Exceptional Bodies: Media and Masculine Fitness
The body of the “ideal man” has been contested, scrutinized, and admired in popular culture through each period of American history. Onlookers of late 19th century circus strongmen were awestruck by their musculature, and thousands flocked to watch Ronnie Coleman win his eighth and final Mr. Olympia contest in 2005. In an effort to demonstrate why the muscular male form has become an American standard, histories of sport and the body often turn towards central figures in the sporting world.
But these attempts to explain the rise of different bodies in different times focus their attention on the wrong thing: the bodies themselves. Instead, I turn to three muscular icons and the type of media that helped launch them to fame — Eugen Sandow and the newspaper, the “pinup” boy and the muscle magazine, and Arnold Schwarzenegger and film. These three types of media have different “life histories,” meaning that different forms of media are used and consumed by readers in vastly different ways. It is the media conditions, shaping how the public was able to react to each muscular icon, that have been far more essential to their fame and popularity than their bodies.
First, Eugen Sandow and the newspaper. Eugen Sandow was a German bodybuilder in the 1880s and 1890s, known as the “father of modern bodybuilding.” Sandow was one of the first “circus strongmen” to make a name for himself in the United States, selling out large New York theaters to wealthy patrons interested in seeing “the muscular man.” However, due to the high price of theater tickets, those outside the wealthy elite could not afford to see Sandow, the embodiment of the “Grecian ideal.” While Sandow was an extraordinary figure, he never rose to the general fame of today’s sporting heroes. While rich folks might have been able to visit a theater to see Sandow, or even purchase a cabinet card photograph of his likeness, common people relied on newspapers to inform them of the day’s happenings, including updates on the famous Sandow.
The form of the newspaper is impermanent, brief, and cyclical — a reader purchases a newspaper, reads it, and discards it. Readers could be interested in Sandow, but were powerless to affect whether or not he’d be written about again. Newspaper depictions of Sandow’s shows generated general public interest, but only in moments of “newsworthiness.” General public interest in Sandow’s body was, therefore, conditioned not only by the novelty of Sandow’s body but also by what other news was available, news that might have been more essential or of more generalized interest.
Those interested in Sandow could only hope that others around them were also interested: reading the newspaper is a singular practice. With the presentation of the muscular male body up in the air based on its place in general news, Sandow’s influence — and the importance of the male body in public discourse — could not balloon to new levels.
The pinup boy of the mid-20th century again put the male body on display, but did so through the muscle magazine. With weight training becoming more commonplace, more men were able to access weightlifting apparatus, leading to a rise in popularity of the muscular male body. Muscle magazines became popular in the 1950s and 1960s and were often sold as “informational” or “instructive” documents, highlighting men with “exceptional” bodies.
While these qualities of the muscle magazine attracted a community of budding bodybuilders, it also attracted a new consumer group, queer men. With two communities centered on using the muscle magazine as a resource, we see the most important difference between the magazine and the newspaper. While newspapers took “everyone” as their target population, muscle magazines targeted “interest groups.” By including letters and articles written by readers, muscle magazines fostered community connection across readers, generating a new sense of inclusion and participation through media. Even if readers were unable to reach out to other similarly-minded readers, gone were the days of reading with interest in isolation.
Rather than being discarded like a newspaper, muscle magazines were studied, viewed, and then retained. In contrast to the quotidian purchase of the newspaper, men carefully selected specific magazines to include in their personal collections. In addition, men no longer focused on a single object of interest or desire such as Sandow, but were able to view dozens of male bodies at a time. With the explosion of representations of the muscular man, muscularity became both desirable and achievable, opening up the possibility of becoming the muscular object of desire, instead of just viewing it. The muscle magazine operated not only as informational and pornographic material but also as a publication that featured new bodily possibilities for its readers.
While the muscle magazine offered some material transformations, film offered even more and played an integral role in the popularity of Arnold Schwarzenegger, perhaps the most famous bodybuilder of all time. Arnold came to the United States from Austria to become a professional bodybuilder, and eventually would go on to win the Mr. Olympia contest — the world championship for bodybuilding — seven times in a row, from 1970-1975.
In the early 1970s, with hippy style fading from view, muscularity was once more in vogue in the United States. In 1977, Pumping Iron, a docudrama featuring Arnold and Lou Ferrigno, was released. The film follows the 1974 Mr. Olympia contest, featuring minutes upon minutes of bodybuilding footage, snarky conversations between competitors, and conversations about posing strategy. No longer was muscularity or bodybuilding a “fringe” interest — this was a new nationwide craze.
As we have moved into the internet age, the technologies we use to disseminate information remain the most significant factor in the rise of new movements related to fitness and bodies, and in general. The vastness of the internet, the varieties of communities online, and the speed at which information travels have all but erased the technological limits of the newspaper in one fell swoop. While it is crucial to study the body itself, and the ways we use and live within our bodies in daily life, it is similarly important to give attention to the things around the body that make its existence possible. What at first seems to be in the background — media technology, economic access, and community — should be foregrounded in our studies of not only the body, but all aspects of human life.