I'm Torn Over The Way We're Talking About Kumail Nanjiani's Body

Two magazine features dropped this week, both focused solely on the actor's new physique, and I have a lot of thoughts.


Stacy Lee Kong

Oct 15 2021

12 mins read


Image: instagram.com/kumailn

Content warning: this newsletter contains mentions of body image, dysphoria and appearance.

A confession: I was 30 years old before I realized that I was not bad-looking. Literally, I looked in the mirror one day and realized that my face—the face I’d always had, with its round cheeks and brown eyes and nose that I've always been kind of self-conscious about—was actually pretty. Chalk it up to growing up in both the 90s and a mostly-white west-end suburb of Toronto, but I honestly spent my teens and 20s believing that my friends were all more attractive than I was, that my body wasn’t desirable and that while I might, in the right lighting and with the right outfit, be cute, beautiful was way, way out of reach. This isn't uncommon, especially for the time period we’re talking about—even more than they do now, Eurocentric beauty ideals and a distinct lack of representation in mainstream pop culture clearly spelled out what, and who, was considered attractive in the ‘90s, and racialized children quickly learned it wasn't them.

All of which is to say, a lot of what Kumail Nanjiani has been saying about his appearance this week feels deeply familiar. The actor, who’s known for his roles as Dinesh in Silicon Valley and Kumail in the semi-autobiographical romcom The Big Sick, is currently promoting The Eternals, in which he plays the extremely ripped Kingo, and as part of his press tour, he was interviewed for two major profiles, both of which focus on his body and his feelings about it.

Aaaand, I’m torn. On one hand, it’s super important to see men talk about body image, and to acknowledge the ways media representations of masculinity are restrictive, unrealistic and harmful. On the other hand, it is very weird to see these conversations about appearance and attractiveness play out on the canvas of someone’s actual body, particularly someone who is currently explicitly expressing discomfort around his looks.

It all started with the IG post heard (seen?) around the world

In some ways, it’s a little odd that we’re having the Kumail Nanjiani appearance conversation now, because we kind of already had it several times over the past two years. But the tenor of these two pieces, one in Vulture and one in GQ, feels drastically different from the way Nanjiani—and we—have talked about his body in the past.

The backstory: As GQ breaks down, Nanjiani started working out as a teenager in Pakistan, because he was “scrawny” (a classmate apparently called him “Chicken Shoulders,” an insult as nonsensical as it was scarring) but really went HAM at the gym in 2018, when he landed the role of Kingo.

“He transformed his body for the role, spending hours and hours in the gym working out with a trainer, sometimes to the point of puking,” writes Clay Skipper. In 2019, “with the transformation complete—and at the urging of one of his trainers, David Higgins—Nanjiani posted a few pics of his new bod to Instagram. Maybe you saw—and even gasped, along with the rest of the internet. Even The Rock, patron saint of swole, commented: ‘Extremely hard work. Dense muscle is hard to achieve.’” Though Nanjiani’s caption was refreshingly honest—he admitted he “would not have been able to do this if [he] didn’t have a full year with the best trainers and nutritionists paid for by the biggest studio in the world”—he also seemed pumped to be ridiculously muscular, and the world was right there with him.

He made the cover of Men’s Health and explained to GQ exactly how hard it was to get those muscles that point to his… well, you know. (The URL for the GQ story is “kumail-nanjiani-shirtless-damn,” just in case you didn’t realize how shocking his transformation was.) He appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live to talk about how jacked he had become, where Kimmel surprised him with him with a shit-ton of pizza and cake, foods he hadn’t eaten in a year. When you searched his name, Google began suggesting “before,” “height,” “jaw” and “physique” before “movies and TV shows,” which are, let’s not forget, his actual career. It hasn’t all been good; he was shamed for being too buff over the 2020 holidays, when he posted a photo of himself at the dinner table in a t-shirt. (His biceps apparently rendered him “unrecognizable.”) And people remain obsessed over whether he used steroids—criticism that is super racist, btw. It's likely any actor who gets ripped like that uses steroids, but ~mysteriously~ there was no similar backlash to Chris Pratt's body transformation.

But overall, he seemed happy with his new appearance. 

Nanjiani’s feelings about his body are clearly far more complicated than they seemed back in 2019

He doesn't appear to feel the same way now.

He tells GQ that he’s tired of talking about his body, saying, “I've found out over the last year and a half, since I did that picture, that I am very uncomfortable talking about my body—and it's become less and less and less comfortable.” His wife, Emily V. Gordon, argues that it’s almost like when young women’s breasts develop—not only did everyone notice his new physique, but they also wanted to talk to him about it. But the part where he gave two magazine profiles' worth of quotes about his body makes it clear this isn’t only external; he obviously isn’t done thinking about his muscles, nor has he worked through his feelings of insecurity or inadequacy from his pre-muscle-y days.   

In fact, in the Vulture piece, E. Alex Jung wonders if his “achievement is… also an expression of anxiety: of muscles that he hopes will affirm his value. He tells [Jung] this isn’t what happens. New body, same issues. ‘This prison has never been tighter, man,’ [Nanjiani] says. ‘Having other people decide how you feel about yourself—none of that goes away. It’s all still there. What you have to do is somehow figure out how to have self-worth from within yourself. I don’t know how to do that, but I’ll let you know once I find the key.’”  Elsewhere in the article, he tells Jung that he experiences waves of body dysmorphia—especially about his shoulders, because there’s truly no trauma like childhood trauma—and how there’s not a single day where he does not know exactly how much he weighs.

