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Zzyz, facebook body builders, and what they could learn from... feminists

04/04/2014 10:06 BST | Updated 16/05/2014 10:59 BST

Do you even lift bro?

Over a period of just four years the alter ego of Aziz Shavershina, Zyzz, rose to "personify a way of life," as he put it himself. He was probably the most famous figure in the world of amateur, Internet bodybuilding and the poster boy of the so-called 'Aesthetics' subculture. For a generation of young men locked into the Internet and social media he was admired as the extreme embodiment of the 'ideology' that defined this culture. Zyzz was of a new breed of body builder who's primary, if not sole, aim of the pursuit is admiration via social media. Shavershina became so immersed in his 'ideology' and the character he created, he would take the lifestyle it implies to an extreme his body could not withstand. At just twenty-two, on a holiday of excess and egotistical frenzy in Bangkok his body perspired under the combined strain of testosterone, growth hormones, steroids and an undiagnosed heart defect.

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This distinct new breed of facebook bodybuilders are arguably a faction of a wider 'lad culture', defined on the Internet and embodied in websites like Unilad.com, 'Gym memes' and 'Yeah, she squats'. It's a cultural trend that has undoubtedly been made possible by the uninhibited and inherently narcissistic platform provided by social media. An online world where users are encouraged to share as much as possible and compete with their aesthetically polished, highly stylised and sometime extreme online profiles and personas. Among the posing, pouting and peacocking, teenagers compare outfits, music tastes, opinions and very often now, bodies.

Facebook is saturated with beautified, contrived and sexualised images of girls engaged in the competition, posing in mirrors and nightclubs. But surprisingly there are nearly as many images of young, heterosexual men hogging the lens to show off their muscles in similarly reviling clothes. But ever more now young men are purposefully upload images of themselves with the express intent of updating social media of their progress at the gym. As with Zyzz, impressing on social media actually seems to be one of the primary ends of working out for such men. No doubt they reap rewards in real life. But, it is over social media where they size up rivals and potential suitors and where they find the confirmation of the acceptance they crave and the admiration they desire. Conversely, more traditional ends of the sport might be considered winning competitions and increasing ones physical presence in the real world.

Overt masculinity, chauvinism and general modern vanity are nothing new of coarse. Various facets of modern life have contributed to this continuing shift in our culture - celebrity worship, the commercial beauty industry and the sexualisation of teenagers to mention a few. However it's clear that this allegiance between social media and amateur body building has created a distinct subculture that's glaring obvious to anyone that has an internet 'friend' who shares pictures of their anaerobic endeavours.

It's a strange subculture; embracing metro-sexuality and changes in just what it is we consider 'masculine', but continuing to push a vicious strain of misogynism. Zyzz's favourite catch phrase being, "acquire ascetics, disregard bitched." Much of the colloquial vocabulary of the facebook body-builders has entered wider youth-culture in the past year. 'Mirin', meaning admiring, was a personal invention of Zyzz; "Walked around Bangkok all day with no shirt... thi girls mirin brah," he posted days before his death. Phrases like, "do you even lift bro?" are now so commonplace you can buy the bloody t-shirt.

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Masculinities gone feminine

This seemingly baffling expression of masculinity and the behaviour of those involved in the 'aesthetics' / facebook bodybuilding sub-culture, or influenced by it, is a phenomenon best explained by a narrative written, ironically, by a seemingly adverse school of though - feminism. It's nothing new however to appropriated feminist theory on appearance related pressures faced by women to explain similar pressures increasingly faced by men in modern society. Many prominent feminists, such as Susan Bordo in 'The Male Body', have gone on to produce literature specifically aimed at men affected by issues once thought to be exclusively female problems.

In an interview on his sponsor's web-site "simplyshredded.com," Zzyz climbs that, "4 years into my training, I can safely say that my motivation to train goes far beyond that of merely impressing people, it is derived from the feeling of having set goals and achieving them and outdoing myself in the gym." The interview was given on cusp of becoming a professional, Zzyz was almost obliged to toe this borrowed rhetoric. It certainly doesn't sound at all genuine.

His true motivations, revealed earlier in the interview, are far more typical of the facebook body builders of today, "I was always known as the skinny kid. I remember feeling like a little bitch when I was out with girls, walking next to them and feeling the same size as them." Social and sexual pressure from society made Zzyz feel completely inadequate with his natural physiology. For him, and many boys today, taking extreme lengths to alter their body shape so as to conform to the hypersexual conceptions of gender stereotypes was his only way to happiness.

