The Time Traveler: Gymming

Hugh Ellis

Recently, one of my contacts on social media was collecting names of black Namibian-owned businesses to promote. I suggested my local gym, my personal trainer…. and a chicken wing restaurant.

If that Freudian slip doesn’t sum up my entire approach to fitness and exercise, I don’t know what does.

I guess most people can name a time when they were in ‘the best shape of their life’. For me, that would have been first or second year of university, age 19 or 20, when I was walking or cycling everywhere, playing basketball three times a week, going to the gym every Saturday and Sunday. And somehow managing to party hard every other Friday – ah, the joys of youth!

Now I’m 41, and just about managing to fit in three home-gym sessions a week, and maybe cruise around the burbs on my bicycle on Saturday afternoons. I’ve also, as mentioned, developed an unfortunate taste for fried chicken, pizza, pies, and cake.

When I re-started lifting weights a few years ago, I hoped soon to look like a Men’s Health cover guy – washboard abs, pectoral muscles with their own GPS co-ordinates. Or maybe I hoped to emulate the actor Jay Ellis, no relation, well known as Lawrence in the series Insecure. When he took his shirt off – as he did quite often – well, it was a sight to behold.

Two years’ later, and I’m a work in progress. I’ve gained some muscle, to be sure, and a fair amount of strength, and at least I’ve avoided the middle-aged curse of the ‘beer belly’, but I don’t think the Men’s Health talent scouts will come knocking any day soon.

In her seminal documentary, Killing Us Softly, activist and former model Jean Kilbourne shows how the version of the beautiful body sold us by the mass media, and in particular the advertising industry, is a sham.

It picks a body type that less than five per cent of people naturally have – tall, slim hips, etc. – adds carefully controlled lighting, airbrushes away any flaws on Photoshop, then sells all this to us as an achievable ideal – provided we buy whatever – diets, makeup, jeans, anything – is on offer.

The media industry has been doing this to women for decades, but increasingly does it to men, too. Witness the hunky, chiseled superheroes in your average Marvel or DC movie, these days. The Hollywood actors of old, with their average-Joe bodies, wouldn’t have made the grade.

Recently, a celebrity magazine claimed that Aquaman star Jason Moama had been slacking off, and published pictures of his resulting ‘dad bod’. All all I can say is, if that’s a dad bod, sign me up to the program, daddy!

The writer R.W. Connell points out that ‘masculinity’ is not, and has never been, one thing. There are many possible masculinITIES. Us men signing up to the standard one, hegemonic masculinity – where we have to not only look like Superman, but act like him, all the time – does us more harm than good.

Being the ‘knight in shining armor’ may have its virtues, but who will be the jester, the poet, the magician, the healer, the philosopher? It’s a very limited definition of manhood, if you ask me.

But where does all this leave me, and my gym program?

Well, I am still trying to do more heavy lifts and eat fewer chips. But not so much so I can look like a cover model any more.

More so that I don’t die of a heart attack in ten years’ time. So I can bend down to pick up a lost paperclip without putting my back out. So I can climb the stairs to my office, or the Olaf Palme Street hill in Eros, without being out of breath. So I can live to see my current first year student obtain her third PhD.

And if I do happen, as an indirect result, to look sort-of-hot for the ‘Gram on the beach while on holiday in Mauritius next year (guess I’m hoping for a salary increase, too!), there’s no harm in that, right?

Hugh Ellis is lecturer in the Department of Communication at the Namibia University of Science and Technology (NUST). The views he expresses here are personal views. Follow his blog at, or his Instagram feed: @ellis.hugh

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