Harold Behr

Obsession with body image and the politics of the far right

Is there a link between a morbid preoccupation with physique and the politics of the far right? Mark Townsend, writing in the Guardian (5th March, 2022) reports that some people who lead isolated lives (accentuated by the present COVID epidemic) can become obsessed with keeping fit and are falling prey to white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups touting their wares behind the shield of health clubs, gyms and fitness websites.

Obsessive behavior can assume many forms. People who nurse obsessions (recurring thoughts driven by anxiety) and compulsions (repeated actions aimed at dispersing those thoughts) share a self-denying tendency which, at one end of a spectrum, expresses itself as perfectionism and austerity, at the other end as cruelty, both to oneself and others. The aim is to rid oneself of undesirable attributes and attain an idealized state of purity. The ‘good example’ shown by the model citizen hemmed in by self-imposed rules and regulations rides in tandem with the desire to impose a tyrannical regime on others.

The far right aims at achieving power through brute force. It has contempt for the intellectual pathway, which is represented as decadent. Militarism is promoted, alongside an image of manliness exemplified by physical fitness and a muscular body. The disciple of the far right positions himself as far away as possible from what he imagines to be feminine (i.e. weak) traits and consciously adopts a misogynistic and homophobic mindset. Women are accepted as physically desirable but portrayed as alien creatures, with functions limited to sexual activity, parenting and domesticity.

The neo-Nazi culture defines itself in genetic and racial terms as a purely white society with antecedents in mythical warrior figures. Violence and confrontation are its meat and drink. It is constantly on the lookout for contamination by non-white, Jewish and Islamic elements. For some groups, the swastika is an emblem and the image of Hitler is worshiped as an icon. There are other far right groups who fall short of parading such imagery but share with their neo-Nazi comrades an idealization of the white race and a mistrust of foreigners.

Mistrust is a key element in the psychological make-up of the far right supporter. The term paranoia, once the preserve of psychiatric diagnosis, has entered the lexicon of everyday usage to refer to extreme levels of mistrust. Fear, suspicion and hatred of ‘the other’ feeds the minds of these extremists and dominates their thinking to a degree which renders them impervious to reasoning.

To return to our hypothetical loner, we see a person who, possibly because of a traumatic life experience, has chosen to retreat from encounters with his fellow human beings. He sets about trying to expunge imagined shortcomings in himself and re-shaping himself in the image of an imaginary ideal. Physical perfection is one such ideal for him to chase, and it is the obsessive pursuit of this goal which brings him into the ambit of those seeking to increase membership of far right movements.

The loner qualifies on several counts: he has been bruised by society, he hates himself for being weak but he also hates those whom he regards as being to blame for his predicament. Such a person yearns for a leader who will personify the traits he most desires and will understand what he is going through.

Enter stage right a character who is both strong and understanding, who accepts him for who he is and helps him to articulate his hitherto inchoate thoughts. The network of the far right provides him with both the support of kindred spirits and the opportunity to focus on his enemy. It offers him avenues for cultivating his physical power as well as slogans and emblems to remind him that he is not alone. Power and masculinity are conflated and a new mission is discovered – to detect and weed out hostile elements capable of sapping his precious new-found strength.

It is easy to see how platforms as innocent as gyms for the promotion of physical fitness and classes in the martial arts can be colonized by ideologues of the far right or even established from the outset as bases for meeting and recruitment. Working out strategies for countering such trends is not so easy. This is where politics and psychology must meet. The first step is to know what one is dealing with, and this is the province of psychology. Drawing on this knowledge, political programs can be developed to confront the problem on the ground, addressing both the needs of those members of society susceptible to far right propaganda and the containment of those who already belong and are too hardened and embittered to be reasoned with.

About the Author
I was born in South Africa in 1940 and emigrated to the U.K. in 1970 after qualifying in medicine. I held a post as Consultant Psychiatrist in London until my retirement in 2013. I am the author of two books: one on group analytic psychotherapy, one on the psychology of the French Revolution. I have written many articles on group psychology published in peer-reviewed journals. From 1979 to 1985 I was editor of the journal ‘Group Analysis’; I have contributed short pieces to psychology newsletters over the years.
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