Physique Magazines and Photographs

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Featuring photographs and drawings of young men posing and flexing their muscles, usually in small posing straps, physique magazines flourished from the mid-1950s to the early 1960s. They were the major source of print and visual culture for gay men before Stonewall; at the height of their popularity, the physiques outcirculated homophile magazines by almost ten to one. Distributed through the mail and sold on newsstands in some major cities, they combined editorials, readers' letters, and photos and drawings to create an early form of gay public culture through which gay men could experience themselves as part of a collective—a particularly important development at a time when homosexuality was still primarily understood in individual, psychological terms.

Thomas Waugh's monumental study of gay male visual culture, Hard to Imagine (1996), provides a thoroughgoing account, not only of the history of the physique magazines, but of the forms of popular visual representations of the male body that preceded them. Waugh traces the origins of the physiques back to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Emphasizing the importance of movements like the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) and scouting in the United States, as well as German naturalist and gymnasium movements, he suggests that depictions of naked or partly clothed male bodies emerged at least in part from a need to resist the dehumanization of industrial work. He also describes the significance of technological and marketplace advances to the development of physique photography, focusing on the popularity of postcards, magazines, and relatively cheap cameras at the turn of the twentieth century. Though the audience for this early form of beefcake photography was overwhelmingly male, the orientation of "physical culture" in this period was predominantly heterosexual. Magazines like Bernarr Macfadden's Physical Culture stressed a Victorian ideal of the muscleman as the model for a virility that could resist the draining influences of urban life and middle-class gentility. However, Waugh is able to show that even in this period gay men were using heavily coded personal ads in Physical Culture to meet each other and were avid collectors of physique photos from the magazines.

By the 1930s some of the conditions for a print-based, gay physique culture were in place, though its infrastructure was not yet discernibly gay. Bodybuilding and gym-based weightlifting were becoming more popular. Strength and Health magazine, linked to the York Barbell Company in York, Pennsylvania, began publishing in this period, and the first Mister America bodybuilding contest was held in 1939. Here and there, gay photographers like Al Urban started up regional mail-order services for their photos of muscular young men, but no one had yet thought of assembling photos into a magazine format.

The Heyday of Physique Photography

Physique photography in magazine form, the form that became truly popular, began in the 1950s with men like Bob Mizer, an amateur photographer in Los Angeles who began to see that the mail-order catalogs sent to prospective purchasers of physique photos were themselves a potential source of profit. (As Waugh points out, an entrepreneurial impulse drove both straight and gay men involved in the world of physique photography from the very start.) Soon the catalogs evolved into simple magazines with editorials, letter columns, and feature articles alongside advertisements and the photos themselves. It was in this format that the physique magazines reached their widest circulation.

Though at the peak of physique photography's popularity there were more than one hundred muscle magazines on the market, Mizer's Physique Pictorial was among the longest-running and best known. The photos, editorials, and letters in Physique Pictorial offer an exemplary record of the emergence of a popular gay male visual culture as well as a record of the difficult conditions in which such a culture could develop. As Mizer and his cohorts began to photograph muscular men who were not necessarily bodybuilders, turning instead to fresh-faced boys next door, athletes, and young soldiers, they implicitly signaled that it was male beauty, rather than male strength, that the magazines were offering. This was an aesthetic turn that got Mizer, along with a whole generation of physique photographers, into constant trouble with the police and the state. Indeed, one way to understand the history of physique photography is as the struggle of the photographers trying to produce representations of an erotic male body that would nonetheless escape censorship.

The primary visual and rhetorical strategies photographers and publishers used in order to avoid police harassment and the censors at the U.S. Postal Service were what Waugh has called the "artistic and athletic alibis." By insisting that they were taking pictures of muscular young men as part of a coolly aesthetic pursuit of photographic art or as a service to young men in need of inspiration in their own exercise regimes, Mizer and his cohort hoped to convince police and postal censors that magazines like Physique Pictorial did not encourage the sort of prurience that could classify them as obscene and therefore illegal. Mizer's editorials in Physique Pictorial are frequently aimed at what he saw as the hypocrisy of labeling the naked or erotic male body "obscene," and his photographs, which depict young athletes in Greek or Roman costume, in gyms, or in military gear are an argument for both the classical purity and the dailiness and normality of male beauty.

