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The Pop Culture of Protein

Categories: BodybuildingCulture

Protein is part of a new era of popular culture. Imagine, walking around gold’s gym in Venice, California back in the early 1960’s and casually striking up a conversation with the Austrian Oak himself, Arnold Schwarzenegger. The two of you start to talk about weight lifting and his bodybuilding career. He’s a seven time Mr. Olympian (an international bodybuilding competition which allows the Mr. Universe winners to compete against each other). Arnold knows what he’s talking about when someone asks him a question about muscle building.

People envied the way he constructed his body and wanted to learn all his secrets. Protein was a major contributor to his success and in some way popularized the importance of it. Thus began our culture’s relationship with protein. People always want to be better, faster, stronger, and leaner. Today’s culture exemplifies the fit, in-shape look as what is acceptable and attractive. Magazines like Men’s Health and Cosmopolitan show only the most attractive people of an era.

The correlation between popular culture and protein can be presented in Jack Nachbar and Kevin Lause’s model of the “House of Popular Culture. The author’s state that, “the artifacts and events composing popular culture include everything from clothes and cars to weddings, movie stars, and bestselling get-rich-quick books” (Nachbar and Lause 21). The house is composed of several different floors each one interconnected to the other with the most significant and deep seated aspects of a culture, on the bottom. The basement of the house is split into two parts; the foundation and the zeitgeist of an icon.

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From there, two rooms are split equally above it; one signifies imaginary or created icons and heroes, and the other room is real icons and heroes.

Celebrities and stereotypes are connecting those two rooms as if they were the door ways. The next floor is split into three parts; the two major ones are arts and rituals. In between the two is a formula that puts into perception how that icon is created. Lastly, the attic is composed of daily life; the impact that the icon has made on individuals in that era. Protein supplementation is the icon that will be applied to Nachbar and Lause’s model. Each level, will build upon the next and the relationship with every floor will be interconnected.

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The Foundation is composed, “in the cultural mind and in the minds of individual members of mass society” (23). These are known as bedrock beliefs, “the most stable, longstanding and significant characteristics of broad components of the total population” (23). A few bedrock beliefs related to protein are the ‘American Dream,’ the ‘myth of the frontier,’ and individualism. As the Gunfighter Nation by Richard Slotkin would say, “The Frontier was for them [Kennedy’s Campaign] a complexly resonant symbol, a vivid memorable set of hero-tales- each a model of successful and morally justifying action on the stage of historical conflict” (3).

Protein is similar frontier Slotkin describes. In the athletic world, protein gives athletes the edge they need to compete and become stronger. It provides more freedom and opportunity for success. With more freedom comes the concept of the American Dream. What is exactly is the American Dream? It is ideals of materialism, democracy, individualism, manifest destiny, opportunity, superiority, power capitalism, utilitarianism and many more aspects. Individuals who are underweight or undersized perceive protein as a way of reaching the American Dream. It can give them power.

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The other half of the basement, the zeitgeist, explains how power can be a strong, yet dangerous term. A contemporary zeitgeist is defined as the “‘spirit of an era’- the major beliefs and values which describe the particular outlook of a culture during a specific period of time” (Nachbar and Lause 4). Today’s contemporary zeitgeist consists of elements such as entitlement, independence, and personal responsibility. The “Narcissism Epidemic” by Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell, exemplifies how materialistic and individualistic our society has become.

Our self-absorbed tendencies lead us to believe that we are entitled to certain things. People who feel entitlement to deserving the best will lead to materialism. For example, instead of having a normal body people would rather have a toned and fit body as personified in advertisements everywhere. Possessing a feeling of entitlement to having the fit body will result in the reaction to buy protein supplementation and to begin working out (or in extreme cases plastic surgery). In a sense, this physically and mentally creates power.

The power dynamic that Berger explains in his essay “Ways of Seeing,” shows that society has a selective perception. We see what we want to see. People choose not to look at reality but to look at computer generated images to try and compare themselves to that. To reach this standard many different weight loss and lifting programs became popular and the protein industry began to rise. There are two types of popular artifacts: “popular objects termed icons and popular people labeled celebrities or heroes” (Nachbar and Lause 24). An example of a real icon of protein is weight lifting.

When an average person hits the weights, it’s all about their own personal goals. It expresses individualism and freedom. The individual chooses how he will work out and how he will accomplish his goals for that day. Arnold Schwarzenegger once said that the pump he personally feels in the gym is like having sex with a woman. It’s all about the individuals feeling and personal goals. Arnold is one of the biggest symbolic heroes of the protein model. He advocates that an average everyday person must consume about half a gram of protein per body weight. However, athletes need to consume about a gram of protein per body weight.

