1 of 8
Sean Connery, c. 1953, the year he entered the Mr. Universe competition. A.J. Chandos, with “muscles” painted on at his request by Artona Studio in Vancouver, BC, c. 1910. George Finsdale Jowett (1891–1969), a blacksmith, who immigrated to Inkerman,
2 of 8
Senegalese Colonial Infantry (Tirailleurs Sénéglais), c. 1913.
3 of 8
Poster for L’Exposition coloniale internationale, 1931, by Jean Victor Desmeures.
4 of 8
Portrait of Habib Benglia by Albert Rudomine, 1927.
5 of 8
Label for Sandow Cigars, 1894.
6 of 8
Joseph E. Weider, on the cover of his magazine Your Physique, 1946.
7 of 8
Issue of Your Physique featuring an image of a bodybuilder by the artist George Quaintance, 1947.
8 of 8
Steve Samson, “Strong Man of the Circus,” 1953. He fought dastardly villains, evil gangsters and those who would annoy the Queen.
A man who could dominate his own body was naturally superior to residents of lands “remote and uncivilized.”
Male beauty in the West is physique-centred. Wide shoulders that vee down to a slender waist, peach-sized biceps, narrow hips, and flaring, muscular legs: these are the marks of a well-built western body. We will trace the origins of this muscular look from its beginnings in the nineteenth century to just past the mid-twentieth century mark in more than seventy countries around the world. Modern muscle-building purely for the purpose of achieving an ideal physique was a practice born in Europe, expanded and organized in North America, brought to Asia and Africa by colonial powers, and adopted in South America and Australasia. Of course, men have been exercising and building their bodies in various ways all around the world since time immemorial, but the adoption of a toned and muscular physique as a standard of universal male beauty, the most instantly recognizable and visible marker of virility, is a relatively contemporary phenomenon.
Building a muscular body became possible for almost everyone when sport and exercise became more common starting in the 1850s. It was then that new techniques and more efficient equipment were made available on a grand scale. The French, British, and Germans were the first to recognize the political and economic value of regular, systematic physical exercise. Physical education and military gymnastics were indispensable to the maintenance of a healthy citizenry: feeble factory workers at home were no more useful to European ideas of progress than were sickly soldiers abroad. When the sporting movement became widespread in mid-nineteenth-century Europe, national armies were the first to take advantage of it to improve the endurance and strength of their recruits. It did not take long for the great imperial powers to turn “physical culture,” as the various fitness regimens were collectively called, to the support and extension of their territorial expansions abroad.
As the colonizers saw it, the white man’s muscular, honed body revealed both his physical and mental “superiority” over those he colonized; mastery of the self translated into control of the world. “The built body and the imperial enterprise are analogous,” Richard Dyer has written. “The built body… [has] submitted to… the planning and ambition of the mind; colonial worlds are likewise represented as inchoate terrain needing the skill, sense and vision of the colonizer to be brought to order.” The European man who showed command over his own body would surely also be successful in dominating a “savage wilderness”—which was, of course, neither savage nor unpopulated.
These two forces—which made it possible for the western European male to lord it over lands “remote and uncivilized” as well as to dominate his own body—met in the person of the Anglo-German physical culturist Eugen Sandow (1867–1925). He began his career in the late 1880s as a music-hall strongman, but after several very lucrative tours of North America and Great Britain, he became the most famous muscleman in the world. In 1902, he embarked from Southampton on the first of two worldwide tours during which he brought his brand of bodybuilding to people not just in the safe, “white” outposts of empire like Canada, New Zealand, and Australia, but to more exotic locales such as South Africa, India, Japan, and China. Sandow’s world tour cannot be overestimated for its influence in spreading the standard of Western male beauty around the world, where he disseminated it with something akin to a religious zeal. A body that is honed by exercise, activity, and sports, believed Sandow, is superior to a “natural” or “native” physique. When he arrived in Melbourne, he published a synopsis of his philosophy and training advice in a book which he called The Gospel of Strength. It is no accident that Sandow gave his message an evangelical tone; he was searching for converts as surely and aggressively as any missionary in Matabeleland. Sandow promised the salvation of the body; the saving of souls he left to others. His potent “gospel” was that men were not fated to exist with weak and spindly bodies. By using the special information and techniques that Sandow possessed, men could attain health, strength, and beautiful proportions. It was a wonderful promise that would lead to a new and greater life.