Twined together with the history of the artistic and athletic alibis in physique culture is its history of racial representation. Greg Mullins has shown the ways in which early-twentieth-century physique magazines used photos of African men to offset the possibility of overtly eroticizing men's bodies, adopting a cool, anthropological stance toward those men that attempted to displace the lure of male beauty with an idea of muscular development as a kind of evolution. And Tracy Morgan has shown that 1950s physique photographers, though they abandoned any pretense to anthropological distance in photographing men of color, nonetheless kept them at a remove, often separating photos of them into special issues or preserving a hint of the anthropological alibi by photographing men with racially coded props like straw hats or chains.

Physique Photography Becomes Obsolete

Overall, the strategy of the alibi was only marginally successful. Many physique photographers, collectors, and a few models were harassed by the police and by the U.S. Postal Service in the 1950s and 1960s, and a few of them—Mizer included—served prison sentences. After a police raid on physique collectors in Northampton, Massachusetts, Smith College English professor Newton Arvin was forced to testify against friends and colleagues and attempted suicide. In 1962, though, the U.S. Supreme Court heard an obscenity case centered on physique magazines in MANual Enterprises v. Day, and ruled 6-1 in the magazines' favor, thereby easing restrictions on what could be distributed in the mail. Though the Supreme Court maintained that the magazines were aimed at the "prurient interests" of readers, it asserted that "prurient interest" was not a sufficient criterion for defining obscenity, insisting that truly "obscene" materials were also "patently offensive"—and that the physique magazines were not.

The ruling in MANual Enterprises opened the door for the physique magazines to become more open about the erotic lure of physique photos as well as the specifically gay sexuality they were addressing. Slowly over the course of the 1960s, physique photography grew more overtly sexual as artists depicted their models nude and chose younger, slimmer men—and boys—to photograph. Though Mizer's photographs retained their 1950s atmosphere of playful, boyish romping, most other photographers quickly moved to take advantage of what they saw as both more expressive and more profitable sexual nudes. Other magazines, meanwhile, like Philadelphia's Drum, began to be more explicitly political, adopting the idiom of camp and the rhetoric of gay liberation in its editorials and photo captions.

By the 1970s the popularity of the physique magazines was on the wane: the loosening of obscenity law, helped along by the MANual Enterprises decision, opened the field to more explicit and more profitable pornography. The physiques were also surpassed by political change: the rise of a self-identified gay movement abruptly made them seem closeted and antiliberatory. It was not until the 1990s, as lesbian and gay activists, collectors, and historians took to reclaiming the byways of pre-Stonewall gay eros, that the physiques became interesting to large numbers of gay men again—this time as a slightly campy reflection of what was regarded as a more innocent, pre-AIDS sexuality as well as a precursor to the politics of gay liberation. Scholarly books like Waugh's Hard to Imagine, coffee-table books like Hooven's Beef-cake (1998), and films like Thom Fitzgerald's Beefcake (1999) all established connections between the 1960s muscle culture and subsequent gay sexuality. By drawing such connections, historians of physique culture have made it clear that the closet it built—the alibi around the display of the male body—is still with us in advertising, in contemporary men's fitness magazines, and on the Internet, almost as though the closet is erotic in itself. The sheer variety of sexual representations of men in contemporary visual culture makes it hard to know.


Fitzgerald, Thom. Beefcake. 16mm, 93 min. Santa Monica, CA: Strand Releasing, 1999.

Hooven, F. Valentine III. Beefcake: The Muscle Magazines of America, 1950–1970. Cologne, Germany: Taschen, 1995.

Meyer, Richard. Outlaw Representation: Censorship and Homosexuality in Twentieth-Century American Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Morgan, Tracy. "Pages of Whiteness: Race, Physique Magazines, and the Emergence of Gay Public Culture, 1955–1960." Found Objects, no. 4 (Fall 1994): 109–126.

Mullins, Greg. "Nudes, Prudes, and Pigmies: The Desirability of Disavowal in Physical Culture." Discourse 15, no. 1 (Fall 1992): 27–48.

Waugh, Thomas. Hard to Imagine: Gay Male Eroticism in Photography and Film from their Beginnings to Stonewall. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996.

Christopher Nealon

see alsocensorship, obscenity, and pornography law and policy; hockney, david; mizer, robert; pornography.