The toxic side of gym culture

Exploring masculinity and the rise of the ‘’gym bro’’

Beeld door Julia Roeselers
Beeld door Julia Roeselers
Nienke Amarins Hettinga (redacteur)

Gym bros have emerged as prominent figures in the fitness world. These adrenaline-fueled gym enthusiasts are deeply invested in the gratification derived from intense physical exercise. Regular gym-goers are likely familiar with the archetype of the gym bro—the individual who excessively grunts while vigorously curling heavy dumbbells, noisily dropping them on the floor once they've reached their capacity. They exude an air of ownership and dominance, making sure everyone is aware that they are the most muscular presence in the room. While some may view exercise as a monotonous chore, experienced gym bros can attest to the euphoric feeling that follows a workout. For them, exercise and nutrition are not mere habits but rather a way of life.

The moment I stepped into a gym myself, I sensed an underlying complexity that demanded exploration. Gyms seemed to serve as arenas where men sought to assert their masculinity. The judgmental stares from those who are ultra-fit, the formation of cliques, and the monopolisation of equipment—these aspects of gym culture seemed to emanate a distinct odour of toxic masculinity.

If one has been raised in an environment that prioritises physical strength and suppresses emotional expression, the gym environment may seem relatively comfortable. Within the gym, everything is communicated and measured in physical terms, seldom delving into the realm of emotions. The gym bro appears to find solace within this environment. It is evident that the gym has become an integral part of their identity, and anyone who does not share the same level of commitment is deemed insufficient. The gym becomes a sanctuary where they can bury their emotions beneath layers of physical exertion. 

To be clear, I understand that physical activity not only builds muscle and burns calories but also has a positive impact on mental health. Engaging in physical exercise has consistently been shown to improve physical fitness, prevent mental illness, and alleviate mood disorders. In other words, exercise is supposed to be about promoting health and well-being. If working out serves as an outlet for releasing stress and tension, that is commendable. However, what I am witnessing within the realm of gym culture is far from healthy.

Consider the phenomenon of "fitspo," which refers to internet content intended to inspire healthy choices. While it ostensibly replaces the problematic "thinspo" culture that explicitly promotes disordered eating, "fitspo" often retains many of the same troubling principles disguised as "wellness." While society may be becoming more aware of the dangers of eating disorders, many remain unaware of how disordered behaviours can disguise themselves as "healthy" fitness habits. Gym bros, unfortunately, fail to recognize the toxicity of their relationship with food. Addressing an eating disorder would likely open a Pandora's box of insecurities and other underlying mental health issues that they are not ready or able to confront. 

Consequently, they are less inclined to acknowledge problematic issues within the fitness community or within themselves. The unchecked culture within the gym environment runs the risk of promoting troubling thought patterns and behaviours. It becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish between wanting to change one's body for overall health reasons and developing negative body image distress and disordered eating habits. When was the last time you heard someone question a man for having an eating disorder simply because he consumes an excessive number of meals throughout the day in an effort to gain muscle mass?

Many men harbour an idealistic image of the male body they strive to attain. This encapsulates the mindset of the gym bro, who firmly believes that physical appearance supersedes all other aspects of their being. The gym bro seems to internalise the underlying assumption that men must be muscular, and this perception is primarily driven by the gaze of women. The female gaze refers to the perspective and desires of women as active viewers and consumers of media, art, and culture. It challenges the notion that men's bodies are solely objectified by the male gaze. The influence of the female gaze has evolved and expanded over time, with women reclaiming agency and shaping their own perspectives on desire, beauty, and sexuality. The female gaze recognizes that women have diverse preferences and attractions, going beyond the narrow and often unrealistic standards perpetuated by the male gaze.

Women have their own desires, fantasies, and preferences when it comes to physical appearance. The female gaze encompasses a broader range of body types, attributes, and qualities that women find attractive, challenging the singular focus on extreme muscularity that is often associated with the gym bro stereotype. In the context of the gym bro and fitness culture, the male gaze is often seen as the driving force behind the pursuit of a hyper-muscular physique. From a feminist standpoint, the male gaze limits and objectifies individuals in harmful and demeaning ways. Moreover, on a larger scale, it works to maintain the patriarchal structure that harms men by disconnecting them from their emotions, stigmatising seeking support as a sign of weakness, and perpetuating traditional notions of masculinity such as "be a man" or "man up." 

The gym bro's fixation on physical appearance and their belief that it is predominantly shaped by the female gaze oversimplifies the complexity of attraction and desire. The female gaze challenges narrow beauty standards and opens up the possibility for diverse representations of male bodies. By recognizing and embracing the complexities of attraction and desire, we can move towards a more inclusive and nuanced understanding of body image and break free from the limitations imposed by patriarchal structures.

Thus, we find ourselves in a cyclical pattern. The male gaze perpetuates patriarchal structures that impede the gym bro's ability to express their emotions openly. As a result, the gym bro fixates on the physical realm, utilising disordered eating patterns and intense physical activity to work towards the perceived ideal male body. Within the gym environment, other gym bros, caught within the confines of the same patriarchal structure, fail to correct or challenge these behaviours. Emotional support, insecurities, and any signs of vulnerability are discouraged within this celebratory yet emotionally devoid culture of the gym. Despite the privileges and advantages it may offer, the patriarchy is not anyone’s friend.

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