Who Watches the Swole Men?

On who gets to be an unhealthy hero and who doesn't.

Earlier this month, actor Chris Hemsworth posted a photo of himself on set for the upcoming installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Thor: Love and Thunder on Instagram. In the picture, he’s in costume (although not the traditional Thor-wear by any means) and exhibiting absolutely the largest arm the man has ever sported – and this is a guy who’s shown off some of the largest onscreen arms of any leading man or action hero in cinematic history. It was impressive by any standard – even the standard that pretends to ignore any signs of possible chemical augmentation or disordered eating.

We are not by any stretch of the imagination bodybuilders; never have been, never will be. But we are typical of urban gay men of our generation in that we have spent decades working out, largely fueled by the beauty standards gay men have a history of imposing on each other. We’ve also spent the last 15 years writing about the world of fashion, which has a long history of foisting highly damaging and restrictive beauty standards on women in ways that have permeated our culture to the extent that it’s nearly impossible to escape. Normally, we’d be the last two guys to get on a soapbox to talk about impossible physical expectations for men, given how unequal the intensity of those standards are in relation to the ones imposed on women.

Still, as much as we love looking at a hot man with an impressive form, Hemsworth’s picture had a vaguely unsettling tone. He’s always been big onscreen, but not that big. Initially, the reaction to the picture was overwhelmingly positive, with the usual highly sexualized social media posts that greet hot celebrities reminding us that they’re hot. After all, he’s tall, blond, blue-eyed, broad-shouldered and deep-voiced and he’s been blessed with the charm gene. In many ways, he outranks all the other Chrisses for checking off every box on the masculine ideal chart. Pine is our fave, Evans is probably the most popular and Pratt is the worst, but Hemsworth is an absolute cartoon of a manly man and a huge part of his appeal comes from his seeming awareness of the ludicrousness of his form. He’s one of the few bodybuilding action stars who’s equally adept at comedy. We completely get why he makes fandoms swoon. Compare him to the often wooden Henry Cavill, who tends to sport largely the same swollen form, and you can see why Chris Hemsworth is on his 4th Thor film and Cavill only made one Superman film.

Even so, it was hard to read all the rapturously drooling responses to Hemsworth’s mega-swoleness without thinking of the backlash and ridicule Kumail Nanjiani received just a few months before as his own body transformation became more and more obvious; a backlash that drove him off social media without a word, which indicated to us that the ridicule really hurt him. Nanjiani is starring in the upcoming Marvel film Eternals and like so many actors before him, he underwent a rigorous diet and training program to go from nerdy comic actor to bulging, square-jawed superhero. Prior to the backlash, he was what would be called an Extremely Online celebrity; one with a very active and popular social media presence. Unlike Hemsworth, Nanjiani’s entire body transformation happened in front of the public as he documented it, and his journey toward swoleness was more stark, going as he did from doughy nerd actor to vein-rippled statuary. That probably has something to do with why people reacted so negatively to it. Hemsworth was buff from the moment he hit the public eye and literally every role he’s taken has played on the fact that he’s physically impressive. He may have gotten much bigger in the past few years, but the fact remains that, unlike Nanjiani, he started out that way. This is why, for instance, we don’t think the similarly massive (and not white) Dwayne Johnson has never truly been on the receiving end of backlash, even though he looks like he’s put on forty pounds of muscle since his wrestling days. He not only started out big, he started out as a celebrity that the public expected to be big by virtue of his wrestling career.

On the other hand, you can note the extreme physical transformation made by Hugh Jackman from the first X-Men film to the last one he appeared in. It didn’t happen as quickly as Nanjiani’s did (spread out as it was over a decade-plus instead of a year), but there’s no denying the Jackman of 2000’s X-Men was positively puny compared to the Jackman of 2014’s X-Men: Days of Future Past and the only thing his massively expanded form was greeted with was awe and praise, even as people noted how different he looked. Similarly, Chris Pratt went from chubby comic actor to ripped-abs action hero (in largely the same shortened time frame that Nanjiani did) and again, the nearly across-the-board response from the press and the public was to praise his efforts. It was only when the South Asian man tried to sit at the swollen action hero table that the idea of all that muscularity became ridiculous and unhealthy.

Let’s be clear here: the kind of enhanced muscularity and non-existent body fat exhibited by Cavill, Hemsworth, Nanjiani and Jackman is not achieved in the short term through means that most doctors, trainers and nutritionists would consider healthy, even if they’re not getting chemical or hormonal help to achieve it. But it’s hard not to see how much we accept it, praise it, and overlook the unlikeliness of it being natural or healthy when a white male movie star makes an extreme body transformation. Cavill has talked about dehydrating himself for days before being shot shirtless (a typical tactic of most fitness models and bodybuilders before competitions or photo shoots). Literally every one of the men we’ve mentioned in this piece (with the exception of Chris Pine) achieved their almost singular forms through methods that were deeply unhealthy. There’s also very good reason to assume that most of them received some form of chemical enhancement and that all of them went through periods of disordered eating. Our point here is not to claim that Kumail Nanjiani’s transformation wasn’t shocking or unhealthy, but to note that the reactions that pointed this out never seem to greet the mostly white actors who went through the same process. One of the things he talked about frequently as he documented his bodybuilding progress was how excited and deeply proud he was as a Pakistani man taking on this kind of role and image, when there have been virtually no cinematic images of superhero-muscular Asian actors. He knew the image of his bulging and rippling arms onscreen could potentially be as powerful to young South Asian boys as Chadwick Boseman’s regal heroism was to young Black boys and we think it’s obvious that the glee and diligence with which he greeted his new task was fueled by that understanding.

But now he’s gone from social media and has remained largely silent for months; one of the most charmingly nerdy and relatably approachable actors has fled the social media landscape, the same way it drove off Kelly Marie Tran for having the nerve to be an Asian woman in a Star Wars film. Unrealistic body images remain as problematic and potentially harmful as they always have, and we suspect a decade-plus of Marvel movies have done some not-insignificant damage to a lot of young male minds. There needs to be a real discussion regarding the obviously unhealthy behavior that results in these forms, but if we’re going to rapturously applause when white guys do it and turn vicious when a person of color tries to, we need to have a potentially more serious talk about how race drives this issue. If exaggerated forms of heroism and masculinity are only considered acceptable in white men, that’s a serious issue that affects how young boys who aren’t white see themselves and their place in the world. Unhealthy body images can’t be considered a problem only when a brown man exhibits one.

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[Picture Credit: Simone Pellegrini, Tom & Lorenzo]