Conserve your spine or lose it all.
I Don’t Even Lift, Bro
Obsessive bodybuilding is a funhouse mirror image of obese trans Gatorade yoginis.
Last month, Unherd published an excellent essay that exposed our society’s growing disdain for human beauty. It’s getting to the point where this trend is impossible to ignore. Gatorade commercials and glamor magazines present us with morbidly obese people who they hold up as paragons of “health” and “beauty.” More pandering comes from outlets like Calvin Klein and Abercrombie and Fitch—entities which in the recent past were routinely slammed for depicting “overly thin” models and promoting an “unattainable” standard of beauty. Their spots now often feature chubby transpeople, the bodies of whom are deliberately ambiguous in terms of sex—body hair in unexpected places, unkempt appearances, shabby clothing. These images are supposed to be transgressive, and in fact, they do represent a kind of defiance—an adamant refusal to make oneself presentable for anything more elevated than a trip to Wal-Mart.
There is an instinctive repulsion to these anti-beauty trends on the political Right. I count myself among those who feel a wave of disgust at these advertisements, which somehow also signal a hatred for tradition, moderation, and human striving. Still, in what follows I wish to address a trend that some conservatives have embraced in response to the anti-beauty campaign. Specifically, I want to address the rise of the Right-Wing Body Builder (RWBB) imperative, a phenomenon that extends from certain reactionary impulses on the Right.
There is nothing inherently wrong with reactionary politics, but some forms of reaction perpetuate the very values they mean to reject. The RWBB ideal at its extreme is an example of one such case, and because it seems that many on the Right are unaware of how this ideal is a dim reflection of the bloated people in the Left’s information campaigns, this critique requires some elaboration. I don’t intend a critique of the individual body builder. Rather, I criticize the apparent normalization of that body type on the Right—the idea that if you do not embody this ideal, you should at least be pursuing it. A familiar ironical phrase from social media—“Do you even lift, bro?”—hints at how many within our movement now see a muscular physique as obligatory.
To preemptively fend off some of the mockery that will come from anonymous beefcakes who read this essay, let me anticipate some of their taunts. For starters, I must acknowledge that I am a bald, 44-year-old English professor. I am 6’1” and about 205 pounds. When the gym teachers made us run in high school, I would slip into the dugout after about a quarter mile to smoke. Today, I am probably about 15 pounds overweight, but the casual observer would likely describe me as thin or of “medium build.” Most of my extra weight is from alcohol. I like to drink. Not only that, I love Diet Coke. I don’t snack, and I eat three meals a day—but when mealtime comes, I generally eat what I want without much worry about calories or seed oils. I never fast. I run between three and four miles each weekday. I don’t do “dead lifts.” I don’t bench press. I skip leg day as a matter of routine. I don’t go to the gym. In short, I am a moderately-active, moderately-attractive, middle-aged dude, with few fitness goals other than to not get fat, or fatter, anyway.
All of that said, I have no good reason why people shouldn’t go to the gym and have a rigorous fitness schedule, if they want one. Indeed, many Americans badly need to begin a serious regimen of exercise. My point isn’t that we shouldn’t strive to be healthy—we should. My point is that the particular, bulked up ideal of fitness on the Right isn’t an accurate representation of health—instead, it’s a mirror-image of the excess observed in the “this-is-healthy” celebrations of obesity. The jacked, muscle-bound, tanned bodies that so many anons celebrate aren’t natural. By saying they aren’t natural, I don’t mean that this ideal is unattainable. It is attainable—but that doesn’t mean it should be a matter of obligation. Is such a physique to be preferred over 50 extra pounds of cellulite? Obviously. But that’s a false choice. My critique of the RWBB imperative (and the body that it aims to achieve) proceeds on three grounds: utilitarian, aesthetic, and political.
Of What Use?
The virtue of any activity is partly determined by the ends it serves. Physical fitness is important, because certain activities and obligations cannot be executed without maintaining a basic level of fitness. Many people can stay fit simply by adhering to a healthy diet and meeting the physical demands of their daily routine—exertion at work, climbing stairs, carrying groceries or children, etc. For others, some additional exercise may be required to stay fit: perhaps a few visits to the gym each week or regular jogging.
But the RWBB ideal is not synonymous with “fitness.” Instead, it wrongly confuses muscular definition with fitness. It’s true that one can have the body of a RWBB and be healthy and fit, but in order to be healthy and fit one need not have that body. Achieving that form requires a major time commitment; a near-monomaniacal appetite for exercise that elevates the gym to a second residence. Hobbies are good things to have. Dedication and resolve are moral virtues. But we must also examine what we dedicate ourselves to: in cases where a particular commitment requires major sacrifices of time or money, we should consider whether those resources might be used in more productive or prudent ways.
It is extraordinarily rare that I encounter a necessary physical task that I am unable to achieve. In other words, I don’t really have a use for more muscle. If I could bench press 350 pounds, it’s not clear to me how my everyday life (or the lives of those around me) would be meaningfully improved. Obviously, there are extreme situations in which great strength could be of use—if, say, a person was trapped under a car or if I had to participate in a gladiatorial contest. But those situations almost never happen in the modern world.
It should be noted, though, that it is precisely this softness of modern life—a life with few serious physical demands and many material comforts—that drives some men to strive for the RWBB ideal. Their attainment of great physical strength (which would be of use in a much different world than ours) is a sign of their defiance and rejection of the values of 21st century liberal society. I sympathize with this rejection. But the form it takes (big muscles) is largely a virtue-signal—token defiance which ultimately serves only the self, since others reap no benefit from someone else’s great strength. And because the pursuit of the RWBB ideal demands such a great sacrifice of time, I wonder whether it might be used in ways that offer more benefit to others.
