Martyn Ewoma

How ‘gym bro’ culture is harming young men


The pressure to get jacked is sparking a male mental health crisis and driving men into the arms of the far-right

4th May 2023 Text Martyn Ewoma

In recent years, we’ve undoubtedly made great strides in broadening the scope of modern masculinity. From rappers like Central Cee showing their softer side in fluffy Jacquemus campaigns to Lil Nas X putting unapologetic Black male queerness at the centre of his performances, we’ve moved on from terms like “metrosexual” being attributed to straight men willing to exfoliate and iron their clothes. 

For better or for worse, the more ‘traditional’ ways of performing masculinity are less accessible as we languish in late capitalism. The “protector, procreator, provider” roles that patriarchy indoctrinates boys with from birth are in jeopardy; austerity and a cost-of-living crisis have rendered ‘the breadwinner and homemaker’ dynamic impossible for most heterosexual couples, which consequently makes having kids less attractive for those invested in a traditional idea of family.

This leaves the “protector” role (which can be loosely embodied by being hench) as the easiest way to still adhere to internalised patriarchal standards. This is where “gym bro” culture and conservative ideals partner up. The link between wanting bulging biceps and conservative beliefs may seem tenuous at face value, but when that desire is rooted in a yearning to be an “alpha”, gym culture can belie regressive outlooks.

The relationship between pursuing physical superiority and conservative ideology in the West is centuries-old. We’re all aware of Darwinian ‘survival of the fittest’ sentiments, but what’s less obvious is that these ideas underpin how right-wing ideology positions disregarding the marginalised as ‘natural’. The line between striving for physical superiority and eugenics is very thin; it’s no coincidence that physical training was a key feature of the Hitler Youth programme, which ultimately aimed to create a racially pure Aryan society. But this ideology even predates the 1930s and 40s: in 19th-century Britain, the ‘Muscular Christianity’ philosophy took hold, characterised by self-discipline, self-sacrifice, patriarchal duty, nationalism and religious piousness, plus a conflation of aesthetic beauty with improved morality. Inversely, this facilitated the prevailing negative stereotypes of overweight people being lazy, unclean, or sinful. After centuries of media enforcing these messages, it makes sense that young boys and men would equate weakness to worthlessness.

You might think that these historical movements have nothing to do with sixth-formers hitting PureGym, but the links between fitness and conservatism are as strong as ever. Research from Brunel University found that physically stronger men tend to believe that some social groups should dominate others. This is perhaps unsurprising when you consider the bodies that are celebrated in fitness spaces are the ones equipped to overpower and dominate weaker ones. Modern Britain is characterised by a powerful minority thriving at the expense of the weak: when the Prime Minister is upgrading an electricity grid to heat his private pool and simultaneously denying nurses a pay rise, it’s understandable that young boys would see the world through a predator-v-prey binary. And who wants to be prey? It’s not that young men “want” to be alphas, it’s that they don’t want to be betas. It’s not that boys “aspire” to being Chads so much as that they fear being cucks.

Unfortunately, there are legions of vultures ready to prey on these anxieties. The 21st century has brought new mediums for these ideas to be shared: 4chan is an online forum that was founded in 2003, originally for the purpose of sharing anime pornography. It has since evolved to be an online meeting space for social outcasts, where transgressive social views could be shared without proper scrutiny. This attitude soon spread across the internet, notably to Twitter. This was where Bronze Age Pervert, an anonymous right-wing body builder, gained a huge following by spreading the message that the bodies depicted in ancient Greek imagery were the pinnacle of masculinity. He argued that men achieving a ‘superior’ body was essential to a functional society – despite this clearly making no sense. The mainstreaming of such views on the internet has only accelerated in the intervening years, and now we’re at a point where the likes of Andrew Tate and Joe Rogan have huge young, male fanbases.

Another one of these alpha influencers is Brian Johnson, known to the internet as ‘Liver King’, who rose to prominence in 2021 with his “ancestral message” which included eating raw liver to achieve his action-figure physique (the truth – which he admitted in a YouTube apology – is that he uses steroids, despite previously consistently denying it). He also continuously asserts that “our ancestors” had the key to a happy life figured out, though he never specifies which time period or ethnic group he’s referring to. Tateand Rogan have both made similar, vague references to their ancestors and the past. From a scientific standpoint, nothing supports the idea that we’ve physically regressed as a species. Modern medicine and improving nutrition have contributed to life expectancies rising dramatically over recent centuries. So these ‘alpha male’ influencers are purposely idealising a non-specified past and making vague references to “ancestors” in a bid to prey on young men who feel lost or out of place in modern society – à la ‘Make America Great Again’.

After all, it’s not vascular muscles that make men like Brian Johnson, Rogan or Tate wealthy. It’s the money from subscription fees to fitness plans, self-help courses and ad revenue from disillusioned viewers that line their pockets – all at the expense of boys trying to escape the inevitable victimhood that capitalism affords the 99 percent. Their mantras are total bullshit too: you can’t bench-press your way to fulfilment (believe me lads, I’ve tried). If anything, the existence and mainstreaming of alpha influencers like Johnson and Tate is only exacerbating the preexisting issue of disillusionment among young men.

In the same way that Darwinism emboldened eugenics, many modern acts of violence are expressions of patriarchal ideals. In 2021, Britain saw its most deadly mass shooting in over a decade when 22-year-old bodybuilding fanatic and self-proclaimed incel Jake Davidson killed five people and injured two others before turning the gun on himself. He had posted videos talking about how difficult it is “when life has never rewarded you” and regularly posted about body image issues.

“These ‘alpha male’ influencers are purposely idealising a non-specified past and making vague references to ‘ancestors’ in a bid to prey on young men who feel lost or out of place in modern society – à la ‘Make America Great Again”

Many young girls suffer from body image issues and do not resort to mass murder. But the lack of a perceived “reward” (in the form of sexual gratification) for embodying what men are ‘supposed’ to look like suggests a chasm between young men’s expectations of what the gym will give them versus reality. When these expectations aren’t met, it can make men feel emasculated and drive them further into the arms of violent, far-right ideology. Even when men don’t turn violent, these feelings of emasculation can have damaging mental health effects: recent studies suggest the majority of men suffer from some degree of body dysmorphia. Personally, I have been alarmed by the obsessiveness with which I overhear boys discussing their diets in gym changing rooms. Eating disorders are traditionally associated with teenage girls, but teenage boys trying to attain the unnatural physiques of grown men who use steroids is equally problematic.

The answer to this isn’t to disparage exercise, of course. I love the meditative nature of training in solitude and achieving goals is a great feeling, plus there are myriad physical and mental health benefits to exercise. What is important is communicating the message that men don’t owe muscles to society – and that society, in turn, doesn’t owe anyone anything based on their body. I’ve been lucky to find gyms to be a supportive space and sports in general can create male solidarity rooted in uplifting each other, which is wonderful – and that is the context in which fitness can guide the path to manhood.

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