The Perfectible Body: The Western Ideal of Male Physical Development

The Perfectible Body: The Western Ideal of Male Physical Development by Kenneth R. Dutton was a lengthy read about the male side of The Beauty Myth. For a book more on the academic side of casual reading the author was able to analyze the muscular figures of Greek and Roman statuary and Renaissance painting and place men’s bodybuilding and fitness into a historic context. Before I go on I must talk a little bit about the text–and I do mean little. I knew I would have difficulty reading this rather heavy, thickly-paged book because its typeface was so small. Its photo captions–of which there were many as Dutton smartly included black-and-white photos on almost every page–were undecipherable without a magnifying glass. (Although having a magnifying glass while in the company of dozens of photos of beefcake models however did have its advantages.) Dutton’s objective was:

“The question of how we are to understand (or ‘read’) the muscular or developed body is the major concern of this book.”

The gods were sculpted with superhuman physiques to show their strength over mortal men. Leaders such as emperors and warriors were depicted in the same way to reveal their divine natures and to promulgate the idea that they were godlike and must be obeyed. The Renaissance rediscovered the statuary of two centuries ago and man was portrayed in a similar fashion in order to relate the ideal man as close to God. These theories would have been baseless without accompanying photos and every sculpture or painting that Dutton referred to was represented. It would have been a senseless read if the visual element was nonexistent. Still, while I liked the premise of the book and its analysis of the male beauty myth (which as a modern phenomenon naturally was discussed at the end), I found The Perfectible Body often boring because of its repetition. One point that the author raised repeatedly was the apparent fear of those who work out to refer to their physical activity as “bodybuilding”:

“Many others who take out membership of a gymnasium or fitness centre and engage in weight training describe their activity as ‘keeping fit’, ‘doing weights’, ‘having a workout’ or even simply ‘training’, as if euphemisms were required to replace the taboo-word ‘bodybuilding’.”

Taboo? As one such person who has a gym membership–and uses it regularly–I can tell the author why I don’t tell people I engage in “bodybuilding”, and prefer to use “going to the gym” when listing my hobbies. The activity “bodybuilding” connotes far more than merely gym visits. While bodybuilders and I both partake of the same environment and do the same exercises, I do not do so with the intention of stripping down to near nudity, getting up on a stage and showing myself off. The term “bodybuilding” is loaded with hardcore innuendo, encompassing steroid use, drastic dieting, military discipline and strict adherence to a fixed schedule. My life is far more varied than the one-dimensional existence of a bodybuilder. I enjoy the effects of my weight training yet I don’t have any intention of taking my development further. Thus if I told anyone that I engaged in “bodybuilding” I might genuinely be laughed at. I might look like a guy who knows his way around a gym, but a Schwarzenegger I’m not and I’d be deluded if I thought I was posing-stage calibre. Dutton repeated this remark later in the book, supposedly to out gym-goers into admitting that what they partake of is indeed bodybuilding. I maintain that it is not.

Dutton’s premise is that a stigma still surrounds bodybuilding and those who partake of it. Yet in 1995, when this book was written, no one looked upon men–there are women bodybuilders too, but the entire focus of this book is that of the male physique–as pumped-up sissies. So why did Dutton still think that “bodybuilding” was a taboo-word? I do admit that bodybuilding (as in the activity, as opposed to the word itself which did not come into popular usage until the seventies) certainly once was. In the 1964 movie “Muscle Beach Party”, starring Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon, the bodybuilders are taunted with names–to their faces. Who in his right mind would tease a muscleman right to his face? Fifty years ago, men who posed their physiques on stage while practically naked were likened to strippers. It did not matter that the men partaking of this activity could have flattened any teaser or bully with a single punch. The prevailing attitude was that men of muscle were narcissists and vainer than women, and, thus, weaker. What man would admit to spending more than a few minutes in front of a mirror to get ready to go out? In spite of their appearance, bodybuilders were regarded as stupid weaklings, that all of their muscles were just for show and had no practical use. What they did was, ironically, emasculating. Thus in spite of their godlike, superhero physiques and obvious strength, bodybuilders were still teased and whispered about behind their backs. It wasn’t until the arrival of Arnold Schwarzenegger in Hollywood that attitudes started to change. First it was his appearance in the bodybuilding documentary “Pumping Iron”, and then it was his talk show appearances and subsequent movie roles that let the public know that there was an intelligent head above those barn-door-wide shoulders. Schwarzenegger brought bodybuilding out of the closet, so to speak, and made the hypertrophied physique accessible and admirable.

