The promises of a big body and the temporality of physical success
I can’t say that there is something I can achieve in one month because I am aiming higher. You know when you are aiming higher, you are supposed to train for some period.
Isaac, No Mercy Gym member
Godwin was a 24-year-old migrant from Bomet who had started lifting weights a couple of years ago in order to lose some weight and lead a healthier life. When I met him in the No Mercy Gym in 2020, however, his motives had changed, and his main goal was to acquire what he described as a ‘big, and more muscular’ body. Asking him about his role model, Godwin mentioned the actor and former wrestler Dwayne Johnson, also known by his stage name The Rock. Although Godwin, who came to the gym every day, was strong and, being around six feet, comparably tall, he still had a rather lean appearance. Weighing around 80 kilogrammes, he did not look massive, especially when wearing his favourite clothes that were rather baggy. If he wanted to achieve a body comparable to Dwayne Johnson’s, he would have to gain around 25 or even 30 kilogrammes of muscles which would be an impressive accomplishment and could take years even if Godwin ate well, trained hard, and had enough time to rest.
Most members of the No Mercy Gym shared Godwin’s goal. They all agreed that women preferred muscular men over skinny or overweight ones. Women, so the narrative went, would feel more comfortable with a physically intimi­dating man who could provide security so that they, as Godwin concluded, could ‘disturb everyone else’ when going out. A big body would thus not only increase a man’s sexual success with women, but it would also enhance the respect of other men in bars, clubs, and on the streets. While reinforcing the notion of ideal men as physically strong and composed, this narrative also relied upon stereotypes of women as physically weak, hysterical, and in need of being protected. Furthermore, a big physique opened up financial opportunities, which was important in the context of Kenya’s economy as it lacked employment opportunities. If a job required physical strength and there was an oversupply of potential workers, a big body could prove advantageous. Bouncers and bodyguards, for instance, were still required to have massive physiques. Gym members, in other words, mostly viewed the enlargement of their muscles as a means to improve their relations with others and not as a way to increase their self-esteem (Klein 1993, Wacquant 1995).
However, when I asked Godwin and Carl what it meant to be a man in contemporary Kenyan society during an interview on their lives and attitudes toward lifting weights, Godwin concluded that ‘you must have money, and you must have a very nice house’. Reproducing the narrative of the male provider, Carl added that if the woman paid the rent in a relationship, she would become ‘bigger’ than the man. Despite clinging to the physical transformation of his body, Godwin was thus certain that money trumped physical appearance and strength any time. Although he was aware of his inability to do justice to the prevalent narrative of the wealthy male provider, Godwin refused to embrace a life that stood in contrast to this narrative. He had once observed how a close friend tried to be in a relationship with a wealthy woman, but it had taken such a toll on his friend that he felt compelled to end the relationship: ‘He had a girlfriend, she had money, she wanted to control him […]. He couldn’t move around by himself, if he wanted to move around, she had to be there, if he wanted to buy something, he had to tell her how much. I could never live like that.’
The intricate relation between money, the male body, and a migrant man’s prospects of finding a wife also crystallized in one of Jacob’s WhatsApp status updates. Jacob, a migrant from western Kenya and member of a gym located not far from the No Mercy Gym and the Power Iko Gym, had posted pictures of his muscular body alongside images of him repairing cars. Below the pictures, he had written: ‘Wife material is not looking for a wealthy guy, she’s looking for an ambitious guy, hard-working, warm, available’. This statement contrasted Jacob with an emotionally distant man who was always on the move, wealthy without working hard, and thus probably involved in occult activities. By presenting himself as ambitious and hard-working, traits that his muscular body seemed to attest to, Jacob suggested to women in his contact list that he had a bright future and soon would be ready to provide for a family. After all, however, the focus on the ‘promise of a big body’ that ‘is almost preinterpreted as strong’ (Linder 2007: 464) remained a subordinated and fragile attempt to be respected by women and other men. While becoming physically big and strong put one in an advantageous position compared to a man who was weak and poor, a migrant man’s impressive muscles and physical strength could not compete with the thick wallet of a wealthy man who proudly paraded his potbelly. In the end, it was money and not muscles that made men big.
Godwin and other unemployed gym members did not feel that they could influence the fate of Kenya’s economy, and they believed that sustainable romantic relationships and progress in their professional careers were beyond their control. In such a context, adhering to Carl’s training philosophy and engaging in systematic weightlifting provided structure to their lives. Lifting weights six days a week to progress continuously toward, for instance, the body of The Rock or comparable role models was a goal-oriented, structured, and meaningful activity that helped migrant men to ‘embody themselves as capable and agentive persons’ (Lockwood 2015: 5). Whilst they perceived cause and effect to be disentangled in the economic and romantic spheres, with slay queens having ugly sponsors and hardworking men remaining poor, they could exert near complete control over their individual physical success in the intimate and homosocial space of the No Mercy Gym. Yet, the marginal utility of lifting weights drastically reduced after an athlete had achieved what was sometimes referred to as ‘beginner gains’. Progressing from deadlifting 60 kilogrammes to deadlifting 120 was much easier than progressing from 160 kilogrammes to 220 and, leaving aside genetic factors or questions of technique, lifting heavier weights translated into having bigger muscles. Members of the No Mercy Gym, therefore, had to persevere through months without getting significantly stronger, which was the reason why they were convinced that merely maintaining their level of strength by going to the gym regularly was a respectable accomplishment in itself. While their intimate others expected continuous economic growth, other gym members understood that lifting weights was a mentally challenging practice that demanded patience and perseverance.
As ‘a never-ending activity’ (Pype 2007: 251) whose objective remained ‘always “just out of reach”’ (Archambault 2021: 534), working out in the No Mercy Gym was premised on an extended temporality of delayed physical success and thereby constitutes an example of what Jane Guyer called the ‘evacuation of the near future’ (2007: 410). While lifting heavy weights demanded total concentration on the moment, its ultimate aim lay in the far future. Strengthening one’s body, however, was not a solitary accomplishment but involved communicating, meeting, and working out with other migrant men. It was intimately related to and depended on the construction of a male ‘community of practice’ (Wenger 1998) or, as Andrew phrased it more emphatically, ‘brotherhood’ among the members of the No Mercy Gym.