It's not just celebrity body types that have changed. Increasingly, ordinary men are emulating themby Caspar Salmon / November 22, 2018 / Leave a comment
The central character of Alan Hollinghurst’s most recent book, The Sparsholt Affair, is first seen lifting weights. The year is 1940, and weightlifting is seen as something fantastical and alluring: glimpsed in a window across an Oxford quad, “the source of the shadow moved slowly into view, a figure in a gleaming singlet, steadily lifting and lowering a pair of hand-weights.” David Sparsholt immediately provokes a collective passion among the homosexuals on campus—but he is also described in the opening chapter as “the exhibitionist” and “this ridiculous fellow.” It’s one of the book’s many consummate ironies that something now so mundane and ubiquitous as working out should both be synonymous with Sparsholt’s sexual ambiguity, and tell us a great deal about his vanity and self-possession.
In 1940 the silver screen sex symbols of the day would have been Cary Grant, Gregory Peck, Clark Gable, even John Wayne. You only have to google “Clark Gable shirtless” to find a perfectly pleasant result, but one that in today’s lexicon would be called ‘dadbod.’ Peck, likewise, is nicely built, but you would struggle to find anything that could pass for definition on his body.
At the time, Charles Atlas, the bodybuilder who marketed his exercise regime to America, would have been at the height of his fame. Still, though, the body ideal he represented has something rather quaint to it: big arms, a solid torso, slightly wobbly on the abs, and clearly not many leg days in his past. This is generally the sort of body that Burt Lancaster would rock in films such as The Crimson Pirate (1952), and he was marketed very much as a buff body-man; a muscular so-and-so who had training as an acrobat. Looking at photos of Lancaster now, cavorting on a beach with Ava Gardner, he has the appearance of one of your more handsome, carefree pals in an un-posed Instagram snap—all lithe limbs and quiet horsepower.
How did we get from there to the current fashion for highly built male bodies—and have we gone so far now in the cult of the hench that we can only move back to an alternative body ideal? (The question of female bodies, where exercise…