like statuary, you're in.

Even today, histories of strength sports often start with ancient Greece. Whenever I see this, I just think: why, of all the times and places in the world, is this where you choose to start? Fair provides some context. He writes: "What matters is not so much whether the Greeks had exceptional bodies or how perfectly ancient artists conceived them, but the extent to which the Victorians and their successors were inspired by Greek iconography to shape their own cultural ideals."

Fair notes that the European and especially British conception of the Greeks came from German classicist Johann Joachim Winckelmann, who studied Roman copies of Greek statues and waxed poetic about what he inferred as the Greeks' obsession with physical beauty. Winckelmann died in 1768, his ideas extremely popular. Europeans and especially Germans came to see the Greeks as the founders of European culture, via the "Aryan model". Bodybuilding and Nazi bullshit both share ancestry in this line of thinking.

When your ideal is that of the ancient Greeks, your ideal ideal body is white and male. Meanwhile, the Europeans and Americans who are enamored of this idea seem to conveniently forget that the Greeks were totally cool with being gay. Throughout the history of bodybuilding, it seems the sport was extremely popular with the gay community, and yet the people who ran it were vehement about distancing themselves from the gay community.

Fair writes, on page 29:

"Strength lent itself to objective measurement through records and games, whereas the proponents of beauty seemed obsessed with proportions, seeking to derive body-size formulas from the physiques of Greek statues. In a 1915 article titled 'Posing the Physique Beautiful,' L. E. Eubanks advises anyone wishing to make such comparisons to obtain 'a rule, a tape-line and calipers' in order to 'go at the matter thoroughly.' Then it was important to select an appropriate model: 'If you are slender you would look ridiculous posed as the Farnese Hercules, and if your figure is heavy you would not make a good Apollo. A woman of eighteen with a girlish figure cannot consistently represent Juno; nor can a heavy woman in middle life succeed as Psyche.' Upon selecting an appropriate model, the aspiring physical culturist should study his or her 'pose thoroughly and aim at exact imitation.'"

Measurements? Yeah, anthropometry was big at the time (and has strong connections to yet more racist bullshit.) Milo Hastings, in the magazine Physical Culture, chose Eugene Sandow & Annette Kellerman as modern exemplars of excellence, & provided measurements so you can compare them to yourself, although "the eye rather than the tape measure and calipers is the tribunal at which judgment on grace and symmetry must be sought."

This word, symmetry, perplexes me. I think bodybuilders use it to mean something like "proportions" or a general sense of "looks good to me" rather than actual literal symmetry.

A question that only gets partially answered is: why did anybody get interested in bodybuilding in the first place?

There seemed to be a lively debate, in the first few decades of the 1900s, about whether training for strength develops your shape (eg Hackenschmidt) or if training for shape gives you strength (eg Sig Klein).

Meanwhile, the 1925 winner of a Strength magazine contest, Lurten Cunningham, tells a story about a kid who beat him up in his youth. He vowed "to crush that boy" and, after winning the contest, adds "I have realized that ambition." I'm not sure if that's a metaphorical crushing or if he literally went back and beat up his rival years later.

Is the display of muscles about a power fantasy, like what Charles Atlas sold? Or is bodybuilding just an excuse for displaying bodies, much as paintings of naked women can be ART and not PORN? If so, if you like looking at men's bodies, does it matter whether they're muscly or not?

I can't help thinking these magazines were the instagram of their day. with health or some related ineffable virtue shown through bodily appearance. Appearance is valued, but much is made of what appearance symbolizes.

It's also interesting to see that bodybuilding as a competitive sport didn't grow out of a grassroots interest but rather was cultivated for and by magazine publishers. It made for good photos and allowed for selling exercise equipment & information.

A lot of early bodybuilding contests emphasized that they're looking for the person who is the most beautiful or "perfectly developed," not necessarily the person with the biggest muscles. I kept thinking: why? Who are these huge-muscled people who the organizers feel don't deserve to win?

In the early Mr. America contests, "most muscular" was a category prize, separate from the main award. There are multiple generations of conflict over whether bodybuilding should be rewarding size over all other factors, or other factors--and what are they?--over size. Some contests were held in conjunction with weightlifting meets, and one's proficiency in lifting was part of the judging. Later, there was a tension between the Weiders' contests, which emphasized size and muscularity over other factors, versus the AAU ones for which muscularity was just one point category of many. Go a bit further toward the present, and we see the same conflict again with steroids. Is it better to be natural and pretty, or just huge? And then in women's bodybuilding, there's an even more extreme and higher stakes version of this conflict, with people arguing that the sport should reward femininity at the expense of muscularity, or vice versa.

In 1970, Chris Dickerson won as the first Black Mr. America (and Fair reports he was also the first to be gay, though not openly at the time.) Bill Pearl says he trained Dickerson and other proteges to meet the "All-American" standard that was basically acting like a middle class white dude. Manicured their fingernails, shined their shoes, told them don't associate with the other black kids backstage. Make eye contact, smile, avoid specific phrases in answering questions.

Throughout the book there are quotes about how the Mr. America title is meant to go to a person who represents the right values, a good all around American boy. Steve Neece is quoted saying of Bob Hoffman:

"Bob disapproved of the west coast lifestyle and the events had a category called 'athletic points' which were part of the scoring. If you were an Olympic style weightlifter or perhaps another form of athlete, you got 'em, if you weren't, tough luck. The AAU also had a category called 'personal appearance' which supposedly covered such things as clear skin, teeth, grooming and general facial features. That took care of anybody who made it past the athletic part but wasn't desirable in AAU, (Bob's) eyes. Just a little history lesson, kiddies, to show ya how far we've come." - from Muscle Training Illustrated, June 1990

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