On my recent trip to L.A., I headed to Muscle Beach to check out the birthplace of American weightlifting culture. I’d like to say the outing was purely voyeuristic, but in truth I looked forward to it with the zealot’s anticipation of a pilgrimage.
Now I’m not all that big, or even particularly strong, but I have the meathead’s love for discussing workouts. I joke often enough about wanting to be as big and fake tanned as the women on the covers of muscle & fitness magazines that my boyfriend has me listed in his cell phone as “Big Orange.” And while I love a run outside as much as the next sporty gal, I can frequently be found inside on a perfectly nice day doing what I like to call “getting huge.”
For my first trip to Muscle Beach, I parked at the Santa Monica Pier and ran down the pedestrian walk on the beach, past the parallel bars, the climbing ropes and gymnastics rings, until I came to the unmitigated freak show that is Venice Beach. And there, amid the medical marijuana shops, the street performers, basketball courts, and sidewalk vendors selling incense, I came upon the official Muscle Beach.
A 300 hundred square foot space encircled by a waist high fence, Muscle Beach is made up of ancient free weights and machines rusting in the salt air.
Upon my arrival, the clientele consisted of a 50-something white man in blue jeans doing calf raises, a big African-American guy doing a strange brand of backward kicks, a shirtless dude with a bleach blonde ponytail on the bench press, and a young bodybuilding champion from Egypt flexing before the mirror.
More on Muscle Beach at the jump…
We nodded at each other, my meathead brethren and I. All of us sensing, I believe, that despite our differences, we were each other’s people. But we didn’t need to chat much, enjoying instead the feel of the sun and the sight of the water as we expended energy for the sake of expending energy. (We weren’t, after all, moving furniture or bringing in the harvest).
By the time I was through with my workout, I’d perhaps come a little closer to achieving hugeness, and had made some new friends. In fact, natural bodybuilding champion Bishoy Hanna was more than happy to pose for me, even though he chased gawkers with video cameras away. A sure sign I was in with the regulars.
Muscle Beach was such a little slice of heaven that I returned the next day with my friend Diego for some more sweat n’ sunshine. “There aren’t any other women here,” I noted.
“Bunch of rusty old weights covered in herpes?” Diego replied. “Not much to offer most women.”
But a little research into the history of Muscle Beach (by way of the Men’s Fitness magazine article Muscle Paradise) revealed it was a woman who kicked off the bodybuilding craze in the area during the Great Depression, providing a free leisure activity for the public at a time when few had spare income to spend on entertainment.
Kate Giroux, a local physical-education teacher, convinced the city of Santa Monica in the mid-1930s to supply the public with a tumbling mat…and some gymnastics equipment, such as a pommel horse and rings. The gear was set up on 200 square yards of sand just south of Santa Monica pier.
And plenty of women (such as Pudgy Stockton, one of the early celebs of the beach) participated in the ensuing Santa Monica fitness craze. The trend involved a type of acrobatics dubbed “beachobatics” in which men and women formed unlikely human pyramids while on-lookers watched with trepidation and glee.
And of course during the peak of the narcissistic bodybuilding boom in Southern California in the 60s and 70s, there were surely a few big, clementine-colored women strutting their stuff on the beach, along with the big boys like Arnold and Franco.
Which brings me to consider why it is I like weightlifting and what’s behind my jokes about getting big and orange.
Part of the effort I put into putting on muscle is in defiance of the constant media bombardment telling me that as a women, I should always be trying to lose weight, to shrink myself away.
But there’s also my tomboy desire to be strong and physically capable, able to run fast and far, do a few pushups, and yes, haul furniture when a friend needs help with a move.
Most importantly, for me there’s a calming aspect to the activity. Lifting weights involves counting while focusing on my breathing. It’s a moving meditation. And for someone who has a hard time being quiet and sitting still, it’s vastly better than no meditation at all.
I don’t like protein shakes; I’m pale as pancake batter; I’ve rarely met a carbohydrate I didn’t like. And if I actually hung out much with real bodybuilders, the workout talk and focus on the aesthetic of the veiny, ripped physical form would certainly leave me bored and more than a little weirded out. But still, the gym remains a place where I feel confident and have a good time.
One things for certain–during my next visit to the city of angels, I’m making a beeline to my new gym away from home, the one and only Muscle Beach.