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Beyond The Muscles: Exploring the Meaning and Role of Muscularity in Identity

Cranswick, I (2019) Beyond The Muscles: Exploring the Meaning and Role of Muscularity in Identity. Doctoral thesis, Liverpool John Moores University.

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Muscularity is an ever-growing concern and desire for both men and women in modern society. When we think of muscular desires we are instantly drawn to images of large, lean, attractive physiques. A want for a muscular physique, however, is potentially more complex and may be interpreted and expressed differently by various individuals. To better understand this potential diversity, the purpose of this current thesis was to explore the personal meanings of muscularity in those invested in weight training. The research questions that helped address this aim were: What different muscular projects are the participants invested in? How do the participants frame their muscularity in the context of their lives and identities? How do the participants’ stories of muscular desire develop over time? Three qualitative studies were conducted to answer these questions; an autoethnography, a life-history study, and an ethnography. Across the studies, 22 participants (including myself) were interviewed and shared the narratives that framed their muscular desires. Additionally, I conducted 16 months of participant observations in two weight lifting gyms. Collecting rich qualitative data from myself and others in different weight training subcultures provided an insight into the personal experiences, the different muscular projects, and the identity-related meanings associated with muscularity. The first study presents an autoethnography that shares my relationship with muscularity and how a muscular physique became intertwined with a fluid sense of masculinity that permeated several social identities. A strong muscular physique was engrained in my developing masculine identity. This construction of masculinity was initially guided by my observations and interactions with my father and was further shaped by the social comparisons and experiences I faced in different social fields (e.g., sport and the gym). Building muscle became a resource and form of masculine capital that helped me construct my masculinity and address any related conflicts within multiple contexts, such as a rugby player, gym user, and a personal trainer. The autoethnography provides a personal insight into the development of my muscular desires and their role in constructing and resolving various masculinity-infused identities. The life-history study shares the stories of 10 male weight trainers. The men appeared to frame their muscular desires within a masculine performance narrative. Like my story, within these men’s masculine performances, muscularity was crucial source of masculine capital with which they could construct and act out desired masculine-infused identities (e.g., as men, rugby players, and weight trainers). Additionally, the life-history study presents the different muscular projects that these men invested in, which placed varying emphasis on muscular appearance and functionality. The life-history study also expands on the idea of identity conflicts presented in the autoethnography study and shares 3 realignment narratives that reflected attempts to overcoming threats to masculinity (e.g., injury) and reinstating an overall masculine performances. The life-history study proposes the different narratives men may construct to maintain, protect, and perform their muscular masculine identities The final ethnographical study demonstrates the sociocultural processes that shaped different subcultural muscular projects and facilitated the construction of distinctive training identities epitomised by varying emphases on muscular appearance and functionality. Additionally, the ethnography shared 3 socially dependent narrative themes (internalist, compensator, and promoter) that represented the meanings assigned to muscularity within the participants’ identity performance narratives. The different narrative themes applied to their performance narratives allowed the participants to make sense of their muscular desires in multiple social contexts and draw on muscularity as a form of identity capital. Making sense of their muscularity as a resource for internal strength, compensation, and self-promotion facilitated the construction, mastery, and coherent performance of their multiple identities both inside and outside the weight training environment. The current thesis contributes to the literature by suggesting that muscularity desires consist of different muscular projects, which have many, broader, identity-related meanings than existing research and conceptualisations may portray. The building of muscularity appears to be driven by more than superficial aesthetic reasons and not restricted to atavistic masculine identities, as is apparent in existing muscularity literature. Instead the current thesis findings propose that muscularity is a versatile source of identity capital with which individuals can construct, resolve, and perform multiple identities in various social contexts (e.g., occupational, parental, and gendered). It also apparent that the narratives that frame the participants’ muscular projects and desires are socially constructed over their life course by familial role models (e.g., the father) and the processes within their social fields (e.g., subcultural heroes). The various socially constructed identity narratives and meanings demonstrated in the current studies suggest that people’s relationship with muscularity cannot be generalised, which too often is the goal of existing contemporary muscle research. Instead we could benefit from embracing diversity and understanding the broad narratives that encapsulate the different meanings people assign to a muscular physique.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Uncontrolled Keywords: Muscularity; Identity; Masculinity; Narrative Inquiry; Weight Training
Subjects: R Medicine > RC Internal medicine > RC1200 Sports Medicine
Divisions: Sport & Exercise Sciences
Date Deposited: 10 Jul 2019 08:38
Last Modified: 21 Nov 2022 12:30
DOI or ID number: 10.24377/LJMU.t.00011015
Supervisors: Tod, D, Richardson, D and Littlewood, M
URI: https://researchonline.ljmu.ac.uk/id/eprint/11015
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