You spent over a decade studying the fitness and bodybuilding world in India. What made you focus on India? And did you join local gyms to get the full experience?
I first became interested in India when the country celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1997. That year, international magazines were paying considerable attention to the transformation the country had undergone since the economic liberalisation of 1991. As a student of anthropology, I started wondering how Indians themselves experienced this change. Besides the rapid growth of shopping malls and new places of leisure everywhere, I couldn’t help notice the mushrooming of gyms everywhere. At first I had simply interpreted this as a sign that people were concerned about their health, but there seemed to be much more going on. While I visited gyms and attended bodybuilding and male modelling competitions across India, I particularly spent a lot of time in one small neighbourhood gym in South Delhi. This really helped develop a better understanding of the daily interactions between clients and trainers.
Indians once thought of potbellies as a sign of prosperity (what we in Hindi say ‘khate peete ghar ka’). Is Bollywood the trigger for body-building becoming a status symbol?
It really took three Bollywood movies to move away from the old potbelly ideal and popularise a lean, muscular variety instead. Pyaar Kiya to Darna Kya (1998) with Salman Khan was the first time men realised what could be achieved with their bodies. The actual fitness boom in India commenced in full only when Shah Rukh Khan revealed his freshly-baked six-pack in Om Shanti Om (2007). After that it became crucial for movies to highlight the transformation a star had undergone in terms of his body. Aamir Khan remains the uncrowned king of bodily transformation, something that started with Ghajini (2008) and reached new heights with Dangal (2016).
You have noted in the book that the relationship between trainer and client is one that trades “bodily capital” with the promise of upward social mobility. Could you explain?
Trainers are generally from lower (‘new’) middle-class and vernacular backgrounds while their clients belong to the English-speaking upper (‘older’) middle-class. While we often think that the most important factor of difference is money, I found that social capital matters equally, if not more. This includes things like knowing how to behave in a particular setting, one’s fluency in English, what clothes to wear etc. For a person who is a new entrant to the middle class, this can be quite bewildering. During training sessions there is often time for banter which allows trainers to learn from their clients in terms of their lifestyles, to improve their English, and even pick up on business skills.
Fitness trainers and clients do get close, even romantic, across the world. Did the trainers you interviewed talk about things getting personal or are class differences keeping people apart?
It was often a source of gossip in gyms, especially when personal trainers also offered training at home. One thing that stood out was how it often led to confusion in terms of intentions. Upper middle-class female clients rarely appeared to think of it more than a one-night stand but trainers sometimes let their romantic feelings get the better of them which quickly revealed the social distance that continues to exist. Usually this would mean their contract with a particular gym was terminated. Photo shoots, modelling assignments and casting calls, on the other hand, often confront trainers with situations where they are asked for sexual favours by other men. Some men now supplement their income by offering semi-nude or pornographic content online, or by engaging in sex work. But for the majority, this is not something they are willing to consider.
Did you study any other professions that offer a similar mobility?
I have earlier published on the topic of Starbucks baristas. This is another example where employees are encouraged to bond with their regular customers, which offers the opportunity to learn from them. However, such encounters are more fleeting and less personal.
With gyms shutting down due to coronavirus lockdowns and the need for distancing even when they eventually open, do you think it will be a body blow for the industry or can it bounce back?
While the boom in fitness is ongoing, the proliferation of gyms across India felt excessive in recent years. Under the pandemic, home-gymming has seen a huge surge with trainers making house calls. Another important development is outdoor ‘functional’ training which takes place in parks and nature. Most trainers are typically self-made men and they are by nature survivors but there has been a huge loss of income due to the pandemic.