Bringing The World Home To You

© 2022 WUNC North Carolina Public Radio
120 Friday Center Dr
Chapel Hill, NC 27517
919.445.9150 | 800.962.9862
91.5 Chapel Hill 88.9 Manteo 90.9 Rocky Mount 91.1 Welcome 91.9 Fayetteville 90.5 Buxton 94.1 Lumberton 99.9 Southern Pines
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

Muscled: Podcast Transcript

Anita Rao
If you're a history buff or just someone that likes a great story, I have a podcast recommendation for you. It is called Sidedoor. It's a podcast hosted by Lizzie Peabody, and she sneaks you through the Smithsonian's side door to discover stories that can't be found anywhere else. There are more than 154 million treasures that fill the Smithsonian's vaults, and each of them hides a story. You're going to hear about everything from robots that could learn to tell the stories of our ancestors, to blood sucking worms that paved the way for modern medicine, even maybe how you could get away with murder in the Arctic. You can listen to Sidedoor wherever you get your podcasts. Just search for Sidedoor. It's all one word, or find it online at si.edu/sidedoor.

For most of my life, you'd be hard pressed to find me in the weight room of a gym. The intensity of those spaces has always been intimidating to me — but, a few years ago, after some knee and back pain steered me away from spin class, I found myself where I never thought I would be learning about: Strength training.

As long as the instructor was friendly, and the vibe was low key, I was down to learn about how to lift heavy-ish things. Don't get it twisted — nothing over 50 pounds for me. But my foray into this world exposed me to folks who take strength training very seriously and reorient their entire lives around pushing their bodies to muscular limits. This is Embodied. I'm Anita Rao.

Bodybuilding is part sport, part performance. And in the end, it all comes down to your physique. Competitive muscle contests have been around for more than a century. Unlike powerlifting, it's less about strength, and more about how your body looks to a panel of judges tasked with ranking muscle size, muscle symmetry, and those poses. The industry has changed in many ways, since it was popularized by folks like Arnold Schwarzenegger, with competitions now for folks of various gender identities.

An industry that thrives on being judged solely on an aesthetic, I'm not going to lie that raises some big red flags for me. And as I've looked into bodybuilding, reading about the toll it takes on competitors physical and mental health, it makes me wonder why the sport is still celebrated.

But I'm never one to have a closed mind or shut down a conversation. So guided by our wonderful intern Anthony Howard, I went on a journey inside the world of bodybuilding and learned from folks on the inside about how the sport shapes their lives, and their relationship with their own bodies.

Luke Nathan
Being a public transgender man, bodybuilding really helped me love myself for who I am. It really helped me find my sense of purpose and know that I am perfect just the way I am, and everything like that, and to support and love my body. It's helped me immensely with body dysphoria and overcoming my own personal obstacles and growing into the man that I am today.

Elijah Busier
Bodybuilding taught me how to love myself, for the first time. Love my skin, love my physique — and soon after that, I started to transform into the man I was meant to be. I am now going on 12 years and I finally learned it's a forever process. Becoming a bodybuilder meant I had to first learn discipline; second: courage; third: integrity, fourth: accountability; fifth: passion and drive — and last, but not least: patience.

Joshua Langbein
Going through elementary school, high school, maybe a little bit college, I was bullied, picked on. That affected me greatly, and then I went through a lot of breakups, suffered from depression, anxiety — so I found my way into the gym, and in the gym it taught me how to deal with things physically, but my mind grew as well.

Anita Rao
That was Luke Nathan, Elijah Busier, and Joshua Langbein, three body builders. For some, a bodybuilders aesthetic is desirable inflation heart because of how it challenges certain idealized body types. That's what it was like for Coryne Butler.

Coryne Butler
I don't think I really ever cared for the Victoria's Secret model look.That look never really appealed to me.

Anita Rao
Coryne is a competitive bodybuilder who started appearing on the national stage in 2017. She's built a personal and professional life around bodybuilding. In addition to competing, she's a Texas based bodybuilding lifestyle and transformation coach at FitBody Fusion. She first got into bodybuilding 10 years ago, when she joined a gym with her mom and sister.