Feminists have for decades discusses the apparent free choices that many women make in terms of their appearance, that are in fact pressured upon them. They don't just discuss bra burning and kicking men in the balls. They discuss why the number of Asian women undergoing eyelid surgery doubled between 1997 and 2001, why eighty per cent of women in the UK are concerned about their weight at any one time (Farrell 1995), why so many black women feel the need to straighten their hair and white women use sunbeds. They examine social norms and cultural practices, such as images in the media and the gender conscious way we raise young girls to explain and liberate women from such pressures.

Jenifer Saul writes, "feminist worries about women's appearance related pursuits are not criticism of women who engage in and enjoy such pursuits." Few feminists, contrary to popular myth, believe that women truly don't, or shouldn't, enjoy beautifying themselves, for the benefit of men or otherwise. Similarly, I don't wish to suggest that men don't enjoy, or shouldn't be going to the gym. Only that the narrative and images found across social media are narrowing the amount of choices, or body shapes, that young men feel are acceptable. We are now bombarded with images of men with unattainable, impossible physiques; not only now in the mainstream media, but also more intimately over social media, of people we actually know. This leaves many young men feeling like they have to train at the gym to ever feel as if their physique is acceptable to their peers, often within the cultural context of social media.

I believe the evidence for this assertion to be plentiful. Gym memberships have sored and the protein shake industry exploded in close coloration with the rise of social media and facbook. Facebook itself is absolutely flooded by topless images of young men, usually at the gym. Many young men who might not at first seem the types to be particularly image conscious are now going to extreme and sometimes unhealthy lengths to change their body, photograph it and share the images on social media. Those images then contribute to influencing other young men - it's a vicious cycle.

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In the interview Zzyz goes on to openly describe the social setting that fostered the jealousy and self-conscious vanity that would push him into the gym - "After My HSC, it was holidays, and I started going clubbing every weekend and always noticed whenever a jacked dude walked by, they had a presence a lot greater than that of a 'normal' person. The guys respect them, and the girls are all over them." Many young men today, like Zzyz, truly believe the only way to get the "respect" they so desire is to get 'ripped'. There nothing wrong with gaining and rewarding respect to someone who stays in shape, who takes car of them-selves. But there's nothing healthy about the protein shake, supplement fuelled lifestyle that killed Zzyz, and there's nothing wrong with the natural physiques that most "normal" men posses.

In my view, figures like Zzyz pressure and coerce young men down a dangerous path. Ironically however some commentators have credited celebrity amateur body builders like Zzyz with reviving an interest in fitness and training in young men. Body Building website returnofkings.com stated, "Zyzz single-handedly made bodybuilding popular again among teenage boys, which is no mean feat in a culture where brazen displays of masculinity are stigmatised by the feminist establishment."

Curiously, masculinity as exhibited by Zzyz, his followers and millions of young men across social median would be considered distinctly un-masculine according to historic conceptions / social constructions of what it is to be Masculine. Overt masculinity once preached disregard of, or apathy towards aesthetic appearance. Vainly obsessing over the minutia of appearance was considered small-minded and distinctly feminine. Today's 'masculine' facebook body builders are bleaching their teeth, removing any trace over body hair, using cosmetics and constantly getting fake tans. The fact that such behaviour is now considered part of, "brazen displays of masculinity" means that our very conception of what is 'masculine' has blurred. Zyzz and his crew appeared to be acutely aware of this fact; they accompany many of their posts with the phrase, "no homo." They certainly borrow a great deal from gay culture, the traditional adversaries of 'Masculinity,' but today, it seems the two are easily confused.

Facebook body builders are not only victims of similar forms of pressure traditionally associated with women, but they have in fact begun to shift the boundaries of what is considered masculine. Their form of masculinity can now be criticised for displaying vices that traditional conceptions of femininity are, rightly or wrongly, subject too. Their growing prominence perpetuates the increasing amount of pressure young men face in modern society to change their body that only women were once thought to face. Pressure that is exerted more potently and obviously over social media that in any other area of modern life.

Most men who train at a gym are rational, happy, sane individuals. But some of those who do it just for Facebook likes might be described as vain, small-minded men crippled by self-consciousness and a desire to conform to distorted social norms. I for one am not 'mirin'.

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References

Most discussion of 'feminine appearance issues' and all feminist quotations referenced are taken from of cited in 'Feminism, Issues and Arguments' by Jennifer Saul, 2003.

Thanks to twocountriesonecistern.blogspot.co.uk for the brilliant forensic examination of the Zyzz story, "Pumping idiocy... the short life and strange death of Zyzz."