Men’s Pursuit of God-Like Bodies

by Riley

The rippling, muscular, gargantuan male figure has become a highly desirable body type throughout America. From comic books to advertisements to major motion picture, this physique is constantly displayed through media. Gyms across the nation are filled with men trying to gain muscle mass and improve their figure, and bodies are even judged in a competitive format at body-building contests. The anthropological theories of cultural evolution and symbolic interpretation offer compelling insight into the muscular male figure and the desire for men to achieve it.

The cultural evolutionary theory of anthropology, though outdated, offers interesting insights into the muscular, god-like figure. As this theory sprouted and garnered popularity in the late 19th to early 20th century, its practitioners attempted to rate cultures on a scale, which ranged from “savage” to “civilized.”[1] In this time period, the large, muscular body may have actually been placed lower on the cultural evolutionary scale, near the savage category. The civilized label was used to describe cultures that relied upon technology and promoted intellectual growth, and sought-after careers generally did not require manual labor or large, muscular bodies. On the contrary, many cultures that would have been deemed savage had a reliance upon hunting, gathering, and strenuous manual work. This lifestyle required a more fit, strong physique than that of an academic or business owner in this era. Thus, a massive muscular body would have been associated with lower, more “savage” cultures. However, over time, weight lifting and fitness gained immense popularity in American and European culture, and these physiques became desirable in “civilized” societies. In the modern era, cultural evolutionary theory may judge large muscular statures highly on the evolutionary scale due to the contemporary emphasis on fitness and body-improvement.

The symbolic and interpretive anthropological theory offers very different perspective on the strong, powerful physique. This lens focuses on symbols and their cultural importance, analyzing the meaning of said symbols through an emic, or insider, perspective.[2] Interpretive anthropology may argue that a monstrous, muscular body symbolizes masculinity and power. This perspective may assert that the modern pursuit of superhero physiques reflects a desire- conscious or subconscious- to appear powerful and virile. As well-built, athletic men are persistently portrayed as sexually desirable protagonists in Hollywood, this physique can be can also interpreted as a symbol for sex appeal in modern American culture. Advertisements endlessly buttress this symbol, persuading their audience to purchase products related to improving one’s physique. As the god-like figure has come to represent sex appeal, masculinity, and power, it is easy to understand the passionate desire for men to achieve such a body.

The theories of cultural evolution and symbolic interpretation offer two very different perspectives on the modern muscular male figure, yet both offer interesting insight into the physique and the desire to attain it. As desirable body types are continuously changing, anthropological theories help understand the significance being these figures.



[1] McGranahan, Carole. “Cultural Evolution.” University of Colorado at Boulder. Boulder, CO. 9 Sept 2015. Lecture.

[2] “Symbolic and Interpretive Anthropology.” Anthrotheory. n.p., n.d. Web. 17 Sept 2015.

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40 Responses to Men’s Pursuit of God-Like Bodies

  1. Logan English says:

    I definitely agree with the statements in this post and think the theories used were well related to the topic. Something I thought of while reading is now, we are even seeing a huge rise of women trying to develop this body type! So not only have men in our society tries to peruse “god-like” bodies but it has even transferred to women and we are seeing for example, both men and women body building competitions! -Logan English

    • Graham Gore says:

      Good point. This is true, and with Ronda being in the spotlight recently (because she’s awesome) there is a new category. It would be interesting to see that take on this topic. Maybe someone on the next round can bring the feminist anthropologist perspective in to it as well, I think that would be very interesting. There have been many like Ronda (in athletics, not mma) in the past that havnt gotten anywhere near the attention that Ronda has (also those that have, like the Williams sisters). The cultural evolutionist theory would be an interesting lens to view this through as well.

  2. Kei-Lynn Swindle says:

    To say that most women find muscular men desirable is false which is why your view on this topic is compelling. The media does throw muscles in our faces and bombard us with protein shakes and bars that will enhance muscle growth. In more recent ads however, I have seen men portrayed with thick black-rimmed glasses as well as “classy” clothes and being deemed as something women should desire in ads for GQ magazine and many Macy’s commercials. If we do use the fundamentals of the cultural evolutionary theory, we can see another shift that states men with more than big muscles but with big brains and class are deemed “civilized” while men who are all brawn are more “savage”. Do you see the same shift?

