Soon, however, I suffered a creeping insecurity. Looking into the eyes of a banker with soft hands, I imagined him thinking, You deluded moron, what does muscle have to do with anything?
One day, a skinny triathlete jogged past our house: visor, fancy sunglasses, GPS watch. I caught a look of yearning in my wife’s eyes. That night, we fought and she confessed: She couldn’t help it, she liked me better slender…
Sociologists, it turns out, have studied these covert athletic biases. Carl Stempel, for example, writing in the International Review for the Sociology of Sport, argues that upper middle class Americans avoid “excessive displays of strength,” viewing the bodybuilder look as vulgar overcompensation for wounded manhood. The so-called dominant classes, Stempel writes—especially those like my friends and myself, richer in fancy degrees than in actual dollars—tend to express dominance through strenuous aerobic sports that display moral character, self-control, and self-development, rather than physical dominance. By chasing pure strength, in other words, packing on all that muscle, I had violated the unspoken prejudices—and dearly held self-definitions—of my social group.
I’ve never encountered this literature. But, I wonder how this might be related to historical social patterns, particularly the shift away from and the growing bifurcation between manual labor/unskilled jobs and the growing white-collar job force who often sit in offices all day. While the wealthy classes of the past may not have had to show any physical abilities, now the expectation is fitness across a wider range of classes. With less manual labor on the job, people today have more choices about exercise ranging from whether to do it at all, how much money to spend on what can become a very expensive activity, and what kind of path to pursue from older patterns to the latest trends.