Unlike today when it’s common to see manicured, potbellied young men with powdered noses and relaxed or curly kit hair, there was an era in the 70s and 80s when men were largely defined by their muscles.
Back then, there was a gym culture across the country, which made body building almost like a national pastime among young men.
Before fat wallets and the concept of metro-sexual (where men enhance their appearance by grooming and use of fashionable clothes) took over, big muscles, six packs and broad shoulders were the epitome of male beauty.
The gym culture led to a body building boom that saw most young men hit the gym to, besides health reasons and others, make themselves appealing to ladies.
Besides it being an era of famed, muscled movie starts and wrestlers such as Rambo (Sylvester Stallone), Arnold Schwarzenegger, Hulk Hogan and Van Damme whom the youth looked up to, being muscled up was also a source of identity and respect.
Fred Orido, a gym instructor who was born and bred in Nairobi’s Eastlands, says celebrated muscle men of that era had great influence on young men.
“Inspired by wrestlers and movie stars’ cool, macho attitudes, there was a wave of young men across the country spotting muscles and others regularly sweating it out at makeshift gyms,” says Orido, adding that the sport was so popular that it became a way of life for many, the challenge of accessing a proper gym notwithstanding.
Boys aspired to be tough guys, macho men
“Despite need for a strict diet, rigorous training and proper facilities for one to build muscles, young men improvised. The gym culture spread all over, with everyone aspiring to be a tough guy with big muscles,” says Orido.
There being no facilities, it was common to see fitness enthusiasts get creative and improvise gym equipment using stones and scrap metals.
“When the fitness bug hit the country, flexing competitions and makeshift gyms began popping up all over. Besides pictures of muscled up celebs, there were plenty of motivational quotes emblazoned all over to encourage men to be fit. ‘No pain no gain’, ‘Shut up and Squat’, just to mention a few,” says Orido.
Muscles came with respect, admiration from girls
For Felix Ouma, a fitness enthusiast who was raised in Kisumu but now based in Nairobi, the body building sub-culture was so prevalent it became a national pastime of sorts when he was growing up. There was no way he would ignore it, seeing as all boys in the hood were hooked onto it.
“After watching the likes of Rambo and Schwarzenegger, we all grew up wanting to grow muscles and be macho men. It was a childhood drive or sorts to many,” he says. The gym rat says virtually behind every house in Kondele estate where he grew up, there was a makeshift gym.
“Just like today when smartphones and alcohol are all the rage, building muscles was arguably the commonest pastime among young men keen on enhancing their physical appeal,” says Ouma.
He says despite inability to afford modern gym equipment, his peers improvised by sticking a metal bar between two drilled stones or tins of ballast.
“Building a big, chiselled body… six pack and all was worthy pastime that even parents encouraged. Besides gaining respect, muscled up guys got a lot of admiration from girls. This was the epitome of male beauty,” says Ouma.
The fitness enthusiast adds that one of the other reasons why most young men wanted muscles was for safety reasons since bullying of skinny guys was common at the time.
“Hand to hand combats were common and muggers also feared such fit guys. Besides girls, many people always associated with such guys, whom they considered protectors. They even had endearing nicknames for them such as ‘First Body’,” says Ouma.
Hellen Njeri misses that era and the musclemen of yore. She fondly recalls those days, as she laughs at how most men were obsessed with building muscles and walking around in vests to show them off.
“Men like pretending that they have no time for their appearance. But they privately admire their images in mirrors and envision girls going crazy over their toned bodies,” she chuckles.
She says back in the day, fat wallets hardly determined who took home hot babes after a night out or dance but physical fitness. Apparently, men with well-built bodies stood a big chance with the girls unlike the financially loaded one.
“Before they discovered alcohol as a pastime and a fat wallet as bait for hot babes, most men were gym enthusiasts. However, obsessively observing gym routines and diets made dating a bit difficult for some,” says Njeri.
Real men took ‘ballast and gunpowder’ for breakfast
She jokes that says unlike today when some men take cerelac for breakfast, men of yore were into, what she calls ‘ballast and gunpowder’!
“You would be out with a man for a date, but he ends up spending half the time scanning the menu for healthy manly foods,” she says.
Others, she adds, were too serious with their gym regimes and had banned unhealthy snacks like biscuits, soda and crisps from their menus.
Beatrice Nduku, another 70s girl, says being rebellious and overly masculine was very sexy to many women.
She jokes that men seem to have grown up and moved on after fat wallets took over from ripped muscles.
She says that era is gone and that today you could be built like a KDF battle tank or ripped up like Arnold Schwarzenegger, but if you have no money no woman would look at you twice.
“Nowadays muscles can still attract women, but they can’t keep them around. Today, having a potbelly does not screw up a man’s chances with women, the size of his wallet does,” she says, adding that nowadays, a six pack and big muscles are only significant for celebs and bouncers but for the rest of the men, wallet first!
Potbellies and fat wallets now in vogue
Today, muscle men have been replaced by corporate types and the only place they seem to flourish is in jobs where the only qualification is muscle, like in the security sector!
John Kuya, a pot-belied man, has no kind words for gym freaks. He says the last thing he can bother about is his weight and a six pack.
He demonstrates his point by rhetorically asking, “Ni rent tutatafuta, ama ni kuunga misuli (we have better things to do than building muscles)?
He argues that if anything, the average muscle man is now associated with slow-witted, school dropout who has too much idle time.
“Out here, the mainstream perception I that a man who spends too much time in the gym is jobless, idle and has very little time for making money. Or even engaging in respectable activities like reading to expand his world view,” slams Kuya.
As much as the gym culture is still very much around, it’s on a sharp decline. So much so that the average fit-looking guy you see around is probably a jobless, recent graduate. Or hustler who looks like he is in shape due to his daily walking routine and lack of access to fast food.
But the moment he gets a job or a good cook for a wife, his body balloons out of shape. As a result of today’s lazy lifestyles, the gym is only useful when one wants to lose weight, mostly to save a failing marriage.
In his parting shot, Orido urges Kenyans, both men and women, to embrace the gym culture as it has great health benefits, besides looking good.
“Besides bouncers and celebs, who exploit the power of toned up bodies or big muscles in a generally overweight or underweight country, Kenyans only bother about the gym when it’s an order from a doctor,” says the gym instructor.
He concludes, saying that physical fitness is a function of discipline, hard work and healthy diets, which Kenyans should embrace.