Recently, shirtless pictures showcasing the muscular physique of TV news anchor Shahzeb Khanzada made news on social media. One was reminded of CNN’s Anderson Cooper, whose pictures were leaked a few years ago. The difference is that Cooper is an aging gay man, who lives in an LGBTQ subculture where musculature or external looks are everything despite all the messages to “be yourself.” This is why Western gay men in particular feel pressured to frequent gyms. Such pressures stoked by aesthetic body displays, traditionally experienced by Western gay men, and Pakistani women in the context of being “fair and lovely,” are now being experienced by Pakistani men as they push to gain musculature.
Khanzada thrives in a culture where traditionally one’s character was emphasised to the extent that riya kari (showing off) was frowned upon. Dr. Arfa Syeda Zehra’s story on not wearing new Eid clothes to avoid dil shikni (causing grief) of peers, who didn’t have new clothes, reflects such values. This is a culture where sexual expression is regulated through a marriage contract and body exhibition is constrained to stem the public promotion of shahwa (desire). However, all of that is being challenged with technological developments that allow the encroachment and promotion of new norms that stoke commodification, self-centredness, and narcissism on social media platforms including Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. This also includes dating apps like Tinder, which have become spaces for the transaction of bodies instead of facilitating relationships based on enduring values.
Of course, in a world where every man had a muscular physique, such displays would be moot. But we live in the real world with an inequitable distribution of resources and musculature
It is not uncommon to find Indian men displaying their naked bodies, sometimes to the tune of religious Hindu hymns. The actor Ranveer Singh recently pushed the envelope further with nude displays of his body. On their part, Pakistani actors like Danish Taimoor have displayed their own semi-nude bodies, although they remain tempered by traditional Pakistani norms.
A libertarian position would allow space for such displays. However, unfettered aesthetic displays influence social norms that have repercussions far beyond stroking the ego of the individual who seeks validation through displaying his shirtless or semi-nude pics.
First, happiness is relative. What this means is that just as with ostentatious displays of wealth, where the Have-Nots struggle to keep up with the Joneses, aesthetic displays of bodies stoke envy in those without musculature who feel pressured to work out so that they too could post their own semi-nudes on social media. Of course, in a world where every man had a muscular physique, such displays would be moot. But we live in the real world with an inequitable distribution of resources and musculature. Overall, such displays cause more grief than the short-lived joy of seeing washboard abs.
Second, such displays are less about a healthy lifestyle or fitness and more about riya kari (showing off), which is a moral failing. Consider for instance the many Pakistani cricketers and athletes with endurance, speed and strength but whose bodies do not reflect the kind of sculpted physiques that are prized on social media. Additionally, staying on low body fat percentages to display abdominal musculature is not necessarily healthy for physical, mental and emotional well-being, a point that has been made by several experts. If anything, such riya kari (showing off), far from incentivizing fitness, induces others towards steroid abuse, internal complexes and OCD behaviour. Again, such displays are detrimental to the well-being of others.
Finally, while aesthetic displays may be to showcase one’s hard work, they are like putting one’s grade transcript for all to see in search of validation. Often, it is the nerd, the scrawny kid, or someone with an internal complex who resorts to disproving others braving all odds. However, validation remains elusive and does not come from strangers but rather from one’s parents and loved ones, and more so, oneself. For if the self is not content, then no amount of social media praise will ever be enough, and the individual gets sucked in the obsession with musculature, a phenomenon also referred to as “bigorexia.”
Overall, Pakistani men need to understand that if their end goal of musculature is to attract the attention of the opposite gender, then they are in for a surprise. For bodybuilders would tell you that they receive far greater attention from other men than women!
Additionally, they should note that when internal values are linked with external physical attributes, a subculture of random sexual hookups is likely proliferated, and long-lasting relationships become elusive. In essence, Pakistani men may want to appreciate that libertarian positions of unfettered body displays stoke pressures that are detrimental to physical and mental wellbeing and come at the expense of enduring relationships, internal contentment and simple living.