Big muscles equal a big man, or so the logic goes for many young men in Azerbaijan. For them, the ambition to bulk up through diet and exercise is more than just a matter of health: it is a symbol of masculinity.
While some believe large muscles embody the true nature of a “real Azerbaijani man,” sociologists worry physical strength has become a symptom of toxic masculinity in the culture.
Bodybuilding is a passion for Vugar Mammadov, a 20-year-old from Azerbaijan's second largest city, Ganja. Working out actually led him to a job he enjoys: Mammadov currently works at a gym in his home town. He goes to the gym four times a week and maintains a strict diet.
“I started to work out in the fifth grade at school,” he says. A common nightmare is dreaming that he loses his muscles. “When I imagine that I can wake up without my muscles, it’s a huge shock for me.”
Bodybuilding is popular in Azerbaijan, in part due to the widely-held belief that men should be strong in order to protect their families from any external attack.
Vugar Mammadov spends most of his free time going to the gym and hanging out with his male friends. “I am really shy around girls, I become very clumsy and self-conscious,” he said. He is sure that having strong muscles and an athletic body is an inherent part of masculinity, and that a real man should be physically strong.
Mammadov has been working out at the gym for seven months. Prior to that, he had trained at home, building self-discipline and healthy eating habits. He now works out at the gym for two hours, four times a week.
“I can’t imagine myself in any other profession. I know that I don't last long at any job. My only passion is transforming my body, and I am good at that,” says Vugar.
Gulnara Mehdiyeva, gender expert says that sports and healthy lifestyle are positive things. They become problematic, however, when a man's strength or athleticism is used to gauge his worth as a “real man.”
“Interpreting the image of a 'real man' as a person who is tough, emotionless, and has a dominant authority over women is toxic masculinity,” she says. Unfortunately, she adds, for many today in Azerbaijan, a “real men” should be “homophobic, see women as a sexual object, necessarily love sports, use strength to solve problems and have sex with as many women as possible.”
Masculinity in Azerbaijan – and in the wider Caucasus region – demands that a man abstain from many things. He cannot be weak, vulnerable, timid or soft. And he must not suffer from self-doubt.
“Victims of toxic masculinity are afraid of appearing weak, speaking up when they feel sick or helpless, or asking for help,” says gender expert Mehdiyeva.
Bodybuilding is very popular in many parts of Azerbaijan. Elshad, a trainer at a gym in the town of Barda, says that boys as young as 12 are working out at the gym.
The images of famous male bodybuilders cover the walls of the gym in Barda. The illustrations help define the gym as a place that is exclusively for men.
“Interpreting the image of a ‘real man’ as a person who is tough, emotionless, and is dominant over women is toxic masculinity. [Toxic masculinity also means] a 'real masculine' man should be homophobic, see women as sexual objects, definitely love sports, solve problems with strength and have sex with as many women as possible,” according to gender expert Gulnara Mehdiyeva.
Mehdiyeva notes men who adhere to this idea of masculinity strive to be in shape, which means that men who are not interested in sports are not considered "real men." “Sports become an example of toxic masculinity when wrestlers and other athletes get in shape to convey the message, ‘I am stronger than everyone’. Above all, this harms men,” she says.
For bodybuilder Mamed Ismayilov, 25, signs of weakness are tantamount to losing respect.
“You should never show a woman you are weak, if you give her any slack - that’s it. She will not respect you. I had a moment in life when I gave ground and it was the worst feeling ever,” he says.
“Later on, you try and figure out if there was a better solution and you realize that there was not. But still you hate yourself, because you are a man, and you shouldn’t be weak,” he adds.
Ismayilov, a resident of the capital Baku, has been working out for two and a half years. When he started, he said, he was a weakling, someone who was bullied and pushed around.
In Azerbaijan, he notes, the strong often pick on the weak.
Today, however, after hours of bodybuilding, he has become someone his friends turn to when they need to fight.
In addition, stronger muscles have given him more self-confidence, Ismayilov says, which is crucial to winning a different kind of fight that Azerbaijani men face every day -- the public test of wills.
For Azerbaijani men, these daily fights boil down to a stare. When men look into the eyes of each other in public, and the one who first takes his glance away loses. “It is about your personal courage, not to glance away, and this eye fight decides whether a real fight will happen or not,” Ismayilov says.
