After an excruciating day, just like a majority of gen Zers and millennials, I like to hop onto Instagram in an attempt to find escapism inside the bottomless world of short-form video content. As I giggle at choreographed dance moves, seamless transitions, and Swifties inferring new Easter eggs in Taylor Swift’s music videos, I come across a rather peculiar clip.
Initially, it shows me a video highlighting the likes of Harry Styles, Lil Nas X, and Conan Gray—seemingly celebrating them for donning enchanting skirts. Within a matter of seconds however, a young man emerges displaying his “dumb-bell strength,” glorifying his well-built body while heralding those who do not look like him: inferior.
The creator’s comments section is packed with over 80,000 followers agreeing in tandem as they cement conventional masculinity and name-call men who chose to defy traditional gender stereotypes by sporting garments deemed ‘feminine’ by society.
As I scroll further, Instagram’s algorithm, prompted by its thinly-veiled homophobia, recommends content similar to the first Reel I came across—both of which seem to reinforce a stringent narrative that masculinity must be confined with rigidity as a primary attribute.
In a bid to unpack the phenomenon, SCREENSHOT spoke with queer poet Ashish. “That’s bizarre to me. If one carefully glances at the pictures of Styles or Lil Nas X, they’d know that even though they are in touch with their feminine alchemy, their masculinity remains intact,” Ashish shared. “A man can have an iron-clad body and [don] a dress if he wants to. It’s like dressing up in black all the time and then taking pride in it by demeaning those who flaunt colours.”
Chaitanya, a marketing professional at Penguin Random House, attempted to understand this way of thinking by stating: “I think the urge of people who try to build their own masculinity by throwing others under the bus, or establish a pedestal claiming they are higher by questioning other’s way of living, stems from their own insecurity.”
The expert went on to add: “They have this constant need to cement those who aren’t like them as outcasts—and walk over them to herald their supremacy. They’ve been wanting to resonate a certain kind of masculinity but even when they attain that physically, their insecurity stays. A man who’s sheltered in his vigour would never demean others to reinforce his.”
Creators like Jacob Rott, Siddhartha Batra, and Nic Kauffman justify the blurred-line discourse exceptionally well. With iron-clad bodies straight out of a romance novel, these men aren’t shy in embracing crop tops, nail polish, and skirts as well—it does not shrink their masculinity in any way. If anything, it broadens the definition of it.
A few scrolls further and my eyes are greeted by another viral trend where gym bros indulge in something which displays their delicacy—like adding pads to their barbell or sanitising treadmills before use. In the midst of these scenarios, a voice echoes “gay” and the individuals on camera instantly abandon their actions faster than the speed of light.
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In these episodes of ridiculous notions, problematic typecasts are reinforced. Primarily, these videos juxtaposes the rationale that men are inherently impenetrable, and therefore do not need a pad on their barbells. In this problematic trend, it’s the voice inside their heads which inflicts the term “gay” as disgrace for taking part in certain pursuits. This hatred towards the LGBTQIA+ community is subconscious and, on the surface, is illusioned as a mere joke.
“I identify as straight, but a few of my friends often refer to me as ‘Meetha’ [a slang term which refers to ‘gay’ in his native language],” said a 21-year-old content creator who chose to remain anonymous. “Reason? I can’t do push-ups with the same efficacy as they do, I get tired way more easily than they do. The term doesn’t bother me at all, but what does is the fact that they use someone’s identity as a slang.”
Not only do these trends spread homophobia like a prejudiced ordinance, they indirectly gatekeep gyms from the queer community. For a lot of people belonging to this circle, their body has always been a mere receptacle for other’s opinion, and such content accentuates that very sentiment.
In a research conducted by equality rights group Stonewall, two-thirds of LGBTQIA+ pupils stated that they don’t like team sports. One’s world view is often shaped by their formative years and this subliminal prejudice deters these students from making physical education a part of their lives.
These sentiments were reinforced by Nishant, a software developer who considers gyms to be a physical manifestation of a masculine hell-hole. “I have tried going to the gym, but I am always glanced at as if I’m a criminal pariah of some sort. When I tried to exercise using machines, I’d witness others giggling at my failure to lift weights. My trainer called me and said to stop walking and talking like girls. I felt so intimidated that I quit after two weeks.”
Nishant continued: “I am a man, and I do not think my masculinity is any less just because some of my attributes seem feminine to others, but the place made me feel that way. To this day, I cannot walk past a gym or a well-built man without an eerie chill down my spine.”
PhD student Benjamin Weil shared a “Queer’s Guide” for prospective gymgoers on Medium and stated: “Gym anxiety or gymphobia is real. I would know: the very thought of going to the gym a couple of years ago used to break me out into an anxious sweat. On my way to the gym, I would sometimes have panic attacks so severe I would have to abandon the mission and head home again. This anxiety was, of course, compounded by my own struggles with my body image. I wanted to go to the gym but felt utterly unable to. A predictable cycle of shame and self-loathing.”
Kartik, a 23-year-old analyst at a consulting firm, also spoke to me about similar feelings: “Such content is just one example of society’s determination with cementing the only kind of masculinity they deem fit. It leaves people like me, not fitting in those parameters, questioning ourselves. I am a man, I identify as one, but when I see videos like these, my existence trembles.”
According to the American Heart Association, while many factors are at play, barriers that drive sexual minority teens away from physical education classes and team sports are particularly significant. The problem with this narrative is that it isn’t confined to schools—as they grow up, this discourse stays with them and they do not think of fitness circles as safe spaces.
Chaitanya went on to vocalise his personal experiences. “As a bisexual man, when I enter the gym, I sometimes feels intimidated. No one in particular does anything to me, but I have this feeling that maybe I am not masculine enough with respect to the idea of the alpha male often propagated and that does bother me.”
“I have straight friends who wear rings, nail paints, are heavily ripped, and are the sweetest people I know. I understand that masculinity is for individuals to define and I hope the ones who spew hatred comprehend this too,” he added.
When Styles or Lil Nas X don a dress, conventional toughness trembles, so much so that people get incredibly insecure about their own masculinity. A genderless future does not seek the abandonment of masculinity, but simply expands the boundaries of the same. Just because a man decides to wear a skirt if he pleases, he is in no way lesser than one who does not deem it fit. In case we’ve forgotten, garments do not come with their genders inherited.
For a community which has been witnessing hatred and prejudice for decades, these trends not only propagate resentment but tend to even gatekeep fitness. As Slate noted, “homophobia is a good time to remember that gym culture wouldn’t exist without queer people.”