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Why Can't Marvel Superheroes Have 'Normal' Bodies?

Kumail

The Marvel Universe is officially the movie equivalent of the White Party.

I've always had somewhat of a crush on Kumail Nanjiani.

His work in The Big Sick, especially, was a remarkable showcase of his humor and a point of view audiences rarely see in the media landscape: a handsome Pakistani-American (and a nerd!) who is the lead in a romantic comedy.

So it was with a degree of shock that I saw his recent body transformation, which he unveiled Thursday on Instagram. The funny, cute nerd next door had been transformed into a ripped muscle god, with bulging biceps, veins, and abs for days.

As a gay man, I'm not immune to the appeal of the chiseled torso. After all, LGBTQ media -- The Advocate included -- routinely serves up this image to draw in crowds for the various Pride and White parties throughout the year.

However, it was with some sadness that I had to bid farewell to the image of an actor who has worked to move the needle in Hollywood for diversity and what a leading man can look like. The reason for the transformation? Nanjiani is set to appear in an upcoming Marvel movie, The Eternals, and he "decided I wanted to transform how I looked" in order to look like a superhero.

In the post, Nanjiani explained how difficult it was to achieve a body that sparked thirst around the social media world. "I would not have been able to do this if I didn't have a full year with the best trainers and nutritionists paid for by the biggest studio in the world," he wrote. "I'm glad I look like this, but I also understand why I never did before."

Nanjiani listed at least five trainers and a catering company to thank for his abs as well as "true physical pain for months and months." His experience resonated with many members of gay Twitter, including Joel Kim Booster. "Kumail got hot for a role, I got hot because of crippling insecurity and oppressive gay male beauty standards-- we are not the same!" he stated in a tweet that received over 10,000 likes.

But there is a common thread here, as, thanks to studios like Marvel, oppressive gay male beauty standards have officially gone mainstream. Nearly all of the male superheroes in the Marvel Universe look like they would fit in comfortably at the White Party, or any circuit party that prizes peak physical perfection.

While social media (rightly) mocked the now-viral Peloton commercial, in which a husband gifts an exercise bike to his already model-thin wife, Disney has essentially offered a similiar devil's bargain to its would-be stars: Achieve impossible beauty standards or take a hike.

Yet instead of expressing concern for what Marvel is doing to its stars and the message their impossible physiques are sending (they all have exhaustive workout routines and hyper-strict diets), their bodies are double-tapped. When a superhero gains a few pounds in a Marvel movie, such as Thor in the latest Avengers film, it is a running gag and a cruel visual joke of how he has lost a facet of what made him great.

The consequences of equating "superhero" with gigantic biceps and a V-shaped torso have gone global. Eating disorders among men are skyrocketing in the U.S. In an increasingly visual society, there is a very real and very dangerous perception that a person's worth is linked to their ab count.

It doesn't need to be this way. Some of the most interesting, brave, and world-changing people I know don't imbibe large quantities of protein powder or have a "leg day." Quite the opposite. Saving the world means spending a lot of time working to change it. And while fitness is important and applause-worthy, achieving a Marvel physique is nearly impossible for anyone who isn't paid to be beautiful. These real-life heroes -- proof you don't need biceps to be super -- deserve representation in blockbusters.

One of the joys of seeing HBO's Watchmen is observing an alternative to this reality: superheroes of different ages, races, and body types helping to change the world for the better. Marvel should follow suit and let the strength of actors like Nanjiani show not through impossible arms, but through the powers they had all along.

Daniel Reynolds is a senior editor at The Advocate. Follow him on Twitter @dnlreynolds.

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