    • Reilly Kahat says:

      It is clear that Riley is sending the message that “most women find muscular men desirable,” but I dont think you can logically state that it is false. He/she is bringing to light through the symbolic and interperative theory and thus an “emic, or insider, persepective” that in American cultrue not only women, but also men have tendencies to view their own bodies as lesser than others because many media sources condition them to constantly compare and categorize people based on things like weight, physic, and health. This is undeniable, and the symbolisim used to reach the intenteded, male intersted, audience contains significant anthropological information. I would claim that any message of most women finding muscualar men desireable simply a matter of opinion and not fact and therefore not false, but debatable unless there is statistical significane suggesting otherwise. Your support, recent ads using different symbols and portraying intelligence and class as desirable does not contridict the truth or falsity of Rileys writing but simply implies a shift in cultural preference which you have notted and I fully agree with. I see the same shift.

  3. Paul Fox says:

    Even proffesional athletes have caught on to this shift from brawny to brainy and brawny. The best example of this is when an NBA player wears thick-framed glasses at their press conferences. All they have to do to look smart is throw on some glasses and voila, they’re smart!

  4. I think the most meaningful and important part of this essay is the mention that what is perfect and desirable in a body of either gender is always changing. Not only is it different across almost all cultures but it is constantly being influenced by popular media, history, religion and many other factors. Both theories mentioned have a very interesting and valid insight in to this topic and I can see how both are true in some ways, but I think it is the most fascinating that how the cultural evolutionary theory would explain the human ideas on the ideal body has come full circle in history. What we once thought labeled a person savage or civilized changed in many places throughout the world but we have recently come back to thinking for example that men with more pale skin and glasses are civilized and attractive where as men with muscular and tanned bodies might be more ignorant and savage just for caring and putting more effort in to how they look rather than their intellectual qualities.

    • Sarah says:

      I completely agree with you Hanna! I find the example you used of how we label men in our society today very compelling. It is strange how we believe that we can infer so much about someone’s personality from their appearance. Some recent studies have been done where a plain, unedited photo of a woman is distributed to talented photo shop editors across the world to depict how this woman could be manipulated to be more valued in that particular society. I think it would be interesting to see this type of study done about the ideal male appearance across different cultures as well.

  5. Patrick Ingram says:

    I think you makes some really good points about how the views of male bodies have changed over time. From wanting a less physically fit body to a ripped muscular body, but I think this could be changing even more. Most people I know now are really focused on useful muscle and not just a massive god like appearance. So the question I’m really asking is do you think this evolution of perfect body image, over time will continue to transform into a more usable athletic physique over a large “god” like body?

  6. Alexander Billing says:

    An interesting article for sure. It puts a pressure onto men to be physically fit that is not unlike the pressure on women to be skinny. Often times in both cases the Hollywood body is unobtainable to most people due to the gap between their current situation and what the media says is best. In some cases people with certain body types, determined by genetics will never be able to (healthily) approach this standard no matter how hard they try.

    • Atlas Catlett says:

      I agree with you, Alexander, in saying that men and their desire for “god-like” bodies aren’t entirely dissimilar to women and their desire for the opposite. I think there is an interesting juxtaposition between this essay the the essay written on the thigh gap [I feel like they are talking about very similar cultural phenomenons]. However, I was surprised that steroid usage wasn’t brought up in this essay. The essay on anti-thigh-gap culture bathed that physical obsession in a negative unhealthy light. Conversely, this essay talked about the drive for “god-like” musculature in a relatively positive way. If steroids and other enhancing drugs are brought into the picture, how would this change the anthropological explanations?

      • Karina Bonds says:

        I agree that it is difficult to make an argument about muscular desirability without discussing the use of steroids.

