Physical Culture

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Physical Culture

Based on an ideal of athleticism and physical beauty that dated back to classical Greece, the physical culture movement promoted fitness, health, and muscular strength through regular exercise, participation in sports, and proper nutrition. It had its origins in the eighteenth-century revival of interest in classical aesthetics, especially the artistic emphasis on the muscular male form, and reached its height in the United States, Britain, and Europe from 1880 until 1930. The ideals of the physical culture movement survive today in modified form in the sport of bodybuilding and in the contemporary emphasis on fitness in Europe and the United States.


Perhaps the most prominent forerunner of the physical culture movement was the mid-nineteenth-century doctrine of muscular Christianity. Aimed at young men, this stressed the twin goals of physical fitness, largely through participation in sports, and religious observance, drawing its inspiration in part from the Roman satirist Juvenal's doctrine of mens sana in corpore sano (a sound mind in a sound body). Its advocates included such English writers as Charles Kingsley and Thomas Hughes, who made it the underlying value system of his 1857 novel, Tom Brown's School Days. Despite the popularity of Hughes's novel, and although gymnasia opened in Northampton, Massachusetts, in 1823, in Paris in 1847, and at Oxford University in England in 1858, the physical culture movement did not become fully developed until it was mass-marketed by Eugen Sandow (1867–1925) and Bernarr Macfadden (1868–1955) at the end of the nineteenth century.

Sandow is generally credited as the originator of what would eventually become modern bodybuilding. Born in Prussia, Sandow performed throughout Europe as a sideshow strongman before coming to America in 1893 to appear at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, where he was hired by showman Florenz Zeigfeld to tour in a variety show. Sandow's act quickly evolved from performing feats of strength to displaying his muscular development by covering himself in white powder and imitating the poses of classical statues, such as The Dying Gaul, albeit with the addition of a discretely placed fig leaf. Photographs of him in such poses were widely marketed, establishing the tradition of physique photography. Sandow is also credited with organizing the first bodybuilding contest, "The Great Competition," at the Royal Albert Hall in London in 1901, with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as one of the judges.

Largely forgotten now, Macfadden was known during his lifetime as the Father of Physical Culture. Influenced by Sandow's show at the Columbian Exposition, Macfadden toured in his own muscle display show, developed and marketed exercise equipment, opened physical culture clubs in cities across the country, and in 1898 began publishing Physical Culture magazine. By 1903 the magazine was selling 100,000 copies per month, and it would eventually provide the basis for a publishing empire. Macfadden was also an early proponent of physical activity for women, advocating that they participate in outdoor sports such as swimming and tennis, publishing a fitness magazine (Beauty and Health) aimed at a female audience, and campaigning against corsets and restrictive clothing. Beginning in 1904, he organized bodybuilding competitions that included both genders.

Sandow and Macfadden's success at retailing the ideal of physical culture can be attributed to a number of contemporary cultural factors that provided a fertile climate for their ideas. By the end of the nineteenth century, Charles Darwin's notion of survival of the fittest had been adapted into a related theory, social Darwinism, which applied his concepts to contemporary human societies. Social Darwinism argued that relations between societies, and between groups within a society, should be understood as intrinsically competitive, with superior individuals and groups winning out over those less suited to survival. Such ideas provided part of the conceptual framework for the colonial and imperialist projects of the era, which argued that the inherent superiority of the white race required it to bring civilization to less-developed parts of the globe. Along with this assertion of confidence in the destiny of Europeans and Americans, however, came a corollary anxiety: because evolution argued that species were continually changing, late-nineteenth-century intellectuals became concerned about the idea of degeneration—the possibility that each generation of Europeans and Americans was weaker than the last and that crime, poverty, and social disorder were increasing.

The physical culture movement can be seen as part of the response to this anxiety in its stress on enhancing male health and fitness, a goal that was of particular importance because the physical state of individual men was conceptually linked to the health of the country as a whole. Degenerate and effeminate young men, it was thought, meant a weak nation, which could easily fall victim to other countries or races (Seltzer 1992). As such, the physical culture movement is simply one part of a general emphasis in Europe and the United States on improving the fitness of the individual and thereby ensuring the future viability of the nation, an ethos that also spawned the modern revival of the Olympic Games in 1896 and the founding of the Boy Scouts in 1907.

