What the outcry from Kumail Nanjiani's sculpted body tells us about racism, masculinity standards

Kumail Nanjiani turned heads in late 2019 after revealing his muscular body in preparation for his role as Kingo in Marvel's "Eternals". About a year later, another picture showed Nanjiani, the Pakistani-American star of "Silicon Valley" and "The Big Sick," celebrating 2021 in a tight, long-sleeved shirt that showed off his bulging biceps. It spurred a quick backlash with Twitter trolls who accused the star of taking steroids or undergoing plastic surgery.
Nanjiani did not respond to the negative responses and did not respond to USA TODAY's request for comment.
However, experts say the outcry over the actor's chiseled physique stems from systemic racism and a misguided standard of masculinity.
When a white male celebrity accumulates - think John Krasinski or Chris Pratt - people are less prone to criticism and more likely to be thirsty.
"Body embarrassed Kumail Nanjiani for being ... jacked up? Is that strange," said Twitter user Jacob Low. "Especially since all of Chris (sic) did the same super soldier program and never got a flack for it. I wonder what the difference is?"
A further integrative representation in pop culture and the industry being pushed back against supposed norms could help to poke holes in people's perception.
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"Popular culture is shaped by stories of racism and colonialism that create hierarchies of desire, sexuality and masculinity," Jigna Desai, professor of gender, women and sexuality studies at the University of Minnesota, told USA TODAY. She calls this the "white look".
"White men are often at the top of that hierarchy," she says. "Black men are also often associated with athleticism, sexuality, and masculinity. Asian-American men, including South Asian-American men, are classified as unattractive, nerdy, non-sexual, and certainly not a buff."
Stanley Thangaraj, Assistant Professor of Anthropology, Gender Studies, and International Studies at City College in New York agrees, "There is a way that his performance and his bodybuilding and how he is put into shape in many ways other than genetic and biological It cannot be considered that this is a widespread racist stereotype among South Asians, as they could never be athletic enough and could never have the ability to create a particular type of sports body. "
There have certainly been men who broke the norm in Hollywood. For example, Naveen Andrews played funny, sexy and interesting characters in "Lost," and Sendil Ramamurthy in "Heroes," according to Desai. But the more common portrayal is a character like Kunal Nayyar's nerdy "Raj" in "The Big Bang Theory," Desai says.
This explains the shame on Nanjiani's body. "People assume that the Pakistani American was not naturally enthusiastic," Desai says, noting that thought is motivated by racism. "They also assume that South Asian Americans are not athletic or fit - so it must be steroids or plastic surgery. But he has clearly worked for that body and has been publicly documenting his experiences throughout the process."
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The effects of body embarrassment
According to Sabrina Strings, associate professor and director of sociology at the University of California at Irvine, there is a much more accurate test for people with colored bodies than for white bodies. This is due to the effects of colonization and slavery.
"It's getting kind of more natural to try to shame them and stigmatize them on social media because that's the kind of treatment they can expect in real life," she says.
Regardless of the color of your skin or gender identity, body embarrassment can have detrimental effects on the way you perceive your body. Celebrities get the brunt of such shame on social media when they see what appears to be drastic changes in their bodies (think Adele and Jazmine Sullivan's respective weight loss, who were each criticized for looking leaner).
Opinion: Can we please stop talking about Adele and Rebel Wilson's weight loss?
"There's this public perception that a celebrity's body is a fair game for criticism, and people think that all they can do is determine what they expect. And of course that's not true," said Chelsea Kronengold, communications manager for the National Eating Disorders Association says.
While body embarrassment and eating disorders are more widely discussed in women, such concerns and illnesses also affect men. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, ten million men in the United States will have an eating disorder at some point in their life.
"Every time something like this happens, whether the intent is racial or not, it's both microaggression, and I think we often have these preconceptions and stereotypes that certain people, in particular, have Colored ones are not supposed to have certain properties, "says Kevin Chapman, a clinical psychologist.
Nanjiani told Men's Health earlier this year, "I don't want to shut out people who have really debilitating body problems. I didn't. But I got body dysmorphism. I would look in the mirror and I'd see my abs - and if I looked again they would fade. I would only see the flaws. "
What happens next?
When in doubt, people should mind their own business. Chadwick Boseman's thin physique, for example, was revealed as a result of his battle with colon cancer, although articles about his weight surfaced after a video post on Instagram last April. "You just don't know what someone is going through," says Kronengold.
In some cases, it can be worth looking into people making racist comments on social media, especially if you're not a black person either. "Instead of blowing them up, you can be an ally through open dialogue by asking them what you meant by that comment and calling them out in a way that they are not defensive," suggests Chapman.
Especially for Nanjiani's case, it is worthwhile to investigate in the industry what the ideal superhero body actually is.
"We are so firmly dependent on a particular type of superhero muscle composition that dominates our popular cultural understanding of a particular type of superhero masculinity," Thangaraj says. He suggests a more diverse selection of superheroes, from race to body type and gender to gender, and an appreciation of the way society normally views superheroes as white and male.
Boseman in "Black Panther" was important to the Black Community, and Nanjiani, in turn, will be important to the South Asian American community. Small windows may open to opportunities to overcome racial injustice and stereotypes in both Hollywood and the United States.
"I point this out as a little window because in the end we still have the possibility that this body has to be so muscular that it has to be straight, that it has to be cisgender," says Thangaraj.
Neither does Nanjiani's role in the film mean that society should suddenly move beyond racial thinking, which primarily sparked negative comments.
"The moment we don't acknowledge that history is the moment when we really forget why there was this absence and why we have all these shame acts at this moment," says Thangaraj.
If you or someone you know has problems with body image or eating, the toll-free, confidential NEDA hotline can help by phone (800-931-2237) and click-to-chat. Crisis support is also available via SMS by sending “NEDA” to 741741.
Elsewhere: "Heroes" star Ali Larter reacts to Leonard Roberts' allegations of problems on the set, systemic racism
What Netflix's lively "Bridgerton" says about the race: "We wanted this show to reflect the world."
This article originally appeared in the US TODAY: Kumail Nanjiani: What Body Shame Says About Racism and Masculinity
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