  7. Victoria Prager says:

    While you constructed both theories perfectly to this topic, I am particularly impressed with your use of the cultural evolutionary theory. It is kind of strange to remember that our standards of beauty are continually morphing, just how a plump figure and pale complexion used to be construed as a sign of wealth, now tan skin and lanky build is considered the pinnacle of beauty. You captured perfectly this constant change within society on what is deemed the perfect form a human can obtain. As for your point on symbolic and interpretive anthropology, in my opinion most male models and actors that are considered attractive may be in shape but don’t have this, “god-like build” mentioned in your essay, those that do being in a minority. So while I understand and respect your perspective, I do not completely agree with your conclusion. Overall, I found your essay very well written and compelling.

  8. mia cupidro says:

    Very interesting idea how social and technological evolution can evolve our perceptions of attractiveness. As I read your paper, for some reason, It made me think of the movie Hip Hop: Beyond beats and Rhymes. On a parallel side note latching onto the idea of political and economical evolution changing appearance, in this movie, they try and explain how the appearance of rappers had changed over the course of the years to become more and more masculine because of the racial and class disparity that was happening in the Bronx at the time. As these neighbors felt like they were losing power (building of the highway over their neighborhood, widening poverty and the police crackdowns) the men in hip-hop culture started appearing manlier, bigger muscles, carrying guns in videos, always having a “sexy” woman standing next to them and other tactics that made them appear more attractive and powerful through common symbols of masculinity such as strength, violence, and sex.

    Although kind of off topic, I think this goes back to your article in saying that there is a lot of wider-scaled cultural phenomena that is at work behind what we perceive as attractive.

  9. Garrett Owen says:

    I thought you made the right choice for this article because it is both intriguing and accurate of the social ideas of the male body. I especially liked your paragraph on the symbolic anthropology, and the emphasis put on the good looking male. You highlighted that this is mainly due to Hollywood portraying the afore mentioned image. But I feel like not only people wanting to better their physical image are bent on looking like gods. Is it safe to say that some men just want to get in shape without feeling the need to be a beef cake? But overall- I really liked that article, and your articulation of anthropological points was great!

  10. Justin Wheaton says:

    Overall it’s not a bad essay, but I have to disagree with your reasoning and examples in the second paragraph. The ‘savage’ and ‘civilized’ classifications were never about muscle. Civilized was defined as a society (typically western Europe, also America a little later, because they made the classification) that had a system of writing, commerce, government, and, as you said, intellectual progress. Savage is typically used for people that lived in tribes and obtained food by hunting and gathering. Even the barbarian classification was defined as people who possess flocks and herds, and practice agriculture. None of those have any mention of muscle or the strength of a person. While the ‘savages’ and ‘barbarians’ may have been more muscular (which is debatable) it was never about strength.

    All of these definitions and examples I used are from an 1887 New York school geography book that I own.

    Harper & Brothers. Harper’s School Geography. New York, 1887. Print.
    I hope I cited that correctly.

  11. Laura Hiserodt says:

    I really enjoyed this essay, and enjoyed how you highlighted the importance of men having “fit” bodies in society today. We get so caught up with stressing how women should love themselves and not conform to the media’s portrayal of sexy that we almost forget that men are fighting the same self-conscious battle. the “god-like” body which is portrayed in every movie, commercial, advertisement, etc. is considered the ideal and because of that, men are put under just as much body pressure as women. I was intrigued by your comparison of men who used their strength for survival skills to todays society where men only build up strength for cosmetic and personal reasons.

  12. Connor Johnstone says:

    Very well organized essay and a clear use of two anthropological theories. I enjoyed how you pointed out the fact that the definition of savage and how humans perceive something as savage has changed over time with the requirements within a society. For example, you state that big muscles used to be associated with savages because they hunted all the time and did a lot of physical labor which caused them to grow larger muscles than someone who is not performing these tasks all day. Now as we can see over time, this idea has been passed on to the idea of sports. Huge massive defensive and offensive line players in football really make up a very important part of the game, but it is all to often the skinny more toned quarterbacks and receivers that get more attention from media and society because while they are still strong, they are not considered “savages” like the other muscular players on the team. That is why I liked how you showed the distinction between what it means to be huge today versus in the past.

