Editors note: Katie Rose Hejtmanek, Ph.D. is a cultural anthropologist conducting research on the culture of strength sports in the United States. This is the second of an in-depth series introducing readers to her research and preliminary findings. All observations and data come from her own research. You can read her first article here and her second here.
If you’re a fan of strength sports and want to look at their growth from a cultural, anthropological, and/or analytical perspective, we highly recommend this series. The articles go in-depth on Dr. Hejtmanek’s work, and they’re well worth your time.
“Are You On Instagram?”
I can’t tell you how many times I heard this question as I began my research on strength sports.
I wasn’t. I don’t take photos of myself very often. I haven’t mastered the selfie pose. I also don’t take photos of places or people. It’s just not my thing. I usually keep my phone (or in the old days, my camera) safely in its pocket. In my previous research on psychiatric custody for kids in the US, I didn’t and couldn’t take photographs. So, no, with nothing to post, I wasn’t on Instagram.
However, after my first few days “in the field,” what we cultural anthropologists call the time when we are conducting immersive research, I realized there was something really important about Instagram and that I needed to join.
I am privileging Instagram here, but this article is also about social media more generally. Social media, especially training blogs, comment sections of workout of the day pages, Instagram, and Facebook, are fundamental to the practice of strength sports. When I first began with my questionnaire, many of the individuals asked to participate wondered if they could post about the research on their group’s training blog, or share with their group on Facebook. I was already on Facebook but hemmed and hawed about joining Instagram. As I sat on the fence, I heard:
“You ought to check out a Ido Portal!”
“You have to follow Wim Hof, the Iceman!”
“Are you following Starting Strength?”
“I really like girlswhopowerlift and thisisfemalepowerlifting. These are great because I understand that some people want to be really sexy when they workout but some don’t. These show how ugly it is when women powerlift and [they say that] is ok. The feminist in me is like I am not just about looking good, don’t get me wrong, I like that I have some glutes, but I am not doing it for you.”
In addition to these conversations about who to follow, what to view, and how to share, I learned quickly, through personal experience as well as observation, that phones and thus images and videos were somewhat ubiquitous to the strength sport training process. I observed employees walking around a CrossFit class taking photos of the group for the website and for social media. Regularly, I observe one partner taking video or photos of the other performing the day’s special technique. Before I was on Instagram, I was shown videos, from other workouts, of how individuals performed a special skill and then posted this proof on their account: “Check this out!”
During one of my free training sessions, I was photographed and videoed doing all kinds of new skills: picking up stones, lifting a tire, walking back and forth carrying weird bars, clean and pressing, and swinging kettlebell. At another gym, I was photographed squatting, doing pull-ups, jumping rope, and walking on my hands. At the last free trial class I enrolled in (I enrolled in a lot!), I had to wave my rights to the images the facility would take of me during said free trial class! The gym could take my photo, post it anywhere, and I had given up my “rights” to these photos even if I wasn’t a member of the gym. In fact, at this gym, this was the first section to initial on the waiver, even before risk of injury or liability.
Ok, so now I have photos of myself moving heavy stones and doing pull-ups. Should I send them to my gardening friend, show her I’d be great help in the cultivation of her yard? What about the video of me doing farmers carries? Do I send this to my Mom, show her what it looks like to schlep groceries around New York City? I did these things. But I also signed up for Instagram and used the pull-up image as my profile photo and posted the stone picture to my feed.
As I posted my images, I scrolled down to see about those I follow. I see a video of someone from one of my gyms snatching. His partner had captured it during the evening class. I see that another person from another gym had posted a video of herself squatting. I notice several videos of women squatting and deadlifting via girlswhopowerlift – some of them of competitions, some of them in home garages, and some of them in gyms.
Even though I am new to Instagram, this isn’t the first I have seen images or videos of dazzling physical feats. I have a few Facebook friends with profile pictures of themselves muscling up, deadlifting, or flexing. I have seen countless videos or photos of these same and other friends performing similar feats on my news feed.
My cultural anthropological eye is finding a pattern: people involved in strength sports take photos of one another doing physical feats. And then they share them with others. So? This is not unique to strength sports, you say. True. But I think it is an important part of the activity. I think that taking photos is about documenting a performing sporting body. I also think that sharing the images is also about performance, a performance between the athlete and the spectator. I think that the sharing of these performances creates a community and that the culture of strength sports is supported by this sharing. Finally, I think that the meaning of strength sports is mutually created and maintained through the capturing of the performing body and the sharing of it with others.
