Jeffery P. Dennis
For the last sixty years, uncounted thousands of comic books and men’s magazines have featured what is probably the most successful mail-order advertisement in history, a comic strip called “The Insult That Made a Man out of Mac.” Mac, a “97 pound weakling” (the term is trademarked) has a bad day at the beach: a bully kicks sand in his face and then his girlfriend abandons him with a taunting “little boy!” Back home in his room, Mac notices an advertisement for the Charles Atlas program of Dynamic Tension®, which promises that isometric exercises instead of the usual weight training will build huge muscles fast. He decides to gamble the price of a stamp to get the free information. Six months later, a built and aggressive Mac returns to the beach, kicks sand in the bully’s face, and acquires a new, better girlfriend. “Hey, Skinny!” the well-proportioned but not massive Charles Atlas calls, “Nobody picks on a strong man!”
Angelo Siciliano (1892-1972), the Italian-American immigrant who would enter fitness legend, popular culture, and even English-language dictionaries as Charles Atlas was himself a 97-pound “runt” in 1905, and like “Mac,” he got sand kicked in his face on the beach at Coney Island. Later, in Prospect Park, he was inspired by the statues of Greek gods, who did not belong to gyms, and eschewed weight-training in favor of isometrics. The results were amazing. When Bernard McFadden, the quirky publisher of Physical Culture magazine, announced a contest to find “The World’s Most Perfect Man,” Siciliano entered twice and won twice, in 1921 and 1922. McFadden stopped holding the contest after that, since obviously Siciliano would always win.
Now fashioning himself “Charles Atlas,” Siciliano teamed up with entrepreneur Charles Roman in 1928 to develop his enormously successful mail-order campaign, reaching huge numbers of boys and young men in a remarkably short time. Within months both partners were millionaires. Not even the stock market crash of 1929 slowed the flow of mail-in coupons; in fact, the Atlas empire flourished during the Great Depression, since even men with uncertain personal and financial futures could afford the hard, solid muscles necessary for a minimum bullying and a maximum of heterosexual accomplishment. Atlas demonstrated his product on nationwide speaking tours, lent his image to dozens of Greek god-style statues, and was featured on hundreds of magazine covers, both as a fitness expert and as a marketing genius. No one knows how many copies of his program have been sold, but today an estimated 3,000,000 men (and a few women) are learning the principles of Dynamic Tension® in seven languages.
A number of factors contributed to the success of the Charles Atlas program. The price was right, $30 in 1928 and inflated only slightly to $45 today. It required no heavy equipment or inconvenient hours at the gym: it was a simple but rigorous at-home program combining isometrics, diet, and mental hygiene, and drawing to a great extent to from the physical-culture faddists of the 19th and early 20th centuries: lots of roughage but no white bread, fresh air to avoid tuberculosis, cold baths to limit sexual desire, and a positive mental attitude. And it worked, increasing muscle tone and strength (though not mass) sufficiently for most men to notice a difference within a few weeks. But Atlas’ greatest success was in an explicit association of masculinity and bodybuilding.
Early in the twentieth century, bodybuilders and “strong men” received disapprobation: they were oddities, carnival sideshow attractions, or at best narcissistic hobbyists whose hours in the gym ogling each other’s bodies surely masked sublimated homoerotic desire. Many social forces conspired to transform the image of the “real” man, the epitome of masculinity, from the slim, sophisticated Clark Gable of the 1930’s to the massive, Nautilus-toned Jean-Claude Van Damme of today, including an increase in leisure time, an increase in sedentary occupations, and the development of scientific bodybuilding techniques that made sculpted torsos a matter of perseverance rather than genetics.
Charles Atlas capitalized on the tide of invention, stating quite overtly that a muscular frame, far from indicative of narcissism or sublimated homoerotic desire, actually was essential for the successful performance of heterosexual masculinity, defined as the ability to fight bullies and get girls. Later exercise gurus, from Jack LaLaine to Joe Weider to the latest ab-buster pitchmen on late-night infomercials, modernized their programs and sales tactics, but they retained Charles Atlas’ dictum that masculinity necessitates bodybuilding, that every “real” man can and should have a physique resembling Michelangelo’s David.
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