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The Appeal of the Secretly Buff Guy

Take a lesson from shirtless Chidi on 'The Good Place': If you’re going to tone up, maybe tone it down

Typically, when women talk about men hiding the goods, we’re talking about the junk down below. We can’t see what you’re packing in the dick department until we get down there with a pith helmet, but generally, women have a sense of your overall body type and fitness level. Or so we thought.

A recent episode of the clever philosophy-for-dummies comedy The Good Place, starring William Jackson Harper as geeky philosophy nerd Chidi Anagonye, reminds us that the least likely men can be secretly, surprisingly, bewilderingly buff. And it’s led us to have some serious debates of our own about the meaning of life. Or at least, the meaning of muscles vis-à-vis hotness.

But we’ll come back to Chidi and his beautiful pecs. First, though, what does “buff” really mean, anyway?

Typically it’s associated with extreme muscularity, the sort of guys who work out a few hours a day and have a stash of protein powder on top of the fridge. Maybe they’re amateur bodybuilders, or maybe they just really like being, you know, really really brolic. But either way, it’s not the body you earn simply being active in your life or even necessarily playing a little sport. It takes dedicated, near-daily devotion in the gym.

Sure, some women love that shit. When polled, many surveys produce the results that tell men this is worth the price in supplements. “Women Definitely Prefer Buff Men,” one recent headline read.

But of course, not all women, and of course buff is a spectrum. Many women consider buff to mean ’roided out, while others consider it to be more “MMA fighter” or “basketball player.” A few years ago, the Daily Mail tested this out by outfitting a slew of women with eye-tracking glasses and introduced them to men in their underwear who represented three types of male physiques — muscular, boyish and hipster. Unpredictably, they all went for the more boyish guy who was low-key lean and muscular, but not busting out of his skin. Approachably fit.

Which brings us back to The Good Place. Even if you’ve never seen it, all you need to know is that it’s about four uniquely challenged dead people who arrive in heaven, only to realize it’s not quite like the brochure (for starters, there’s a lot of fro-yo). One of those four dead people is moral philosophy professor Chidi Anagonye, whose defining quality is his deep, paralyzing inability to make any sort of choice — from the type of muffin he eats for breakfast, to what is ethically correct in any given situation.

But the main thing is he’s a professor, which means he’s what you’d call a sitting, talking person. He lifts books, not weights. Or rather, the only weights he lifts are heavy ideas, not thick tomes.

In the majority of the episodes, now in its third season, Chidi looks like this:

Or this:

You know, like you’d expect a philosophy professor to look. He’s not not-hot, he’s just a hot nerd. He’s also, predictably, timid with the ladies, because he can’t even choose which one he actually likes, or if he likes any of them, even when the chemistry is off the charts.

Dude is a lot of things, but traditional buff hottie he is not. This dude reads the tables of contents of books to self-soothe, because it’s like a menu, “but the food is words.” He’d have to adjust those Warby Parkers about a billion times a day to get impressive biceps.

And yet! In a recent episode, Chidi, in a moment of existential angst, finds himself in the crosshairs of the universe’s hostile indifference — i.e., a set of lawn sprinklers. After he gets soaked, he peels off his sweater vest… and kaplooey. Mayor of Buff City, Two Gun Salute:

And people were like:

And like:

And also like:

And then like:

And like:

And also like:

And as noted philosopher-author Dostoevsky once asked, quoting Chernyshevsky, who was responding to Turgenev:


Enjoy it, obviously.

But also, delight in the fact that this means there are people who live in their minds and their bodies. People for whom brains and brawn are not mutually exclusive. People can be buff intellectuals! Okay?

I started scrambling to recall other instances of buff guys hiding in plain sight.

Remember when we found out Paul Ryan was buff?

What if I told you Carrot Top is buff?

Remember when it turned out Dave Chappelle was shockingly jacked?

And Hank Azaria!?

Maxim once comically referred to this as also being “unnecessarily ripped,” arguing that some celebrities have “no reason to be in such crazy shape.”

But to be clear, in many of those instances there’s nothing secret about it; they’re just actors and comedians who are ripped without necessarily being paid to be ripped on stage or camera, and letting us know they are, in fact, ripped.

We’re more concerned here with the obviously hidden buffness.

And one obvious question to ask here is: Why be secretly buff in the first place? Isn’t the point of working out about 20 percent health and 80 percent to show it off, to attract your desired type of partner, and also to let everyone who passes by you to see that you’re a slab of stone cold buff? If the whole point is to buff it up, why keep your New Jacked City a secret? If a man gets beefed up all day in the gym and no one can even tell, did he really lift any weights?

Indeed he did. This is the male equivalent of when a shy woman takes off her glasses, lets her hair down and turns out to be a smoke show. Or, it’s like regular-man Superman, a secretly buff superhero masquerading by day as a nerd reporter. (Eleanor jokingly calls Chidi out for his whole Clark Kent thing at one point in the show.) Just as Kent has to actually disguise himself so he can save lives and stuff, Chidi is also saving lives (and spelling out the show’s themes for viewers) with ethical guidance.

But, okay, you want to know: Should I lay off the skin-tight gym shirts? Should I tone down the skimpy athleisure in the office? Do I really need to stop bellowing “I HAVE LIFTED A HEAVY THING, WITH NARY A GRUNT” in the presence of women?

Do what you will, friend. But the appeal here, for women — if I may act as their spokesperson — is that it’s unexpected and more attractive when someone is secretly super-fit.

It feels like a magical prize, like the body equivalent of being a grower. Because the guy isn’t always showing it off trying to get attention and validation from complete strangers, it also feels like it’s somehow cut precisely for you, and not as shallow. Especially when it’s not even a prerequisite and you already found someone totally appealing. It’s a bonus level of hot.

That’s good news for men: It means you don’t have to be Hugh Jackman training as Wolverine to attract a lady. But if it turns you are, in fact, Wolverine underneath that modest button-up, you may be surprised just how many women are (extremely, bangingly) here for that. And the bonus for you? You’ll know that had nothing to do with why they liked you.