He had this knowledge before it was even researched thoroughly by scientists. Arnold symbolized the highest form of the benefits of protein. His individualistic sport of bodybuilding proved seven times that anyone can be what they wanted to be. The image of him posing in front of thousands of people presented him as the strongest man in the world and inspired people of all ages to begin sculpting their bodies. Other everyday heroes are firefighters, policemen, and army personnel. These everyday real people are the stereotypical aspect of the muscle building world.

They’re known as the hard workers, willing to put their lives on the line for justice and American freedom; to uphold the law at all costs and prevent the country from going into turmoil. The image of justice and freedom is what America wants us to see. Unfortunately, there are numerous instances where the reality is that those men and women aren’t always the best and have been subject to much scrutiny due to mistreatment and corruption with their power. Some people can and can’t handle the responsibilities that come with power. Formulas, rituals, and arts are contained in the next floor.

Rituals are highly symbolic and help integrate the lower floors by expressing protein as an icon. A shaker cup with a brand name on it expresses that they just drank a protein shake. Bodybuilders carry around gym bags full of supplements and protein. The formula of consuming protein, which means the timing, in this case, is of utmost importance. There is a thirty minute window that protein consumption must be made in order to keep an individual’s muscles anabolic (muscle building) and kick start the recovery phase. If this is not done then catabolism occurs (muscle breakdown) and the next day delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) will occur.

Athletes and weightlifters alike need to be able to lift and be active every day and night to be the best and having a better recovery will give them the edge they need. Another example is the fad diet industry. It seems like every week a new diet has come out that helps you lose twenty pounds in two weeks. The media gets celebrities to endorse the diet and popularity soars. The more narcissistic people see the fake, computer-generated people, in advertisements, saying they have lost weight on the new diet, begin to believe that they are entitled to that also.

However, being a materialistic society, the diet cannot be one where the dieter cuts out all the foods that they like. The food must all be good and have dessert in order for people to actually consider the diet. It is also like the celebrity workouts and improving workouts. People are always looking for shortcuts to bigger stronger muscles but what they don’t understand is that there is no shortcut. It is all about hard work and persistence. There are no cutting corners. To be the best an individual must have the best work ethic and the most motivation.

The workouts that come out are just to keep the supplement industry of protein popular and keep people interested. Do you think that Arnold had access to all the information and different workout routines that are plaguing the web these days? No. He’s personally stated that once he found a routine that worked for his body he stuck to it with only little tweaks to confuse his muscles. During everyday life I’m exposed to fake advertising, yet through selective perception I’ve chosen to do what I know through my personal experience with protein and am able to avoid the false truths surrounding the icon.

My personal interaction with protein and the supplement industry made a major impact on my life. I see something about losing weight or building muscle every day through advertisements in magazines and television. I walk into the gym at school and people around me tell me that I’m looking small and they are bigger then I am. This encourages me to be even better and in order to be better; I must have the best quality of protein and the most knowledge of supplementation and working out. It is all very stupid but that is our culture, we don’t let people tell us what we are and we aren’t; that is how I’ve grown up.

So deep is the American Dream embedded into our lives that it might as well be in our DNA. I’m driven to be the best and to be goal oriented and I don’t care about anyone else’s judgmental attitude. That type of approach is definitely part of the ‘American Dream’ society strives for. I have been fortunate enough to enlist and win a bodybuilding competition in which I got a sneak peak on the persona of bodybuilders. I saw people so consumed with their own physique that they shut everything else around them out.

I couldn’t even speak to half of them because they thought they were better than everyone else. Having immense muscles give you physical and mental power yet, with power, comes an attitude and a different outlook of the world. People begin to think they are entitled to more because of the way they look. Society’s materialistic perspective shows brightly through the supplement industry. It’s just like plastic surgery except protein gives you the opportunity to sculpt one’s realistically; whereas, plastic surgery places it synthetically upon the body.

Moreover, in today’s individualistic, ‘dream’ oriented culture; people want to be better than everyone else. Competition is the baby of our narcissistic tendencies. When athletes begin taking supplements to improve their performance, they begin to realize that it is not enough to be at the top. A good amount of elite athletes have or are currently using performance enhancing steroids to be the best. Just working in the supplement business, I can see that using steroids is not a far jump from consuming protein.

Some people actually came in my store asking for steroids. It just opened up my eyes to how self-centered our society has become. Protein has taken the American Dream and promises athletes and regular people of all ages an outlet to power. Taking protein will build more muscle and will make you a better athlete or person by instilling confidence and power; and with that little boost of power, there is always more responsibility and more feelings of entitlement. What an individual does with the new found acquisition will determine his place in society.

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The Pop Culture of Protein. (2020, Jun 02). Retrieved from

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