  13. beel9934 says:

    I especially liked your first paragraph, using cultural evolution, because I think it highlights an overarching cultural trend to glorify an aspect of the body that somehow relates the the class system of the society. The fact that muscular/athletic bodies are more popular today in a society that places less emphasis on manual labor seems strange in that what is physically attractive does not necessarily correspond with what is socially attractive. This seems much different than other trends in attraction; for example how, in times of a less stable food supply, a fatter body shape was considered more attractive as it indicated wealth and access to a steady food base. My guess would be that part of the reason the “god like” body shape has become more and more popular is that, in a society defined by consumption, a more athletic/fit body suggests self control and restraint as well as a desire for self maintenance.

  14. Molly Mallgraf says:

    I like that you used the cultural evolutionary theory to describe this male phenomenon. I think you are right in the fact that a big build would be seen as savage and lower class in the past, but what intrigues me is how a cultural evolutionist would see this build in today’s society. Are men with big muscles seen as unintelligent meat heads or are they seen as attractive and powerful? The question could really go both ways depending on the audience one asks it to, but which one is right? As a largely-built and muscular man are you judged to be high society or low society in American culture in 2015?

  15. Larissa Hunt says:

    I think you did a really good job of exploring this godlike body with the two particular theories that you chose and you make some really great points. But I’m wondering if this godlike figure is actually so appealing to the general population and really deemed, as you said through the symbolic interpretative theory, as such an ideal body type. Yes, it is masqueraded as so amazing through media and shown in pictures and on instagram as something to really accomplish and become. But then again, I would say that in person and when you actually think about the person as a whole, I don’t think people idealize this all that much. In hindsight, it may seem attractive, but in reality, in may still be viewed, in cultural evolutionary words, as savage.

  16. I thought your use of the cultural evolution theory was very insightful in accurately describing how people view strong, athletic men in society. I think something else you could have mentioned is that has grown largely in the last century due to the rapidly growing population of sports and how well these athletes are being paid due to its popularity. So now some of these athletes, whether they received a college education or not, have millions of dollars in income which makes them of high societal status. Also, as you mentioned, a healthy, fit physique has become more desirable to the general public and a lot of people use the term ‘health is wealth’. This further demonstrates how the body image has changed over time

  17. Evan Mastro says:

    Very cool how you used the cultural evolution in your essay. I thought it was interesting how you tied it all the way back to “savage” societies. However I am interested in what made you believe that more civilized societies did not have the same ideal image? Very interesting point, just wondering if there is a specific example of a society that allowed you to jump to this conclusion. Overall very well written and interesting! Good Job!

  18. Awesome essay, I also like how you used the cultural evolutionary theory in your essay, the comparing of ideal body types was interesting and I could defiantly see that being the case. A really good part in your essay came when you described the pursuit of the ideal body as more of a subconscious urge making us want to seem desirable, the perfect mate so to speak. i feel this is all to true, we have it hardwired into our brains to want to seem as attractive as possible to the opposite sex and i think that the pursuit of a muscular body is just another way of achieving that goal. Great essay, Really well written!

    • Nicole Mattson says:

      I agree! I think you bring up a good point which even ties in with the basic principles behind structuralism, such as how we all share a universal cognition and we feel the need to create these binary oppositions such as healthy/unhealthy, attractive/unattractive, etc. As you mention, it seems as though people subconsciously strive to attain and embody the more positive of the two, but we all make these distinctions no matter where we are in the world. Even though people’s ideal body types across various societies may differ, meaning the content is socially specific, the fundamentally way in which we view them, or our cognitive structures, are universal.

  19. Morgan Sievert says:

    Its interesting to note that in my Italian Culture class, we were studying Renaissance art and I realized that most the paintings and sculptures portrayed men as these huge/muscular beings. People in Italy during the 1400s didn’t have this body type that was being explicitly shown throughout the Renaissance but they had an affinity for that archetypal figure. This era was also one of thinking and intellectual thought, so I suppose that an evolutionist would put the muscular combined with high intellect high on the civilized side. I think those qualities are most looked up to today as well. I really enjoyed your thoughts on this blog, It really caught my interest. Cheers!