MAKEUP FOR MEN
He notes, however, that his main motivation for working out was to improve his appearance.
“Muscles are makeup for men. With muscles you stand out. You are not an ordinary walking piece of meat," he says.
Ismayilov says that going to the gym radically changed his life. If before he was pushed around, now “even if I do all sorts of nonsense, I am accepted more seriously and with respect,” he says.
Big muscles have also made him more attractive to women, he says.
“No one would love you for your soul, if you have a disgusting appearance,” Ismayilov notes, adding that his wife likes to show off her good-looking husband.
“When two couples meet, where one man has a good body and another doesn't, it is always obvious how the girlfriend of the second one envies the first girl. She can’t boast about her boyfriend.”
Mamed Ismayilov, 25, has been working out at the gym for two and a half years. “I was a skinny guy before I started going to the gym. I did not have enough hair, I didn't have a beard. I don’t mind admitting that I began transforming my body in large part due to other people’s opinion about how I looked. Of course, it meant a lot for me, too. I gained a lot of confidence. But in the first place, I wanted to look good in the eyes of others,” he says.
“Before I was bullied and people made fun of me. Now, even if I do all sorts of nonsense, I am accepted more seriously and with respect. If a guy with big muscles does something foolish, it is accepted more easily than if some skinny guy acts stupidly – in that case, the reaction could be more aggressive,” Ismayilov says.
Ismayilov says women are attracted to his muscles. He doesn't believe that women are not interested in a man's appearance. “No one will love you for your soul if you have a disgusting appearance,” he says.
“Of course, I understand that it is stupid if someone only wants to be your friend because you are strong. It is not pleasant to serve as someone's 'enforcer.' But if it is your friends, your brothers, with whom you share food, you cannot just say no.”
There is more to fighting than just a physical brawl. For men in Azerbaijan, there are daily fights that boil down to little more than eye contact and will power: men look into each other's eyes in public and the one to look away loses. “Not looking away is a sign of your courage. This 'eye fight' determines whether a real fight will happen or not.”
A BODY LIKE FERRARI
Nijat Aliyev, a 24-year-old bodybuilder from Ganja, agrees that having a toned physique is an enviable goal.
Aliyev came to bodybuilding from soccer – he played the sport for ten years but ultimately gave it up to dedicate his time to building muscles at the gym.
“Who would not want to have a Ferrari? A big body is like a Ferrari,” Aliyev says. But he adds that while bigger muscles have also increased his self-confidence, he says stronger men should not use their muscles to bully the weak.
“Men often are ashamed of pictures that show their body before bodybuilding. I never had such a complex. It is very important to understand that regardless of which body – the old or the new – it is still the same you,” Aliyev says.
“I have seen many people who struggle to attend the gym regularly. For me, on the contrary, it became a sort of obsession. I amazed myself with the willpower I discovered. There were many times when, after soccer practice, I went to the gym, and then went home, ate my supper, and wanted to come back again,” says Nijat Aliyev, 24. He says that adding bulk is very difficult and requires constantly being on a diet to reduce fat, junk food and sugar. With time, the eating regime makes men quite aggr
22-years-old Fargan Veliyev is a resident of Baku. He has been training for hand-to-hand combat since he was four years old. Following 10 years of wrestling, he stopped going to the gym for quite a while. But eventually he started working out again. “For me, to be a real man means to be confident, brave and resolute, to try to do everything right,” he says.
Both Fargan and Mamed accept that sometimes muscles are not enough to win a fight. “There may be 7-10 people who are weaker and smaller than you, but they still outnumber you. And, of course, you are beaten.” “I was once hit in the head with a teapot. When you have a lot of muscles and speak sharply, men reply aggressively. But it is ok, sometimes you do the beating and sometimes you are beaten,” Mamed Ismayilov says.
“Victims of toxic masculinity are afraid of appearing weak, speaking up when they feel sick or hopeless, or asking for help. Also men who are athletic are used to solving problems with their fists. In this way, sports -- or the gym -- are necessary for them to make their fists strong,” says gender expert Mehdiyeva.
Masculinity in Azerbaijan, and probably in the Caucasus in general, calls for a man to not be many things: Not to be weak, vulnerable, timid or soft and not to have any self-doubt -- to not cultivate the personal space to try and understand one's real nature. Society puts a great deal of pressure on ‘real men’ oppressing the ones who cannot meet these criteria.