Coryne Butler
What really led us to get into the gym was I was diagnosed with celiac disease, back when I was like 20 or 21. And that really started my foray down the path to learning about nutrition, and then once I started learning about nutrition, then I was like: Well, let me put this to use by going to the gym. When I started in the gym, I was a total novice. I had no idea what a chest press machine was or how to use it, so I went to the gym one night, it was a 24 hour gym, and I literally sat down on every single machine and I worked my way down each row.

Anita Rao
Coryne liked watching her body get stronger, lifting more weights, doing harder exercises — that was part of the thrill, and so was the mental challenge of it all.

Coryne Butler
Bodybuilding really appeals to me because I like to push myself to the limits of what I can do, and then surpass that. I like to compete with myself. So I'll go into the gym and I'm curling, you know, 50 pounds, and I'm like: Alright, two weeks, I'm gonna bump it up to 55. I just really like to push the boundaries of what I can do physically and mentally.

Anita Rao
Coryne started competing a few years ago, and since then she's tried out a few different divisions. Competing earlier this year in women's physique, she aspires to get her pro-card one day. Tommy Murrell's journey to the bodybuilding stage looked pretty different. His relationship to fitness started in his early 20s, as a way to move through panic attacks and anxiety.

Tommy Murrell
My issue started when I was like 18, 19 years old. I was raised in church. Always a pastor's kid, always made to be the example, and when you are anything but straight — that can lead to a very high anxiety life. So you know, I'm LGBT — I'm trans. So like, when I came out to my parents, and got a girlfriend, started college — just like all these things all at once, by the time I was in my 20s, I was starting to suffer from like really, really bad panic attacks. And so I went to a psychiatrist, and he gave me some pills, and I got the worst panic attack of my life.

So I started to do some research on how to take care of my panic disorder without necessarily going and taking any more pills. That's when I started working out and using working out in fitness as a kind of remedy to my anxiety. And the more I worked out, the less anxiety attacks that I got. And then I just got into bodybuilding because I've always loved the look of bodybuilding. I grew up in the time where we still read like Flex magazine, and Muscular Development and magazines like that, so I was really, really into the look of all the bodybuilders — male and female.

Anita Rao
Around the time that Tommy got into fitness and bodybuilding he was also moving through some big questions about his gender identity, and his time in the weight room eventually informed his experience of transitioning.

Tommy Murrell
Eventually what happened was I started looking more and more masculine, so I was already expressing masculinity. Looking more masculine. I dress pretty masculine, so it started to get really hard because people start kicking me out of the bathrooms. And, you know, I remember working as a personal trainer and having issues with some clients because they couldn't tell where I was, and things of that nature.

So what happened is that one day, on my way to work, I was having a conversation with my best friend and she was like: I think you're either intersex or transgender and it's something that you should explore. So I went and found a therapist that could neither sway me or dissuade me. I just wanted some facts. So I started talking to the therapist, and she was like: Well, you're definitely having an experience of a trans person. So after doing some research, more research, I decided to transition and she she helped me out with that.

Anita Rao
Wow. Just to hear the evolution of your story and your journey and the ways that you touch on masculinity in that — I'm curious to explore with you because I think external perceptions of bodybuilding are that it is a really masculine world. This kind of hyper masculinization, these big muscles, it's a very particular kind of physique. So as someone who's been exploring your own masculinity, how do you navigate that?

Tommy Murrell
Well, my idea of masculinity has evolved over the years. But yes, it's definitely a way you can express your masculinity. Express your strength, your dominance, but what I realized when I was in the gym with the biggest guys ever, that after a while, you're a grizzly bear while you're under those weights, and then as soon as you put the weights down, you're drinking your protein shake, you go back to just being a normal dude. And that you didn't need to exert your dominance in a toxic way. You would just work, and that's something that I've learned over the years — masculinity is not something where you have to exert and you show it, it just is.

Anita Rao
Anyone who was in the bodybuilding world knows it is all about the extreme, and that can take a real toll. The pressure put on competitors leads to steroid use, and while the professional leagues say competitors are subject to drug testing, folks we spoke with said that usage is common — and potential health risks are something that Coryne and Tommy both try to keep in mind.

Coryne Butler
If you're just starting out in the gym, and you're looking through like one of the magazines that Tommy mentioned — Muscle and Fitness, or all those awesome things and you see some guy and he's scooping whey protein, and he's jacked, and you're like: I want to look like that. And it's like: Okay — but some of these people don't realize that there are certain protocols that are enacted in order to look a certain way. That is just the nature of the beast.

