It's been nearly two years since Kumail Nanjiani took to Instagram to share a shirtless photo of himself, putting his brand new abs and muscular arms on display. "I never thought I'd be one of those people who would post a thirsty shirtless, but I've worked way too hard for way too long so here we are," he captioned the photo. But already the actor, who transformed his body for the upcoming Marvel's Eternals, says that growing tired of talking about his physique.
"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," he told GQ for the November issue, "and it's become less and less and less comfortable."
While Nanjiani isn't uncomfortable with his appearance, the 43-year-old explains that it's the perpetuation of toxic masculinity that he remains cautious of and how a body that looks like his now lends to that.
"It is aggression," he said of the idealized male body. "It is anger. A lot of times we are taught to be useful by using physical strength or our brain in an aggressive, competitive way. Not in an empathetic way. Not in an open, collaborative way. It's the same thing when you have all these guys, like, asking people to debate them on Twitter. That's the same as arm wrestling. It's about defeating. And that's what the male ideal has been. Dominating. Defeating. Crushing. Killing. Destroying. That's what being jacked is."
The Pakistani-American actor grew up quite the opposite of that, recalling that people at school would call him Chicken Shoulders because of his scrawny appearance. "It would've been better if I was like, ‘Hey, I like how I look. F*** 'em all,'" he said. "But I didn't do that."
With men like Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger at the forefront of pop culture, however, body acceptance in any other form would have been difficult.
"We saw these guys who were like Adonises and gods and we were like, 'Oh, that's what strong men look like," Nanjiani said. "Not that they can access their feelings, or cry, or say when they're sad, or say when they're scared. They have a six-pack up to their necks."
Nanjiani, of course, may look more like those men today, but he remains focused on having conversations about the reasons behind his transformation and what he's learned through it. Ultimately, it was what he felt he needed to do to not only take on his Marvel role but also to be taken more seriously as an actor.
"I wanted different types of opportunities. I wanted the industry to see me differently," he said. "With brown people, there are very specific roles that we used to get. Either we're terrified or we're causing terror. Those are the only two options we had. Either I'm fixing your computer, or I'm, like, planning something at the stock exchange."
Before stepping into a new type of role, he wanted to prove just how he could become a superhero that people respect as much as the rest.
"If I'm playing the first South Asian superhero, I want to look like someone who can take on Thor or Captain America, or any of those people," he explained of his character Kingo. "I decided I wanted the character to be the opposite of a lot of the stereotypical depictions we've seen of brown dudes in American pop culture. I don't get to play characters who are cool. And this guy is a little bit cool."
By sharing the photo, he was able to announce to the world that he was ready for more opportunities like that.
"I shared that specifically to be like, Hey, I needed to change how people saw me so I could have the type of opportunities I was excited about. And those did happen!" he said. "Now I get those opportunities. I don't just mean action stuff. I mean, like, now I get opportunities to play a normal guy. I was not seen as a normal guy before this."
The transformation has also translated into Nanjiani being treated differently in real life. He said that men, in particular, have started to approach him looking as if they're ready to fight. "It's laughable if it wasn't so f***ing devastating—and causing so many problems in the world," he said. "I just want to be like, 'Dude, if you learn how to cry, you'd just be a lot happier.'"
He also wishes that his younger self knew that what he looked like didn't matter.
"Honestly, if I could talk to myself, I would be like, 'Hey, you're great. Try and feel better about yourself. And this will be over, I promise,'" Nanjiani said. "'You're enough.'"
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