Since the 1930s the physical culture movement has developed into the sport of modern bodybuilding, with the emphasis gradually shifting from exercise done for the sake of strength and fitness to exercise as a means of shaping and proportioning the body for aesthetic effect. Key moments in the development of bodybuilding as a recognized sport were the emergence of Steve Reeves (Mr. Universe, 1950) as a movie star in Hercules and other "sword and sandal" films from 1959 to 1964; the founding of the Mr. Universe and Mr. Olympia bodybuilding competitions, in 1948 and 1965, respectively; and the 1977 documentary film Pumping Iron, which detailed a young Arnold Schwarzenegger's attempts to win the Mr. Olympia title. The film not only launched Schwarzenegger's film career but also made bodybuilding a popular sport.


If only because it involves partial nudity, the physical culture movement, like modern bodybuilding after it, has always been closely tied to sexuality. As a feature of Sandow's stage shows, women were invited to come backstage afterward, where they could feel his muscles upon payment of a fee. Although bodybuilding culture has thus given women opportunities to appreciate the male form since its inception, the sport's primary relation to sexuality has been a long and uneasy association with homosexuality. Because bodybuilding is one of the few arenas in twentieth- and twenty-first-century culture where men have been allowed to look at and appreciate the bodies of other men, the sport is often seen as implicitly homoerotic (Simpson 1994). The connection between physical culture and homoeroticism is clearest, however, in the history of physique photography. Although Physical Culture and Sandow's photographs were the first widely accessible sources of male imagery for gay men at the turn of the last century, it was not until the late 1940s, when a recognizable gay subculture began to emerge, that physique photography began to be produced specifically for the gay community.

In 1945 Bob Mizer founded the Athletic Model Guild in Los Angeles, a photography studio that was originally intended to provide portraits for aspiring actors but quickly evolved into the marketing of photographs of muscular young men. Beginning in 1951, Mizer published Physique Pictorial, a magazine featuring his photographs and including brief biographical descriptions of the models. Because of the rigid censorship laws of the time, the models were shown wearing posing straps (which were sometimes painted onto the negatives of nude photographs), and Mizer justified his work by appealing to the classical tradition of male nudity in art and to the physical culture movement. Mizer's photographs, however, were clearly designed to appeal to an emerging gay audience, and customers could order photo sets that contained nude shots of the models. Other studios and magazines soon followed suit. Significant photographers of the era also include Don Whitman (Western Photography Guild) and Bruce Bellas (Bruce of Los Angeles) in the United States, John S. Barrington in England, and Gregor Arax (Studio Arax) in France. The liberalization of censorship laws in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s removed the need to justify male nude photography through an appeal to the ideals of physical culture, paving the way for the more diverse images of men found in contemporary gay pornography.

Bodybuilding has also played a direct role in the gay community. Beginning in the late 1970s, gay men began to take up bodybuilding, both because of the sport's growing popularity and because of an increasing emphasis in gay culture on masculine self-presentation. This trend was enhanced by the onset of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, which led not only to increased health consciousness among gay men but also to a concern with appearing healthy as well. Among gay men, the popularity of working out has continued into the twenty-first century, and bodybuilders now comprise a large and recognizable subculture within the gay community, as web sites such as attest. Unlike straight bodybuilders, however, whose aim is usually to enhance their self-esteem by improving their appearance, bodybuilding in the gay community is often designed to objectify the body, making it more attractive as an erotic object (Miller 1992).

see also Beauty Pageants.


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Chapman, David L. 1994. Sandow the Magnificent: Eugen Sandow and the Beginnings of Bodybuilding. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Cooper, Emmanuel. 1995. Fully Exposed: The Male Nude in Photography. 2nd edition. New York: Routledge.

"Eugen Sandow and the Golden Age of Iron Men." Sandow Plus. Available from

Hall, Donald E., ed. 1994. Muscular Christianity: Embodying the Victorian Age. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Miller, D. A. 1992. Bringing Out Roland Barthes. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Pumping Iron. 1977. Directed by George Butler and Robert Fiore. White Mountain Films.

Seltzer, Mark. 1992. Bodies and Machines. New York: Routledge.

Signorile, Michelangelo. 1997. Life Outside: The Signorile Report on Gay Men, Sex, Drugs, Muscles, and the Passages of Life. New York: HarperCollins.

Simpson, Mark. 1994. Male Impersonators: Men Performing Masculinity. New York: Routledge.

                                              Dennis Allen