Unfortunately, because bodybuilding is a spectacle — it's who can be the biggest, who can be the most vascular, the freakiest looking on stage — and use of PEDs happens. And it's something that an athlete cannot take lightly. You can't just be like: Okay, today is the day or whatever. Do your research, do your homework, because it can literally alter your life in ways that you might not be able to go back. So it's a very, very heavy decision that the only person who knows what's right is that person who's making that decision.

Anita Rao
How about transparency? Tommy, maybe you can take this one — Is there a transparency from folks competing about what kind of performance enhancement they use and why, and if you feel comfortable talking about your own experience — open to hearing about that also.

Tommy Murrell
I think there is transparency, but there's only so much we can say because there's a thin line between transparency and promotion. I can tell you that. Yeah, I've used performance enhancing drugs. I'm not gonna sit here and tell you exactly what because, then again, we have to think about the responsibility of what we say and the weight that our words carry. When it comes to bodybuilding, we have such a magnifying glass on our sport. So I do feel like sometimes bodybuilding gets a little bit of an unfair judgment, but if you do any sport, any sport, I don't care whether it's marathon running, whether it's CrossFit, whatever — every sport carries its risk.

Anita Rao
When you're immersed in a physique sport like bodybuilding, you re-orient large parts of your life around growing and maintaining a certain version of your body. After talking with these folks who are in that world, I was left with some questions about the long term impacts of body building on health — both physical and mental.

So we called up a health professor for a chat. James Leone works at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts, and one of the things that he looks out for in his research with athletes is how their bodies react to the physical activity they do on a years long scale.

There are short term effects from the kind of intense training competitive bodybuilders do, like dizziness or headaches from dehydration, but it's putting your body through that level of athletic and nutritional stress, year after year, that could raise concerns.

Just a heads up, we're going to be getting into some discussion about body image disorders in a moment.

James Leone
The longer term is after the competitions — that's where the body has to readjust itself, recalibrate, come back to a certain level of homeostasis where fluids are balanced out again. Another concern, of course, is hormonal changes. So bodybuilding really challenges the system to adapt with all sorts of hormones governing your chemical intakes as far as food, really maximizing nutrition, but also keeping that water balance positive within your body. And it's the after effects that can really have a residual effect on the person's overall physical health.

Anita Rao
When you see photos of bodybuilders, the physical effects of their training are visible. Less visible — mental health. The two, of course, are intricately wound. For bodybuilders, the focus on physique can contribute to the development of body image disorders. Two in particular that aren't talked about as much — bigorexia and muscle dysmorphia.

James Leone
The first term bigorexia that you referenced was coined, I think, in 1993 by actually one of my mentors, Dr. Harrison Pope, that was originally kind of viewed as the reverse of anorexia. So this extreme caloric restriction, body weight decreases, actually was viewed as the opposite. So it was really — eat to perform, get as big as you can. It was later classified as muscle dysmorphia because if you think of the overall spectrum, oftentimes, we here obsessive compulsive disorder. So what is the obsession and then what do you compulse to do about it? In the instance of muscle dysmorphia, the obsession is one's overall level of muscularity — and then the compulsion is well, how do I maintain that? How do I make sure that I'm not losing certain levels of muscularity?

Anita Rao
So when someone is experiencing that kind of body image disorder, what does support and recovery look like and is that possible — while they're still involved in a physique focused sport like bodybuilding?

James Leone
It's a really tough one because if you think about a certain level of muscle dysmorphia — outwardly, the person often looks healthy, so by today's standards, with evolving beauty, the person looks probably very healthy, muscular — all the things that we tend to praise in terms of our modern society. The problem is, when you're not identifying something as pathological, and if the person themselves don't see it as pathological, there's the catch 22 — how do you get them into some level of programming or some level of help if they don't acknowledge it?

So for example, I'm an athletic trainer by trade. So I would see athletes come in, and you know, outwardly, you can see how their body looks, you can see how they're performing. And it's in those intimate levels of conversation where you can kind of dig a little bit, so you can see what the person is talking about, you can see — are they really obsessed with certain parts of their body?

