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Rise of the Muscle Nerds

I wake up, drink two glasses of water, and fire up the cable box.

In my mind, I’ve geared myself up for working out, and I’ve put on my shorts and sneakers.

The toned fitness instructor, summoned from her on-demand cloister, is ready to send me huffing and puffing through an aerobics routine that’s advertised for women getting their bodies bikini-ready rather than stocky, decently muscled men trying to shed a few pounds.

I do it anyway, all the lunging and raising and and kicking, the plyometric jumps and bicycle crunches and jump-roping. I huff. I puff. I stop and drink some water, then return for more punishment. I hate aerobics. Hate them hate them hate them. Yet 10 minutes after doing them, I feel great, thinking, “Oh yeah, we’ll do this again tomorrow!”

Yes, it’s that time when I’m ready to lose a few pounds.

Well, more like 20, if I can hack it. Not sure if I can.

I’m stocky. This wide-set, 5-foot-10-inch frame barely betrays the 200-plus pounds packed onto it.

Just looking to tone up, but my body has maintained pretty well since that Lenten spring 10 years ago of triple-workouts to develop pop-able pectorals and defined arms. I look like a lacrosse player, for crissakes, all chest and arms, shoulders that don’t need pads in suit jackets, and tree-trunk legs that make relaxed-fit jeans look skinny-cut.

In other words, I’m not built like a nerd. Right?

When I first got in shape, I gave away all my baggy clothes and began wearing close-cut apparel. Suddenly, words such as “thin” and “sexy” were being thrown in my direction; words you don’t hear every day as a nerd in the wider world.

Nerds and geeks are stereotyped in popular culture as spindly-built wimps or overweight slobs.

Like most stereotypes, they exist because you see them. I spent years 10-18 in my neighborhood comic book shop, and I lost count of how many men could be confused with Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons. And we’ve all known enough Revenge of the Nerds– and Big Bang Theory-looking folks in our geek circles.

But these days, the culture’s getting more and more confused.

There are far more geeks built like non-geeks, or, dare I say, jocks and meatheads. I call them muscle nerds. For some of us, we’re just stylish nerds working our geek chic, including our bodies. Others end up being funhouse mirrors of insecurity. It’s also a response to a mainstream culture that tells us muscles and brawn belong the realm of the alpha male, and geek stuff is irrevocably beta.

Look at those Dos Equis commercials featuring “The Most Interesting Man in the World.” He’s shown ice fishing, playing jai alai and fencing kenpo, but never delivering a lecture or solving a chemical compound in a lab.

Why is this muscle nerd culture happening now?

Mainstream culture’s idea of maleness has been confused and under duress for at least 20 years now. Women outnumber men in colleges, the work force and other traditionally male-gendered enterprises. America’s society and economy are phasing out the Elks clubs, bowling leagues and factories that men called their domains.

Nerds are now caught up in the shuffle, too, as what was nerdly now is world-beating in the digital information age. But unlike the ’60s Kennedy-era manly intellectual science-sportsman – best personified in Silver Age comics heroes such as the Flash and Green Lantern – it’s now about getting ripped. Not just muscled, but jacked.

I think that the fashion, looks and glamor industry has been pushing its agenda extra-hard to men over the past 15 years, gaining major breakthroughs in the rise of boutique-style men’s clothing stores (Structure, which became Express Men), Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, the so-called metrosexual look, Kiehl’s, The Art of Shaving and so on. And since much of this ethos came through a gay-male lens, the heteros fired back in Esquire, Men’s Health, superhero movies, P90X and RipFire. (I’m getting married next year, and I’ve got the P90X coming.)

Now every man’s supposed to have an inner alpha.

It’s infiltrated even Hollywood romantic comedies such as the recent Crazy, Stupid, Love. Is there any real reason that Ryan Gosling has that “It’s like you’ve been Photoshopped!” body of his? There’s no function to that Ferrari body despite its sculpted perfection. But he’s the alpha as opposed to Steve Carell, who actually is in real-world, fitness-based, good shape. But not by glamor standards.

Perhaps this divide of the so-called jock domain, of athletic hard-bodies, and the presumed nerd domain, of science and literature and theater, is why there are so few Americans in the superhero movies. Kids growing up here are forced to pick one track or the other, whereas those muscle-y, actor-y Brits and Australians are free to pursue both. Christian Bale can move from The Machinist to Batman Begins without issue. But Chris Evans didn’t want to get “stuck” playing Captain America forever.

Even worse, now we have to hear the muscle guy horn in on the nerd stuff. Do you think Ryan Reynolds really likes comic books when he laughed through a bunch of Green Lantern interviews? Remember when he was just some lame-ish actor of unsuccessful projects before he got jacked?

Maybe this sticks with me because of my own body insecurities, despite how much I like my body. And I’m sure being a non-athletic kid – and black, no less, where sports is damn near expected both inside and outside the community – plays into it, too. I know I won’t ever look like the black athletes that dominate popular images to the point that I’ve had several non-black folks tell me they thought black men were naturally more muscular. Yeah.

So I keep telling myself: muscles and geekitude live apart only if we make them. No one thing belongs to one type. So everyone, be happy and healthy in the body you’re given, and make it the best it can be, both brains and brawn.

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