Competitive bodybuilders and identity: insights from New Zealand : a thesis presented in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, Department of Management, College of Business, Massey University, Palmerston North, New Zealand
This research explores competitive bodybuilders in New Zealand and their identities.
Bodybuilders have often been construed as being broadly similar – excessively muscular people,
who build their physiques for sometimes questionable reasons, such as for a cover for internal
insecurities. Bodybuilding is often considered acceptable for men because muscles are symbolic
of masculinity – on women they are seen as unnatural and unfeminine. While external critiques
have tended to portray bodybuilders in a negative light, phenomenological accounts have often
emphasised participants’ positive experiences.
Existing research concerning the identity of bodybuilders has only scratched the surface.
Identities reflect an understanding of ‘who one is’ – the continuing meanings people associate
with themselves and as members of social groups. Furthermore, bodybuilders are not just
‘bodybuilders’, they are also people. Bodybuilding is not their only identity, it is one of their numerous identities. This research explored not only the meanings participants attribute to bodybuilding, but also how it is lived and experienced within the broader self.
A phenomenological-inspired, mixed methodological approach was adopted using quantitative
and qualitative methods. Participants were male and female competitive bodybuilders of varying
ages residing in New Zealand. They were at different stages in their bodybuilding career and
represented a range of competitive experience. A postal questionnaire was completed by 382
competitive bodybuilders, and in-depth interviews were conducted with 32 participants. Photo
elicitation was also used.
A key outcome of this research has been to highlight the changeable, complex, contradictory
nature of bodybuilder identities. Fluidity, ambiguity and pluralism existed amongst the everyday practices and identities of participants. Although bodybuilders shared commonalities, their identities were not identical or stable: bodybuilding could be about transforming the body,looking good, being competitive, creative and/or healthy. It could be a lifestyle, involve personal challenge, self-development, social belonging and friendship. Identity experiences could be influenced by personality, background, gender, sexuality, age, ethnicity, work, family and church. The bodybuilder identities were also found to be closely connected to participant perceptions concerning their natural body, genetic advantages and limitations. Furthermore, their identities were not depthless but entailed commitment, passion, mental, social and emotional dimensions. Competitive bodybuilding was a meaningful activity, that often left an indelible mark and continued to shape participant lives even after they had ceased competitive bodybuilding.