Visibly toned abdominal muscles have long served as a shorthand for sexiness, at least when it comes to media portrayals of cinema hotties and celebrities. The stars and their toned torsos have dominated movies and magazine spreads alike since it was legal to be shirtless in a movie, circa 1977, when Arnold Schwarzenegger invented being massive in Pumping Iron (per my deeply unofficial calculations). The culture has reacted accordingly: Abs are hot, and hot requires abs. Of course, there are different ab standards for different people: the “ideal” masculine abs come in a pack of six to eight, and the “ideal” feminine abs are toned but not ripped or anything (that would be way too threatening to gender roles!!!). It seems like the cultural focus on abs isn’t going anywhere. With the prophesied 2020 return of low-rise jeans fast approaching, and yet another celebrity—actor and comedian Kumail Nanjiani—debuting his abs-tacular body transformation in advance of his Marvel movie debut, abs must be here to stay! Right?
Here’s the thing: while the photographic evidence of Nanjiani’s body transformation drew some predictable digital wolf whistles, it has also received a ton of flack online, some playful and some… less so. Buzzfeed dropped a quiz titled “Which Kumail Nanjiani Ab Are You?” and Vulture called Nanjiani “unsettlingly swole.” Meanwhile, Twitter users criticized Nanjiani for obscuring the methods he used to obtain his new physique and for reinforcing the idea that a comic book body (with proportions ranging from unrealistic to physically impossible) is a prerequisite for appearing in a comic book movie.
All of this, to me, points to a clear shift away from prizing abs above any other physical attribute, both in our partners and ourselves. People are already furious about the mere prospect of being forced back into a more stomach-centric pants style after luxuriating in the comfort of high-waisted pants for the past four or five years—and in November, fashion writer Rachel Syme predicted in a New Yorker article that we’re only going to make waists higher and higher… more evidence of the impending ab phase-out. Also, let’s be honest: A lot of us are spending more time than ever trying to cobble together some semblance of a healthy lifestyle in the midst of rising rates of stress and loneliness, an impending recession, job insecurity, and prohibitively expensive healthcare. That kind of triage work doesn’t leave a ton of time or energy for cultivating a tight bod.
Of course, it’s probably wishful thinking to believe that this attitude shift is an actual harbinger of the Absopocalypse. It’s extremely hard to envision a future where a toned tummy or sculpted abs fall so out of vogue that they become downright unattractive physical attributes. It’s also worth noting that the physical transformations of schlubby white actors like The Worst Chris (Pratt), Office Jim, and Seth Rogen (who I respect enough to call by his real name) were treated more like drool-inducing glow-ups and less like “Deflating Male Beauty Standards 101.” Hopefully, though, all the fuss just means that we’re finally moving to a place where we can acknowledge that having abs isn’t the only way to climb the pinnacle of Hot.
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