Sports, Performance, and the Body
Before we get into what I think is going on, let’s take a look at what we typically think of as sports performances. First, we think about sport performance in terms of games, matches, and meets. These events are then tallied together to create seasons. Or mega events like the Olympics pit one nation, via athletes, against all others. Teams and individuals (and nation-states?) win. They also lose. Win-loss records and fastest times are kept to determine who makes the playoffs, who wins the championship, who has the most grand slam titles ever, the most 3-point shots in a season, or who is the fastest man on earth. Serena didn’t win the French Open; will she win her 22 grand slams at Wimbledon? Almaz Ayana just ran the second fastest time ever in the 5000m in Rome during a Diamond League elite track meet. Steph Curry, his 403 three point shots, the Warriors and the 73 win season! I could keep going…. We have learned to think of sports performances this way, as official events, with records and times on the line. These tallied wins and losses count towards something. Until they don’t, when the season is over. Maybe next year?
In addition to the games and seasons of more traditional sports, we often think of sports performance as televised. Like a tree falling in a forest, if a game isn’t televised, did it really happen? Often the televised sporting events and thus athletes are professionals or really good college teams (here I’m thinking of the women’s college softball world series on ESPN).
Anthropologists like Niko Besnier, Susan Brownell, and Noel Dyck have been studying sport for decades. They find that sports are not just about human action, about what the body can do, but about the social issues that are illuminated through these activities. Specifically, how social issues are performed by a body. And in the case of the world today, that performing body is televised and viewed by others, even and especially by those not in the stadium.
However, this isn’t what is happening in the everyday of strength sports on Instagram.
Therefore, I think Instagram and strength sports offer a new way to think about the meaning of sporting bodies, performance, and culture and community.
What I Think Is Going On
I think the “sharing” of photos and videos of snatches, squats, muscle-ups, deadlifts, and all other forms of physical prowess on Instagram is a form of performance. Unlike games or other sporting activities (including the CrossFit Games), the performance of deadlifts isn’t about winning or losing. It isn’t even about professional athletes and their tallied seasons. Rather, I think Instagram gives us a new way to think about sports and performance. And this new way hinges on “sharing,” the posting and viewing of images and videos.
The images and videos of deadlifts, snatches, and other physical feats are about sporting performance. I shared an image of me carrying a 110-pound stone and doing a pull-up. My friend shared himself snatching, a very technical physical movement. These are not photos of puppies, sunsets, or delicious self-made meals (although there are plenty of these images on social media as well). But our images or videos capture sport-like performance, the use of our bodies to perform a physical feat in a gym, to illustrate (prove?) our strength, and to show how our bodies move. While some of the images are of people flexing, many are about the movement of bodies, of what the body can DO. In this way, I think the performance in the image or video is more about sporting than about aesthetics.
However, unlike other sporting performances such as “games,” these images and videos are not about winning or losing. Sometimes they are about personal bests (PRs) or the most someone has ever lifted (a max). But often the images are a performance of everyday moves, taken during a class by a partner or during a free trail session. These performances illustrate that the individual can do a particular move, not whether she won or lost. We capture these performances on film and then we share them with others.
Sharing and Performance
Sharing is a particularly egalitarian, active, and social verb. When you share something, you keep some of it but give some to others. Sharing includes the acts of giving and including others. Therefore, I think social media allows for an egalitarian and social way to view sporting performances. People get to choose whom to “follow” (not only watch those with an ESPN contract). People get to follow you, viewing whatever it is you post. When my gym friends, the research participants, and I share our images or videos (or even our times for the WOD on the box’s blog) we are including others in our performances of physical feats.
An anthropologist named Edward Schieffelin argued that meaning in performance is generated not through the symbols (such as the snatch or the video of the snatch) only but through the interaction between the performer (the snatcher) and the audience (the photographer and then one’s Instagram followers). It is the mutual posting, viewing, and egalitarian sharing that creates the meaning of the performance of strength sports on Instagram. And the meaning of the performance is to create and maintain a community of like-minded others.
Sharing and the Construction of Culture and Community
It is through the sharing of videos and photos — and thus through Instagram as one conduit of that — that a larger community of strength sport athletes and participants is created (for more on physical and cultural performance, check out Mariann Vaczi’s article in American Ethnologist). Who you follow, who you like, what you view, and what you post are all aspects of sharing the performance of strength sports. It is through the sharing of these performances captured on film, and the act of sharing these images that a wider community and cultural meaning is constructed and maintained. And vice versa, the communities that are created through social media give meaning to the images of deadlifts or the cultural performance of strength sports
This is why I was asked “Are You On Instagram?” And it’s why my answer is now, “Yes!”
Editors note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein are the authors and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.
Photos: Siem Photography