What role does Nanjiani’s brownness play into our understanding of his body, not to mention his own? When it comes to the public, I’d argue his transformation was so newsworthy because culturally, Western societies still believe that men like him don’t look like that. (This despite the existence of… um, Bollywood in general, as he points out in GQ.) Meanwhile, he explicitly says that he chose to get ripped because he was playing the first South Asian superhero and he wanted to “look like someone who can take on Thor or Captain America, or any of those people.” That’s partly about the still-common desexualization of Asian (including South Asian) men, but it’s maybe even more about Hollywood’s shift from objectifying only women’s bodies to including men’s, too. As Men’s Journal pointed out in 2016, “acting skill—even paired with leading-man looks and undeniable charisma—is not enough to get you cast in a big-budget spy thriller or a Marvel Comics franchise.” At the time, producer Deborah Snyder told the magazine, “a decade or so ago, Stallone and Van Damme and Schwarzenegger were the action stars. Now we expect actors who aren’t action stars to transform themselves. And we expect them to be big and powerful and commanding.” (I want to note here that trans and non-binary people experience layers of objectification, which is dangerous in very different ways.)

This isn't just about aesthetics, though—it’s also economic. Male stars now require a superhero/action/thriller franchise to cement their bankability, which means they definitely need to be able to look good with their shirts off (and truly, we could spend days unpacking the fatphobic, hypermasculine, white, cisgender meaning of ‘looking good’). Those who aren’t constantly within eight weeks of a 18-pack can literally cost studios money, which no movie exec would be happy about. And unsurprisingly, men with ‘perfect’ bodies get cooler roles. Just ask Nanjiani. As Jung points out, “his body got him better job offers. Not even action-hero stuff—just regular-guy roles as husbands and dads.” Like, for example, his role opposite Issa Rae in The Lovebirds. Unlike in Stuber, where the premise relies on the implication that his meek Uber driver character doesn’t really belong in an action movie, there’s no nodding and winking about his character in the 2020 rom-com. He’s just… the leading man.  

In some ways, this reminds me of the conversation we've been having about Adele’s weight loss

All of that is a whole mess—so, no wonder Nanjiani still has complicated feelings about his body. Every message you’d hope he had unlearned about attractiveness, desirability and self-worth was undermined by the world, and especially his industry’s, reaction to his decision to change his body. Before he was ripped, remember, his unattractiveness was one of the regular jokes in Silicon Valley, something he says deeply affected him, though he didn't bring it up at the time. After? Leading man roles, magazine covers and a significant rise in his public profile.

But the other fascinating thing about the Kumail-Nanjiani’s-body-is-jacked discourse is how it intersects with the ways we talk about other celebrities’ bodies. Jonah Hill’s recent Instagram post immediately comes to mind. The actor, whose weight has been a topic of conversation his entire career, posted a kind of heart-breaking request on Instagram this week: “I know you mean well but I kindly ask that you not comment on my body ❤️ Good or bad I want to politely let you know it's not helpful and doesn't feel good. Much respect."

This is the culmination of a journey Hill has been on for years; he was positioned as the 'unlikely weight loss' story as far back as 2011 and definitely did talk about wanting to lose weight in ways that I think society expects fat people to do, but he's also been trying to push back. In a now-viral interview clip from 2014, a journalist asked him if he was "still considered the fat guy in Hollywood." Clearly uncomfortable, he deflected by asking if anyone else had any smarter questions. By February of this year, he was explicitly calling out the impact of the media and public’s body shaming on his mental health. It's very easy to see the connection between what these men are saying about their bodies and mental health and those restrictive, damaging male beauty standards I mentioned several hundred words ago.

But we should also think about Adele’s dramatic ‘transformation.’ Her recent American Vogue profile only includes one explicit reference to the controversy over her weight loss: “My body’s been objectified my entire career. It’s not just now. I understand why it’s a shock. I understand why some women especially were hurt. Visually I represented a lot of women. But I’m still the same person,” she says. “The most brutal conversations were being had by other women about my body. I was very fucking disappointed with that. That hurt my feelings.”

As in Nanjiani’s two features, which both contain references to workouts and mentions of his eating habits, Adele's quote is included in a piece that starts with a 781-word scene at her private West Hollywood gym. The exercise anecdotes are ostensibly there because the singer wants to “reclaim the narrative around her body” but also function as a reminder that her body is newsworthy. (The British Vogue approach to covering her weight loss feels different, though it takes up about the same amount of the story—it explicitly acknowledges that the time and money she devotes to exercise is rich people shit, debunks the stories that detail how she did it and sends up the entire idea of a revenge body.)

The conversations around Hill and Nanjiani aren't exactly the same as the ones happening about Adele, because the ownership our society feels over feminine and femme-presenting bodies is more ingrained than it is for men—plus her body means different things to different people, including a whole group of fat women who felt seen and represented by her when she was bigger. But they all make me think about what I wrote last year, when she posted that Instagram photo and shocked the world with her weight loss. Back then, I was trying to figure out how to reconcile the fact that it's deeply human to notice when someone looks different with my belief that in an ideal world, we wouldn't feel this obsessive fascination with other people's bodies. And honestly? It's more than a year later, we've had 72 million conversations about social justice... and I don't think we've actually moved past that.

But I'm more and more sure that no one’s body should make the news.

And Did You Hear About…

This fascinating Vox piece on the “Buzzfeedication of mental health,” especially on social media.

Celebrity Memoir Book Club. (It’s also a podcast, but the TikTok has pictures 🤷🏽‍♀️)

Atlantic writer Amanda Mull on the curse of online returns.

Cosmopolitan’s latest deep-dive into conspiracy theories, this time about the therapists who are helping “deprogram” former QAnoners.

Vulture’s Ben Affleck day, and especially this piece on the biggest contradiction of his stardom.

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