The ‘Revenge Body’ Phenomenon Promises Closure But Keeps Us Unhappy
It’s a tale as old as time, the rigid rules of heartbreak and self-regeneration. After a break-up, an optimal amount of fun must be had with the pals; a documentable hobby must be chosen; affirmations must be repeated; and, most importantly — a physical transformation must occur.
This, however, doesn’t translate exactly into in real life. In 2017, reality TV star Khloe Kardashian, known best for being a part of Keeping Up With The Kardashians, debuted a show named Revenge Body at the tail end of her tumultuous separation with now-ex-husband Lamar Odom. The show, running on similar fuel, showcased people (often overweight) trying to achieve a ‘revenge body’ or attain a conventional standard of beauty in order to get back at the ex-partner who rejected them. The crux of Kardashian’s show mirrored her own life; often fat-shame, frequently compared with slimmer sisters Kim and Kourtney, and then cheated on by her husband in a very public manner, Khloe rebranded herself as a woman with the ideal body — a woman who, by virtue of her winning the conventional beauty lottery while her husband retreated into oblivion, got the ultimate revenge.
“Whether (someone’s) been dumped, lost their job, or are facing some of life’s toughest challenges, Khloé will help motivate them to seek the ultimate revenge by receiving a true and total makeover,” said a statement from E!, the channel which runs the show.
However, there were critics. Celebrity trainer Anna Kaiser called out the show for using negative motivation to get contestants into shape. “I want the workout to be a positive experience, not a vulnerable situation tied to someone who has wronged you. The idea of revenge itself is not healthy. Feeling comfortable to move on and be a stronger person is much healthier than an idea like that,” she told the Hollywood Reporter. Kaiser pointed out that reality TV transformations that completely gloss over lifestyle changes were purely band-aid solutions. Physical appearance and fitness do aid mental health, but not when the motive is toxic. Achievement won’t cure the distress of either rejection from a long-term partner or bullying from one’s peers. In short, the result of a ‘revenge body’ is a bleak-ish tableau:- freshly hot, still crying.
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Intrinsically, everyone who’s hurt from a break-up or rejection knows this. Yet, the revenge body is still aspirational — specifically the need to beat the public image of post-break-up defeat and outrun gossip sessions chronicling the drama of a failed relationship. Most importantly, hustling to achieve that ideal of success is to escape the imminent horror of hearing an ex doing just fine — better actually, all thanks to breaking up. The revenge body is a mirrored shield for one’s ego, hiding one’s own insecurities while trying to induce them in one’s ex-partner as a show of power.
“Everyone’s greatest fear boils down to being perceived as not good enough. [When you get dumped], essentially, someone that you cared for deeply — evident in that you agreed to be in a relationship — has just assessed you and the relationship, and found it so lacking that they’re leaving you. It’s a devastating emotional blow,” Demetria L. Lucas, writer and relationship expert for news show Good Morning America, told Mel Magazine.
The idea of revenge, soaked in aggressive posturing, is also how one segues into internalizing toxic assumptions about how people view each other and how they view themselves. Succeeding at overcoming the ‘defects’ one is bullied for leads to adapting the bully’s judgemental nonsense and hawking the same principles to those still vulnerable. People on bodybuilding forums and fitness influencers often laud origin stories revolving around those who fit a certain stereotype — geeky, plays video games, awkward, shy, unattractive, the works. This person, incensed by their inability to attract people procures themselves a revenge body, thus ‘winning’ and thus qualified to dispense advice about ‘disregarding relationships’ and other borderline misanthropic affirmations.
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For example, Mair Underwood from the University of Queensland cites the fandom surrounding the late bodybuilder Aziz Shavershian or Zyzz, in her research focusing on recreational bodybuilders. His origin story revolves around being a “skinny nerd” who managed to get back at his girlfriend by going to the gym and “brushing off” the moment she saw his transformation and “her jaw ‘dropped.” “Zyzz’s philosophy to ‘disregard females’ (i.e. play hard to get) and his rejection of women online was a major factor in his popularity. Through online forums and social media, Zyzz developed a fanbase of approximately 80,000 people. … Zyzz fans liken him to Narcissus as they suggest it was his love for his own beauty, in particular, his steroid and fat burner use, that contributed to his death,” Underwood writes in The Conversation.
Working out to fix oneself is also a direct route into the black hole of associating one’s worth with external attractiveness and other people’s opinions. Revenge is literally the opposite of positivity; it tries to derive satisfaction from the rejection of another individual. If the basis of physical fitness and wellness is based on a moving ideal — that of conventional attractiveness and appealing to another individual — then it is a pathway to disordered eating and over-exertion. Plus, with no revenge-body motivation to keep up a regimen, weight is easily gained back.
The very first episode of Revenge Bodies showcases the story of Will, who had a history of being bullied and whose partner left him because he wasn’t attracted to him anymore. Will works hard for his revenge body, hoping his partner Kyle would appreciate the hard work he did and want him back. At the end of the episode, Will loses 30 pounds and arrives all dressed up in a suit, but Kyle doesn’t show up. Will tells us that perhaps Kyle leaving was the motivation that got him to work out and be the person he wanted to be, placing the onus of change and growth on himself rather than Kyle, who was awful and superficial. That’s the thing about attraction as a weapon of revenge; its potency is pretty much zero if the target doesn’t really care. Perhaps, Will would’ve found more mental satisfaction if he’d just had someone tell him that Kyle was awful, that bullies are awful, and that he’s a good guy who deserves someone who loves him as he is.
I know I’d watch that show.