Of all the countries he visited, it was in India that Sandow was most warmly welcomed; in fact, he was a celebrity on the subcontinent even before his arrival there in 1905. Both native and English fans were ready to accept his message of muscular regeneration, and many impressionable young men later recalled Sandow’s tour as a defining moment in their own and their country’s awakening to physical culture. According to the British press, his sojourn in India had dramatically “incited the emulation of native athletes” and given the men of India a model of strength, courage, and determination. Paradoxically, in India, Sandow’s gospel of personal strength began to be interwoven with the ideology of political strength, that is, of Indian nationalism. Many young Indian men began incorporating yoga and other homegrown disciplines into their training routines. As they grew physically stronger, they also became surer of themselves as individuals and as Indians.
Sandow’s visit to India was meant as a way to spread his exercise system and to drum up business in the remoter parts of the empire, but it also indicated, as Michael Budd notes, “the publicly subversive potential of physical culture as well as its inherent malleability.” Sandow’s message also included encouraging a greater acceptance, among Europeans themselves, of male nudity, either full or partial. When the strongman performed, he usually did so with a bare upper torso. His popular photographs all show him in leopard-skin trunks, sporting an artificial fig leaf, or (if a back view) totally naked. After Sandow popularized the image of the scantily clothed strongman (for how else could viewers see his rippling muscles?), it became standard among proponents of physical culture to pose this way. And yet, Victorian colonizers were often galled by the near-nudity of the men and women they encountered in foreign lands.
Henry Morton Stanley returned to England, after tramping across the Dark Continent in search of Dr. Livingstone, all aflame with schemes to reform the state of African natives. Addressing the Manchester Chamber of Commerce in 1884, he told his audience that it was their bounden duty to convert the “misguided, naked savages to Christianity and cloth”—presumably he meant the excellent cotton cloth that was then being produced in the “dark Satanic mills” belonging to his Manchester hosts. But long before Livingstone and Stanley sought to clothe the natives of Africa, early European explorers (and conquerors) returned from their journeys to the Caribbean, Canada, or the Congo with stories and illustrations of beautiful people who did little but fish, hunt, dance, and make love. John Webber (1751–93) was the talented artist who accompanied Captain James Cook on his third trip to the Pacific in 1776, and his wonderful depictions of Polynesian natives must have convinced many that the terrestrial paradise was real and located in the South Pacific. The people he drew were all attractive and fit, and many of them have a curiously European appearance (suggesting that Webber “improved” the models for his predominantly English audience). Webber and other illustrators and, later, photographers believed that the subjects of their work were living examples of the “noble savage,” of men (and women) living in a prelapsarian state of nature unsullied by modern, industrial, urban corruption. True, these wild men had a few bad habits, like throwing the odd virgin into a volcano or eating one’s enemies, but Europeans could be just as rude and barbaric when they burned at the stake those who had, for example, differing opinions in spiritual matters. The photographs and illustrations brought back by Europeans abroad emphasized the natives’ primitive behaviours, their wildness, or their brutality.
When it was inconvenient to travel long distances to see the tropics or the Orient, there was another way for western Europeans to find out more about their exotic and intriguing colonial subjects. This was through the various world’s fairs that proliferated in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Starting in 1851, these grand expositions showcased goods and technologies from all over the world. The “living exhibitions” or “ethnographic galleries” at these fairs were often little more than human zoos, but at least they gave North Americans and Europeans an admittedly narrow and distorted glimpse of the rest of the world and opened many eyes to the strangeness and beauty of foreign lands and unknown peoples. These “anthropo-zoological” exhibitions of exotic natives were popular from London to Moscow and from New York to Seattle. Men, women, and children were often mixed together in “typical scenes of life in their native lands.” They were exhibited behind bars or in special enclosures where they performed dances, cooked meals, and generally went about their daily business for the edification of the admission-paying spectators; they were displayed like weird and outlandish animals or like living trophies from the wars against the darker races of the world. As Dutch scholar Jan Nederveen Pieterse has explained: “Exoticism is a luxury of the victors, and one of victory’s psychological comforts. The Other is not merely to be exploited but also to be enjoyed, enjoyment being a finer form of exploitation.” We might think of these human zoos as the reality television shows of their day; viewers could look at the savages and laugh at their foolish appearance, recoil from their filthy practices, and generally feel better about themselves.