It was the advent of photography that took the depiction of the human body away from sculptors and painters and made it more accurate and immediate. Suddenly, people were depicted as they really were (albeit in black-and-white) and not at the mercy, or scourge, of the painter’s brushstrokes. The ideal male physique was sought by photographers as they explored this new medium. Skinny models never had a chance:

“Along with the invention of the camera, the awakening of interest in physical exercise in the second half of the nineteenth century was one of the chief focuses of the emerging fascination with the visual appearance of the actual human body, as distinct from the idealised and conventionalised bodies of traditional art. The body had now become an object of interest in itself, and the developed body was promoted as being within the reach of the ordinary citizen. No longer the exclusive province of gods and heroes, no longer the outward form of an indwelling divinity or superhuman striving, it was man himself–or, at least, man as the age of scientific progress could enable him to become.”

And so we have the development of modern bodybuilding, which as an activity has evolved over the decades from Schwarzenegger’s glory days in the seventies to the bloated guts and walking drugstores of today. This particular extreme form of bodybuilding is not only inaccessible to the average gym-goer; it is also fatally dangerous. How can an activity that allegedly promotes fitness and vigorous health answer for all the sudden deaths of its highest competitors? This has led to a renaissance of the more classical physique ideal of Schwarzenegger’s time.

This book was published in 1995 and Dutton did not foresee Schwarzenegger’s ascent into politics. He could never have forecast his successful bid for governor of California, where he served from 2003 to 2011:

“His high profile in Bush’s unsuccessful 1992 re-election campaign appears to have marked a turning point, leading to his eventual recognition that the prospect of another actor, particularly a foreign-born one, being elected to high political office in the USA is at best remote.”

Dutton covers the homoerotic element of physical development, as one cannot publish a book full of buff bodies without stating the obvious. One reason that bodybuilders of fifty years ago were stigmatized is because of the belief that any man who engaged in such vain, or hyper-feminine behaviour must surely be gay. Schwarzenegger tossed that theory out the window and made it honorable for men to want to get fit and develop their physiques. Men who were themselves not bodybuilders but admirers of extremely muscular men were not regarded as gawking closeted gay perverts. They acknowledged the superior physique and recognized it with awe and wonder. The bodybuilder on display was more like tribal worship of the alpha male by lesser men:

“There were certainly male wolf-whistles for the women competitors, but the latter were only a minor part of the spectacle, almost an entr’acte, and it seemed unlikely that the unequivocally, even aggressively, heterosexual males who dominated the audience were engaged in some form of erotic voyeurism directed at the scantily-clad bodies of the male contestants. Then, there were the elements of ritual or even worship–for it was not so much the athletic movements and heroic poses as the heavily-muscled bodies themselves that excited the crowd’s enthusiasm, even something approaching adulation.”

Such excitement at a bodybuilding contest is seen early in the movie “Pumping Iron”, where men in the audience–and I am sure that the majority in attendance were heterosexual–were whistling, cheering, slapping their thighs and stomping their feet as the bodybuilders hit each pose. The audience was, in a way, bowing before the superior male specimens on stage. The bodybuilders had become objects to approve or reject, as if one were rating restored cars in an auto show. I can see how one can totally dissociate the muscles from the men who possess them, and thus how heterosexual men can react with awe or wild abandon when faced with a hypertrophied physique as if it were an, ironically, inanimate object.

One generation after the original publication date and certain concepts such as the male beauty myth and male body dysmorphia are now well researched. I disagreed entirely with the author’s ambiguous analysis of the male and female gaze as portrayed in pin-up portraits. Models who exhibit come-hither looks whether male or female are not also showing off their sexual dominance. They are passive figures, willing to be dominated by the admirer in any way she or he wants. I will leave the Paglia theory (of which I also subscribe) of the inherent sexual superpower of women over subservient men to another time. We are talking about two-dimensional posters as fantasy material here only, not the power of the desired to dominate over those who desire them.

The Perfectible Body likely was relevant for its time but now seems to be a dated study. The classical and Renaissance analyses were enlightening for sure, but the repetition within each artistic era, and then more so as the eras were compared, made for a boring read.

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