Hunks: How Ripped Became an Ideal

A historic look at images of masculinity
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(David L. Chapman/Arsenal Pulp Press)

Not all purveyors of art think the male form gets enough attention. Exhibitions like Sascha Schneider’s show at the Leslie Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art have highlighted the importance of the male nude and its relationship to history; but others, including the recent "Masculine/Masculine" retrospective at the Musée d'Orsay, have prompted the question: "Why had there never been an exhibition dedicated the male nude until … last year?" The answer: Unlike female bodies, which are supposedly mysterious and full of secrets, male bodies are boring—or at least they're presented that way. A new book, Universal Hunks: A Pictoral History of Muscular Men Around the World, 1895-1975, provides a little more perspective.

In Hunks, authors David L. Chapman and Douglas Brown trace the origins of the sculpted, nearly nude, or totally bare male silhouette across the globe. Their journey begins in Europe with Anglo-German "physical culturalist" Eugen Sandow and ends in South America with a snapshot of Hercules Cement—not because the West is the fount of all masculine identity or idealization, but because it was a tremendous exporter of those concepts at the time. The "male body factored prominently in the construction of modern national identities," write Chapman and Brown, and as the imperial powers of the day disseminated their own religious and sociopolitical standards, they also strove to shape the actual bodies of the people they encountered.

Still, the exchange (or replacement) isn't so cut and dry.

In India, Sandow's gospel of personal strength became interwoven with Indian nationalism and independence. In Senegal, where wrestling has its own tradition that predates European influence, the snapshots of warriors actually highlight the colonial interests of the photographers. And in the United States and beyond, models posing in men's magazines celebrated physical health and wellness, but also doubled as pin-ups for consumers of gay subculture. All of these photos generate a syncretic view of buffness that reveals the ways in which muscled men are more than stereotypical gym rats; they can also be cultural ambassadors.

The following photos and passages are excerpted from the book.

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By the early twentieth century, Eugen Sandow was recognized as the most perfect example of the male human form, as evidenced by being featured in Baillière's Popular Atlas of the Anatomy and Physiology of the Male Human Body (London, 1908). It is the strongman's face and epidermis on the outside, but various fold-out pages reveal the structures within his muscular body.

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An embrocation is generally used by athletes to massage into sore muscles, and this die-cut advertising card is one of the finest. It shows a black boxer doing a one-arm lift of a dumbbell, but because the item is joined by a rivet in the middle, the figure can move back and forth. Dr. Will’s Embrocation promises to make an Olympian out of anyone who uses it daily. This articulated advertisement was made in the early 1900s when many African-American boxers were popular in Paris.

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From 1946 to 1969, Henri Garsou (1914–69) ran the magazine Muscles from his home in the sleepy Belgian village of Andrimont. This cover from October/November 1959 features two models who demonstrate one of Garsou's favorite mottos: “The happy man does not wear a shirt.” The magazine purported to encourage muscle building, but there was little doubt that its true target audience was the post-war gay subculture that was attracted to physique photos.

Presented by

Judith Ohikuare is a former producer for TheAtlantic.com.

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