Ever look at old-time photos showing paragons of manliness? Ever notice how many turn-of-the-century sex symbols are proudly repping dad bods?
It gets stranger: other models from the period look every bit as sculpted and Grecian as Brad Pitt in Troy, but no one seems to care. There’s no indication that anyone in 1900–the photographers, the models, or the audiences–preferred the buff guys to the dad bods.
The Modern Aesthetic Is Weird
For modern Americans, living in the age of images, we’re fixated visually on proportions and textures. Without being aware of it, we’re checking out the relative girth or narrowness of waists, thighs, upper arms, and maybe necks.
As bodybuilding superfans know, the athlete who “looks biggest” might not actually be the heaviest or thickest guy on stage, but he at least looks that way because of his proportions. For example, he might measure smaller in the chest and shoulders than his competitor but appear broader owing to a narrower waist. His biceps will look bigger if he’s thinner at the elbow joint, and delts look more massive if they’re more defined. Cut, striated muscles capture the modern eye better than smooth ones because of their striking visual texture. Bodybuilding competitors look far bigger after dieting for a contest, when they’re at their leanest and smallest, than in the off-season with 20 or 30 extra pounds of subcutaneous fat and water.
So why our fixation on these proportions and textures? It wasn’t always like this. Sure, it’s not all culturally dependent: I’m told that humans are wired to find proxies for fighting prowess and fertility in a man’s height and a woman’s hip-waist ratio. But those aren’t the proportions I’m talking about: I mean the modern American man’s wish for big muscles around the shoulder girdle, a narrow waist, and a finely etched abdomen. And yes, modern tastes do shift over time, like clothing fashions: today’s “yoked” look is different from the Arnold look, which differed from the Sixties look, which was WAY different from the Fifties look (owing to “vitamin S”), and the post-war Fifties look differed from the Depression-ear Thirties look.
However, before about 1920, we cross an uncanny valley into an America whose physique photos mark it as almost a different country, with physique ideals that are all over the place.
Some of these guys could succeed in 2022 as fitness models or amateur bodybuilders. But others look like they developed their physiques playing Starcraft II in an eSports league. Yet in 1900, there’s no sign that they’re considered less dreamy.
For example, France’s leading physical culturist made this full-page ad, and the longer I stare, that more disturbingly feminine it seems. To me he looks like a candidate for estrogen blockers and no more soy. But in 1908, people in three countries were paying him for lessons.
So why didn’t the public of 1900 care whether a guys was cut to ribbons or looked like Captain Cookie Dough? What rewired our brains and created our modern aesthetic?
It’s the Photography, Stupid
If you were born before photography, you seldom saw bodies as still images. Excepting some mostly inaccessible statues and paintings, there were no frozen images of people’s bodies that you could study closely, at length and without staring impolitely. The only way to view people’s appearance was in real time, in real space and real life, with no mediation and no way to capture their image. You saw them in motion, in three dimensions, from all angles and distances, and mostly unposed, without special lighting, and wearing clothes.
Only after photographs were invented did ordinary people slowly learn to appraise physiques in still images, where the subject bared his body and exhibited it in athletic trunks, a leopard skin, or (heaven help us) a fig leaf.
That was completely foreign to most humans until photos were invented.
Only after mass-market photography saturated America, I think, did we very slowly start to prefer muscular separation.
Of course, we kept tweaking physique ideals after that, but only concerning what kind of muscular separation we most admired–which muscles, what proportions, what visual texture.
What Came Before Buff?
Now we can answer the question “What the heck was the standard of male physical excellence around 1900 that accounts for the array of physiques?” I think the answer is, they weren’t admiring physiques with a certain look, they were admiring what they looked like they could do.
Before photos, what people saw of a man’s virility would mostly be his activity—you saw him working, hunting, fighting, or playing sports—or something impressive that he made by his activity: lumber that he cut, earth or ore that he dug, a structure he built, an animal he hunted, a person he defeated, a product he made.
Even a carnival strongman’s job was to amaze customers with his actions, not his physique. He performed feats–toying with an anvil, holding aloft a dancing ballerina in each hand–instead of poses.
Try looking at 19th century strongman Louis Cyr with 19th century eyes. With your modern Instagram consciousness, you wouldn’t tag him as “sex symbol.” But imagine you live without power tools or Home Depot. You need to build a barn or unload a freight car: anything painful, heavy, and fatiguing. Now imagine you can use a lifeline and call anyone in the world to help you. Presto! Against a backdrop of daily toil, this guy starts to look beautiful. Seriously, if you labored all your days at mining, moving steel beams, butchering cattle, or hauling lumber, you would dream about befriending such men.
As your enemy, Cyr would look terrible and awesome. Look at him again, and imagine that you and your union brothers are striking. A truck rolls up and unloads goons hired by the bosses. Rough stuff is coming. Bones will get broken, maybe yours. Nearby you spot an ox-man like Louis Cyr. Is he with you or with the goons? In this situation, no one can be emotionally neutral about someone Cyr’s size. Either your monkey brain is flooded with love and gratitude for his gigantic presence, or your veins feel electrified with fear.
Just as “there are no atheists in foxholes,” I’d guess were no aesthetes in turn-of-the-century mining towns, or farm settlements, or saw mills or iron works.
Or rather, they were all aesthetes and appraised human forms by various standards (that’s just a fact of our primate nature), but they derived those standards less from seeing than doing.
Next time, in “Before Buff: Boxing and Wrestling,” I speculate, meditate, and bloviate about when America gathered its ideas about manly physical development mostly from boxing and wrestling instead of weightlifting, and the difference it made when your experience of physiques was as much tactile and kinesthetic as visual, when physiques weren’t just objects of vision but also grabbed or punched each other.