  20. I have to say that I really enjoyed this essay. I like that you chose to write about something that many people probably didn’t think of. I especially enjoyed your paragraph about the cultural evolutionary theory and how you spoke about the scale from “savage” to “civilized”. In todays world, perspectives are changing each and everyday and with your words you were able to capture how that constant change within society changes peoples ideas or goals for their own body types. I agree with your points and overall I think you achieved with relaying the main message you were trying to portray. Very well written and definitely kept me interested

  21. Tyler Nielsen says:

    I like your essay and explanation using an anthropologists perspective from two points. It is hard not to see the symbolism for muscular bodies everywhere either promoting fitness or a brand. I like how you used the continuously evolving opposed views of the muscular body as either savage or god-like. I wonder what a Functionalist would have to say about muscular bodies and how they play a part in society.

  22. August Clausson says:

    Do you think that the motivating factor for attaining such a physique is societal pressure or simply an individual desire to be better?

  23. Natalie Bowes says:

    I thought this essay was very thought provoking and the two anthropological theories used to support it were perfect for the context! It was interesting how you used cultural evolutionary theory of anthropology to depict how in the past a muscular physique was seen as a characterization for a ‘savage,’ and contrasted that to our culture present day and our societies emphasis on a chiseled build. This essay made me think weather what we deem as attractive in todays society will eventually transform and this muscular physique will no longer be the desired male body type?

  24. Jevan Yamamoto says:

    This article is highly intriguing in the fact that it takes a look at a different angle to american culture. It touches base on an activity that many people pursue, yet they don’t put second thought into it. I believe some people pursue these “God-like” bodies, only because other people are also, its a domino effect and in the end, people will follow what other people do, aka trends. However, these pursuits of “God-like” bodies is explained fairly well in the cultural evolution theory, but i do believe that this type of pursuit has been going on since the beginning of time, whether deemed savage or civilized. Having muscular bodies represents, as you stated, whether you are an alpha or a beta male, and back in the day, men with these body structures would find mates easier or harder. They were there as an intimidation factor for enemies, etc. Overall, this is a very well written article and Im glad I read this because it definitely is thought provoking.

  25. Matt Levy says:

    The contrast between these two theories is very well illustrated in this article. The Evolutionary model is geared towards figuring out where a group lies in terms of sophistication, so it’s very easy to picture anthropologists drawing the conclusion back then that stronger, less educated people were also less civilized. But the Symbolic Interpretation theory wants to dig deeper, so they would point to the obsession with fitness in our culture as an indicator of why people work so hard to appear strong and sexy.

  26. Graham Gore says:

    Very interesting essay. I like the cultural evolutionist perspective (not that I agree with the theory). You would think that being the “apex predator”, that muscular body type would have always existed in society. Not the body builder muscular, because those bodies are for show, not necessarily for efficiency or survival. The “corn – fed farmer boy” body type (think strong man comp vs body builder comp) is much more of a “usable strength” body type. I mean, “savage” societies don’t exactly curl rocks while watching themselves in the reflection off the lake. A closer comparison may be the body of the cross-fit oriented body, since it is aimed practical strength. It is interesting however, how the “desirable body type” fluctuates through time. I can see where the theory could pick up on the idea that the more muscular body types show not that of alpha, but show that one is in physical labor, which has also changed in terms of societal perspective in recent times. In the world of money, one doesnt need big muscles to hold the power. In fact, they (the powerful) more often than not feel that physical labor is beneath them. So having a body type that resonates with that lifestyle would “cripple” their image.
    The symbolic theory and its link to the gods of times past is very compelling. Big muscled men have always been used to convey strength and power, usually leadership in the western world. I think that this very much still exists in today’s society. Guys want to be big, just to be big. To feel powerful, to feel intimidating, to not feel vulnerable. We do not like to feel like a beta in a world of alpha’s. I think this aspect of the interpretation (and our society) will remain true until there is truly a world of peace. One where there is no need for one to prove that he is alpha. Then again, it may simply be a part of who we are, a piece of being human. I’d like to think otherwise.