One of my former athletes, a baseball player, was very, very active on the field. So he did all sorts of training. And I remember one evening in the student union, I was working out just after practice, and I saw him in there again. And I approached him. I said: What are you doing here? You just finished a really intense practice. And you could tell he just couldn't get out of his mind that that was good enough. He had to continue to push because not only just being a very good baseball athlete, he also had to maintain that level of muscularity that then connects with the psychopathology of what muscle dysmorphia typically encompasses.

Anita Rao
Muscle dysmorphia and bigorexia are hard to recover from, as Jim mentioned. And what adds more complexity to the situation — the presence of steroids. Their use became especially common in the late 1960s and early 70s.

James Leone
With the advent of the 1970s, with bodybuilding, obviously, people have to consider — how do I push more limits? So there was a lot of research done in the 1940s and 50s that came out of World War Two, where hormones were being used for different purposes. Hormones were being used for treating people with hunger problems to gain weight. They were being used to increase aggression, for example, in people in wartime.

So when a lot of that research started translating into the areas of bodybuilding and fitness competitions — people realize: I can use this product and actually get some of the benefits that are going to advance me, not just in my profession, not just in my sport, but also they make me feel a certain way. So steroids became very, very, like I said, ubiquitous within the world of bodybuilding.

Anita Rao
Yeah, I mean, I was curious about if and how they can be used safely and how you're able to tell us the kind of uses pushing into that dangerous territory?

James Leone
Yeah, it's a great question. So as a health care provider myself, you know, we're always trained to say like: No, don't use something like that. It's risky, and for the most part, it is risky. And for the most part, I would say to a person: Absolutely not. It's not something that we can monitor every day.

So, in a previous discussion, I framed it as this — are steroids, which are naturally occurring hormones in our bodies, able to be used safely and therapeutically? The answer is yes, it's a flat out yes. However, the caveat to that is a person would basically have to know all of their panels. Their blood profiles or hormone profile ratios. You'd have to know that, pretty much every couple of days, to make sure that levels were being calibrated where they're at least not harming you. They may not help you to a certain extent, but they're not harming you. And of course, that would be labor and time intensive.

So what tends to happen, as people kind of wing it. Can they be used safely? Yes. Is it practical? Is it reasonable for the majority of people? Absolutely not. And that's why again, on the medical side, we often just say: It's not something that we should consider.

One last thing to that is, we do see medical uses of things like steroids, right, anabolic steroids. It's a chemical that has therapeutic uses but can also be very, very much abused in certain contexts.

Anita Rao
So whose responsibility is it to reconsider the sustainability of bodybuilding and center the health of competitors?

James Leone
The burden is shared by all involved — so both the promoters as well as the athletes themselves. So I would say with the bodybuilding community, and the promoters of bodybuilding, it's also a matter of — it's not just the performance. It's not just what the person looks like. It's all the things that encompass that person's sacrifice to then perform.

So what we don't hear enough about though is the human side of it. All of the months and months and months of sacrifices, problems that happen, how they overcome these types of things. So I think really to answer your question — I think it's a humanizing process. It's humanizing a football player. It's humanizing a tennis player. It's humanizing a bodybuilder, beyond simply the mechanism that they have to convey performance through their sport. That's the starting point of the conversation to better overall outcomes in the future.

Anita Rao
Embodied is a production of North Carolina Public Radio WUNC, a listener supported station. If you want to lend your support to this podcast and WUNC's other shows on-demand, consider a contribution at wunc.org now. Incredible storytelling like you hear on Embodied is only possible because of listeners like you.

Anthony Howard produced this show with editorial support from Kaia Findlay and Amanda Magnus. Jenni Lawson is our sound engineer. Audrey Smith also produces for us, and Quilla wrote our theme music.

The show is supported by Weaver Street Market, a worker and consumer owned cooperative selling organic and local food at four triangle locations in North Carolina. Now featuring online shopping with next day pickup — weaverstreetmarket.coop.

In a note from us, we're going to be out of your feeds for a few weeks while we take some time off. I'm excited to cuddle up with my niece, nephew and pup, and spend some quality time with my partner watching terrible movies.

But we have so much in store for you in 2022, including an incredibly exciting three part special we've been working away on, all about how to jumpstart an anti-diet New Year. We're going to be back in your feeds with that series starting Friday, January 7.

But until then, we'd love for you to give us a little holiday gift that will take just a minute. Share about us on social media and tag us. It helps new folks find our show and it means so much. Until next time. I'm Anita Rao — taking on the taboo with you.

More Stories