Image is bullshit. Well, until image inspires. Then, even though it's bullshit, it's becomes some really good bullshit.
I always despised the image-whoring douchebags of the world – those shallow, self-worshipping twits who aggressively put their image out there, as if we all were just desperately waiting to see it. You know the type: self-congtratulating, masturbatory, and ever-hungering for the next wave of attention. They falsify what is true and belittle what is wholesome all for the sake of getting more, more, more admiration.
They are, in a word, "wasters." And I hate waste. But those who waste come in all shapes and sizes; from the pop rock icon with only mediocre musical skills to the wide-smiling politician with little interest in community betterment.
And sometimes they show up bigger then life. Like, literally big; physically oversized and completely covered with muscles. And it is these particular douchebags – the bodybuilders, the strongmen, and the physique-flexing behemoths of body-image – who have so often been the very bane of my work. They give me a headache and I spend much of my life unravelling for others the twisted lies they weave. (That is my job as a coach, after all; helping an athlete sort out what is authentically useful and what just, you know, "looks cool.")
Why do these dudes piss me off so much? For good reason. They simultaneously inspire me. Not the lying, masturbatory, self-deluded parts; I ain't got no time for all that! But what is impressive is how they can conjure dreams and ideals which motivate people to take action. Their shape and their smile and their bravado all conspire like a magic spell, and suddenly men are motivated passionately to do something big.
In short: from a big image come big dreams. And from big dreams often come big actions. How can one not admire the ability to motivate on a grand scale? That is what the world needs more of: passionate pursuit of dreams beyond our smaller, day-to-day existences.
In the late 1980's and early 1990's, these images were creeping into my consciousness. Arrogant, swaggering, self-proclaimed uber-alphas were a "thing" then, so it was hard not to be aware of them. And while this sort of ultra-macho image-making has been promoted to every generation since the Industrial Revolution, each one is meanwhile also uniquely crafted. And mine were the shiny, tanned, flat-top-haircutted muscle beasts of the magazines and movies. Being big was not just impressive, it was fucking awesome.
But not really. I mean, it didn't take much to see how these dudes were mostly just falsehood and fluff; just show offs with big biceps. They were just an image; a conglomeration of pop culture ideals, neon colors, bouncing pectorals and high-top sneakers. The bodybuilders and strongmen didn't really seem to do anything. They just stood there, flexing and seeking attention.
No, wait – they weren't just seeking attention; they were demanding it! There was no way they would allow you to not notice them. They were flashy. They were loud. They dressed provocatively, exhibitionistically and garish. They were a lot of voice and smoke and light and space; all designed to get in your face and stay there.
Rude, right? Very. Yet also effective; so eerily, eerily effective. They weren't just standing around for something. They were standing in for something. Granted, their personal motivations were the stuff of unresolved adolescent foolishness, but their impact often had an ironic profundity. This was, in short, not just your average bullshit; it was the good bullshit.
The muscle image-makers agitated; sometimes for good, and sometimes for bad. Too often they spun a false idea: that a look is all it takes to make you successful; that image is the ultimate success. Yet in these efforts they (perhaps inadvertently) also exhibited what we desperately need more of in this pick-your-track-and-stay-on-it culture: they got us imagining. Their agitating showiness got us laughing, looking, and lamenting, but also got us dreaming. While history says they were merely the showpiece faces which inspired a billion dollar industry, I would argue that perhaps their ability to agitate was, unto itself, an example we were all in need of witnessing.
The ability to get people chatting and thinking and arguing and working is no small thing. These days we usually think of this ability in a gauzy, entitled air; a quality for the Steve Jobs and Fox Newses of the world, handed down through a carefully crafted media dispenser via TED Talks and internet memes. But the men of muscle were doing it in a most improbably way: by flexing their muscles and insisting that we watch every rippling moment – and then sing their praises! It was a strange vehicle for a canny talent. And it worked.
Their clandestine efforts were groomed by the savvy (and occasionally sinister) Weider, one of America's greediest corporate bastards yet best mythology-creators ever. (The man could had giving P.T. Barnum a run for his money on the talent of bamboozling crowds.) And while they did not inspire a generation of a million bodybuilders, they did inspire a lot of people to think bigger about what they wanted. Their literal, actual shape spoke volumes on the topic of thinking big; specifically, that we have capacities beyond what we may have at first expected of ourselves. And their obnoxious, overbearing arrogance told us that, in the end, it's okay to be flawed, and in fact it can be pretty damn fun.
That was how I encountered Mike Matarazzo. A beast, grinning, beast of a first-generatyion Italian who seemed to not really own too many shirts, let alone sleeves. He was never a Mr. Olympia – the only bodybuilding title 99% of America may have ever heard of. he was arguably not even one of the greats. But when it came to sheer obnoxious style, boy, did he have it. It was clear that while he wanted us to take him seriously, he sure as hell wasn't going to join us in that effort.
Constantly flexing, the guy had a style that hit new heights of fashion-criminality, yet with bliss and mdiea savvy. Day glow colors, skin tight shorty-shorts, sleeves cut off and coiffed with a geometrically prefect spiked flat-top, Matarazzo was the ultimate 80's cliché. But what made him so memorable was how he seemed to be having so much fun at his viewer's expense. His image would set a low bar for acknowledging what is socially risqué, and then hop right under it with what seemed like utter delight. he had the air of someone who won't let you look away, but also knew you were probably blushing and frazzled with his antics. He was a mountain of bullshit; damn fun, eye-popping, really-really-good bullshit.
Matarazzo was garish to look at. Matarazzo was obnoxious to look at. Matarazzo was frustrating to look at. But he was impossible not to look at. And it was, quite accidentally, a small, pop-art stroke of genius. For Matarazzo inspired and angered at the same rate as any iconic artwork. He took all the memes and morays of muscle-building, shook them up, and shot them into your eyes like a cannon. The result was reaction. The result was provocation. The result was that, yes, sometimes the image is more powerful than the thing which created it.
For over 20 years I have puzzled and mused over how the line between image and authenticity constantly shifts beneath us. And Matarazzo stands at my ground zero. He was not an admirable man. He died recently, and it seems a locked and shut case that the cause was years and years of prolonged use of performance pharmaceuticals (i.e., steroids and their like). He had a bumbling career, an abbreviated competitive run and often came across as a bitter and cranky man in his interviews. He was no gem – no one I would suggest to my athletes to admire. Yet there is something remarkable about crating an image that become iconic and inspires action. It may not have been in his personal designs, but it is definitely in his personal wake.
Authenticity is not found on the label of the box, but rather is found inside the container. Which is why we so often consider image to be essentially bullshit. Yet what if the label on the box read: "Open only after you find what's inside this box." Suddenly, that label would be far more important than the box itself. Indeed, the box can be dead empty, but it's label – it's powerful, compelling, instructive label – becomes far more authentic and meaningful in spite of the fact that it's only, you know, an image.
That is what Mike Matarazzo represents: a box that is no more special than any other's, but a label that inspires us to fill up our own. He may have been full of warmth and light, or hollow and empty inside, but that isn's the point; those are the questions for his close loved ones to fathom. For us, the point is merely that he left a legacy of labels; very, very authentic labels.
Image is bullshit. And even if an image can inspire us to action, it is no less bullshit. It's just really, really good bullshit.
Pro Bodybuilder Mike Matarazzo (November 8, 1965 – August 17, 2014) died this past week at age 48, only six years older than me. (That's young.) He was an iconic character for me, representing an important concept in my coaching of athletes: the idea of image versus authenticity. Hopefully this will be useful even if you never heard of this man before.