  27. Natalie Buchholz says:

    I think this is an incredibly interesting view point on body issues. We are so used to hearing about the female side of body image, that we often forget that men have just as hard of a time with body issues. I particularly found it interesting that you chose to illustrate how body image has changed over time by using the cultural evolutionary theory. While it is an outdated theory, it really helped illustrate the point you were trying to get across. I wish you had more space to go into more detail, as a woman I am interested in hearing about male struggles in this area, all I hear about is the feminine side of the issue.
    Do you have any other examples of places where men feel this pressure? As a woman I know exactly where we feel societal pressures for body perfection, but I’m really not sure where men feel it from.

  28. Juan Guevara says:

    I really enjoyed this piece and as an avid weight lifter I can agree on a lot of points. My personal reasons for weight lifting and gaining muscle are to over all keep my body at a healthy state, but also to have a good physique I can feel proud and confident about. Females arent the only ones worried about their body image as I am also worried about my body image as well. I never want to be “fat”. I use the term fat very loosely because my definition of fat could be different from others. If I dont have some sort of jaw line, or if I cant see my abs when I flex I would consider myself fat. Perhaps that could be a different essay of it’s own and I feel like I’m getting off topic here but yes, to be a “God” in modern society, or even to be “superman” is the most desired body type of a man. Not too bulky like the HULK but to be chiseled like a Greek god is biologically most desired by women (and certain men).

  29. Johncarlos Roos says:

    I believe this was a very strong and well-spoken essay and conveyed the cultural evolution theory perfectly. I think your observation of the changing of trends for men’s bodies’ overt time is very accurate. For I have seen this within my group of guy friends. It is very strange how practically none of my friends in high school lifted but when everyone first came home from college they all were now lifting almost everyday while also taking some type of supplement to help obtain the “God Bod”. Since the vision of a perfect body keeps continually changing overtime this leaves me with the question if Dad bods will ever be in one day?

  30. Priya Byati says:

    I really liked your essay, considering that lately the media has put a lot of spotlight on how the portrayal of woman is unrealistic, and leaves women with a skewed view of how a perfect woman should look like, yet, the media doesn’t cover how men’s bodies are shown in the same way, to be “god-like” or essentially perfect. It was nice to read an essay that brought light to the other side of the issue, that also explained the how and why such body types are popular through anthropologist theories. However, I wonder if there will be a different explanation via a functional anthropologists who might tie in the god-like body type with a purpose for procreation perhaps?

  31. Marissa Marino says:

    One of the most eye opening things to observe when looking at this issue is comparing G.I. Joe figures from the 1970’s to the present day society. In the 1970’s the action figure was depicted a normal body mass. Now in the present day, the figurine is bumped up on steroids and unrecognizable to the version 40 years earlier. The gender binary over the years especially has increased its gap exponentially (girls having to be more thin and men having to be more muscular). I like how you talked about attaining this god like body is ultimately just a sense of power in the masculinity gender category.

  32. Laurel Bloszies says:

    Although I find this analysis to be very intriguing, I have to admit that I disagree with the premise of the work. Western society doesn’t always idealize overly muscled macho men; if anything, they are usually portrayed as stupid and shallow in popular culture. I would submit that the “perfect” physique in Western society is a well-muscled, but still lean frame that maintains a natural looking form. A healthy look is general the one with the most appeal, not necessarily the bulkiest. Therefore I would say that, yes, the expectations for the male form are idealized, but do not lean towards the extremes of bulk and muscle mass.

  33. Donia Hanaei says:

    More than anything, your diction choice and tone drew me in right from the start of your essay. It was actually similar to a blog post that a student had referenced in recitation “Gruesome America, Botched executions…” something like that which talked about the death penalty. But that student had also chosen the article because of the descriptive and captivating language. Your language is much like that author’s language in that it captures the reader’s attention but doesn’t sound ludicrous or over the top and it takes the topic very seriously and does not make it seem like the author is belittling it.

  34. Noemi Olivas says:

    I thought your essay was very insightful and did a great job applying both theories, especially the cultural evolutionary theory. Emphasizing the change in desirability for different body types over time really helped to further your argument. I would like to see your thoughts on how this fits with structural functionalism theory. While this body type has been desirable for centuries, what do you believe has led to the particular significance that is put upon muscular bodies in the modern United States?

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