The Ideology of the Aesthetic
When the media features obese bodies and presents them as “real beauty” or as models of “health,” they are obviously lying. They are trying to redefine traditional standards of beauty and health in our society. The Left’s old criticism that these standards were “unattainable” was disingenuous, but it wasn’t wholly wrong. Some people have ugly faces. Some are exceedingly short. Some are freakishly tall. Some have scoliosis. I was mostly bald by the time I was 30. In other words, there are those who will never be beautiful or healthy—no matter how hard they try. The Left’s error is their assumption that if a standard is unattainable for some, then it is somehow an “unjust” standard. That’s false by definition: any “ideal” will not be achieved by most people. To deny this is a pitiful attack on the very existence of an ideal.
Given the Left’s “moral” commitments these days, it makes sense that beauty and health are deemed “problematic”—they are inherently anti-democratic, anti-egalitarian, exclusionary, and, thus, “marginalizing.” To correct these grievous injustices, the Left tries to reprogram our preferences when it comes to the human body. They pursue this goal by redefining what is “normal.” The staggering number of Americans who are now overweight or obese helps the activists make their case—they claim that fatness is the “norm.” But norms shouldn’t be determined by sheer numbers. Rather, the true norm is decided by nature—it is the natural healthy state of the human body. Rather than concede that the obesity epidemic represents an unhealthy departure from the natural norm, the Left pretends that the prevalence of obesity is evidence that it is natural. By naturalizing a body type that can only be attained through forms of excess or hormonal and glandular dysfunctions, they normalize excess and dysfunction writ large.
Curiously, though, the RWBB ideal partakes of the same sleight of hand. Because that ideal is the opposite of the false norm of sedentary, porcine indulgence, it is necessarily a kind of excess in its own right. In his laudatory description of the premodern values and bodily ideals, even Nietzsche admits that they were “based on a careful cult of the physical, on a flowering, rich, and even effervescing healthiness, that [went] considerably beyond what is necessary for maintaining life.” Thus, the fizeek of the bronze age warrior can really only be attained through excessive exercise. And further, the modern imagining of that vision is largely anachronistic: Socrates fought in the Peloponnesian War, and no historical accounts suggest that his build was especially muscular. This was probably true of most premodern warriors. In fact, the ideal body that we moderns attribute to heroes of old is largely a body that is only attainable as a result of modern machinery, modern dietary knowledge, and modern scientific refinements to training routines.
Educated gym bros might claim that pursuing the RWBB ideal is simply a form of what Aristotle calls entelechy: the process by which something comes closer to realizing its greatest inherent potential. Though there are many exceptions, the role that steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs play in bodybuilding culture reflects modernity’s disdain for the limits imposed by nature. If RWBB types are simply “becoming what they were always meant to be,” there shouldn’t be any need for pharmaceutical interventions.
And even a natty routine violates teleological principles if it requires so much time and obsession that it distracts from other important areas of life: eudaimōnia is the good of the whole human, his moral and relational as well as his physical excellence. Acknowledging the latter is obviously good; elevating it to the exclusion of all other modes of flourishing is just another disorder. Manly fortitude (andreia) is good. But moderation (sōphrosunē) is also a cardinal virtue.
In other words, the muscular behemoth can be viewed as every bit as unnatural as the typical obese American. One extreme is attained through excessive inactivity, the other through excessive activity. But both are achieved through forms of self-indulgence. And ultimately, it is the departure from the natural human form in favor of excess that makes both types less beautiful than the true ideal.
The Body Politic(s)
The final danger of normalizing the RWBB ideal relates to the political values it implies. Ultimately, the pursuit of a muscle-bound physique partakes of the same values that animate liberal secular modernity. The RWBB trend seems more a reflection of those political commitments than a rejection of them.
No society in history has been without an object of worship. The past three centuries of Western life have seen a movement away from the Christian traditions of our cultural inheritance—but this doesn’t mean we don’t have a religion. Modern liberalism is its own faith. Its object of veneration is the self. Virtually every cultural trend of 21st century America can be understood as deification and worship of the self-creating individual. American Idol. Boutique pronouns. Full-term abortions on demand. Our hymn is “you do you”—an imperative that calls for the individual to both create the self and worship it as the product of one’s own divine, sovereign will. The modern ideal (perhaps “idol” is more accurate) is the self-sufficient, independent, autonomous individual—the one who is fully equipped to transform him/her/zirself into the person of their own fantasies. Ultimately, RWBB culture is just another manifestation of the “self-care” and “wellness” that egotists and left-wing sentimentalists valorize—it is one more example of the “therapeutic” appetites that define secular modernity.
My point here is not that every muscular, right-wing guy who goes to the gym is buying into the premises of liberal modernity. Instead, I’m saying that the prescriptive attitude that suggests the RWBB ideal should be the norm (or at least pursued by everyone) has a very modern feel—especially for a trend that often purports to reject the values of our secular age. In short, it’s worth entertaining the possibility that the normalization of the RWBB ideal, as a form of reactive politics, merely reproduces the very aspects of the zeitgeist that it aims to oppose. I am not calling for people to be less fit or less healthy. Fitness and health are good values that no one should neglect. But as the RWBB ideal approaches the status of an imperative, the trend is ripe for demystification—if only to remind us that “health” and “fitness” can also entail idolatrous forms of self-worship that affirm rather than challenge the false gods of our time.
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