Notes on: Mr. America, the Tragic History of a Bodybuilding Icon by John D. Fair

My reading on the history of strength sports brought me to this book. I'm not interested in bodybuilding for its own sake, but bodybuilding is entwined with the stuff I am interested in.

This book chronicles one lineage of bodybuilding, from the "Mr. America" contest's origins to its demise. We learn who controlled the contest and how it defined itself relative to its counterparts (like Miss America) and competitors (like Mr. Olympia).

It's not a history of bodybuilding and it doesn't get into details about how the athletes trained or how shows were run or won. Instead, there's a lot about the power struggles behind the scenes: which specific rich white guys were in charge of what, and what they wanted Mr. America to be. I lost track of how many bodybuilding federations there were, and which acronyms were which. There was a lot of discussion of pros versus amateurs, without getting into why that distinction mattered or even how it was defined. That kind of thing.

The book starts with the first bodybuilding competitions, which were often run by magazines and were photo contests. If you look good posing like statuary, you're in.

Even today, histories of strength sports often start with ancient Greece. Whenever I see this, I just think: why, of all the times and places in the world, is this where you choose to start? Fair provides some context. He writes: "What matters is not so much whether the Greeks had exceptional bodies or how perfectly ancient artists conceived them, but the extent to which the Victorians and their successors were inspired by Greek iconography to shape their own cultural ideals."

Fair notes that the European and especially British conception of the Greeks came from German classicist Johann Joachim Winckelmann, who studied Roman copies of Greek statues and waxed poetic about what he inferred as the Greeks' obsession with physical beauty. Winckelmann died in 1768, his ideas extremely popular. Europeans and especially Germans came to see the Greeks as the founders of European culture, via the "Aryan model". Bodybuilding and Nazi bullshit both share ancestry in this line of thinking.

When your ideal is that of the ancient Greeks, your ideal ideal body is white and male. Meanwhile, the Europeans and Americans who are enamored of this idea seem to conveniently forget that the Greeks were totally cool with being gay. Throughout the history of bodybuilding, it seems the sport was extremely popular with the gay community, and yet the people who ran it were vehement about distancing themselves from the gay community.

Fair writes, on page 29:

"Strength lent itself to objective measurement through records and games, whereas the proponents of beauty seemed obsessed with proportions, seeking to derive body-size formulas from the physiques of Greek statues. In a 1915 article titled 'Posing the Physique Beautiful,' L. E. Eubanks advises anyone wishing to make such comparisons to obtain 'a rule, a tape-line and calipers' in order to 'go at the matter thoroughly.' Then it was important to select an appropriate model: 'If you are slender you would look ridiculous posed as the Farnese Hercules, and if your figure is heavy you would not make a good Apollo. A woman of eighteen with a girlish figure cannot consistently represent Juno; nor can a heavy woman in middle life succeed as Psyche.' Upon selecting an appropriate model, the aspiring physical culturist should study his or her 'pose thoroughly and aim at exact imitation.'"

Measurements? Yeah, anthropometry was big at the time (and has strong connections to yet more racist bullshit.) Milo Hastings, in the magazine Physical Culture, chose Eugene Sandow & Annette Kellerman as modern exemplars of excellence, & provided measurements so you can compare them to yourself, although "the eye rather than the tape measure and calipers is the tribunal at which judgment on grace and symmetry must be sought."

This word, symmetry, perplexes me. I think bodybuilders use it to mean something like "proportions" or a general sense of "looks good to me" rather than actual literal symmetry.

A question that only gets partially answered is: why did anybody get interested in bodybuilding in the first place?

There seemed to be a lively debate, in the first few decades of the 1900s, about whether training for strength develops your shape (eg Hackenschmidt) or if training for shape gives you strength (eg Sig Klein).

Meanwhile, the 1925 winner of a Strength magazine contest, Lurten Cunningham, tells a story about a kid who beat him up in his youth. He vowed "to crush that boy" and, after winning the contest, adds "I have realized that ambition." I'm not sure if that's a metaphorical crushing or if he literally went back and beat up his rival years later.

Is the display of muscles about a power fantasy, like what Charles Atlas sold? Or is bodybuilding just an excuse for displaying bodies, much as paintings of naked women can be ART and not PORN? If so, if you like looking at men's bodies, does it matter whether they're muscly or not?

I can't help thinking these magazines were the instagram of their day. with health or some related ineffable virtue shown through bodily appearance. Appearance is valued, but much is made of what appearance symbolizes.

It's also interesting to see that bodybuilding as a competitive sport didn't grow out of a grassroots interest but rather was cultivated for and by magazine publishers. It made for good photos and allowed for selling exercise equipment & information.

A lot of early bodybuilding contests emphasized that they're looking for the person who is the most beautiful or "perfectly developed," not necessarily the person with the biggest muscles. I kept thinking: why? Who are these huge-muscled people who the organizers feel don't deserve to win?

In the early Mr. America contests, "most muscular" was a category prize, separate from the main award. There are multiple generations of conflict over whether bodybuilding should be rewarding size over all other factors, or other factors--and what are they?--over size. Some contests were held in conjunction with weightlifting meets, and one's proficiency in lifting was part of the judging. Later, there was a tension between the Weiders' contests, which emphasized size and muscularity over other factors, versus the AAU ones for which muscularity was just one point category of many. Go a bit further toward the present, and we see the same conflict again with steroids. Is it better to be natural and pretty, or just huge? And then in women's bodybuilding, there's an even more extreme and higher stakes version of this conflict, with people arguing that the sport should reward femininity at the expense of muscularity, or vice versa.

In 1970, Chris Dickerson won as the first Black Mr. America (and Fair reports he was also the first to be gay, though not openly at the time.) Bill Pearl says he trained Dickerson and other proteges to meet the "All-American" standard that was basically acting like a middle class white dude. Manicured their fingernails, shined their shoes, told them don't associate with the other black kids backstage. Make eye contact, smile, avoid specific phrases in answering questions.

Throughout the book there are quotes about how the Mr. America title is meant to go to a person who represents the right values, a good all around American boy. Steve Neece is quoted saying of Bob Hoffman:

"Bob disapproved of the west coast lifestyle and the events had a category called 'athletic points' which were part of the scoring. If you were an Olympic style weightlifter or perhaps another form of athlete, you got 'em, if you weren't, tough luck. The AAU also had a category called 'personal appearance' which supposedly covered such things as clear skin, teeth, grooming and general facial features. That took care of anybody who made it past the athletic part but wasn't desirable in AAU, (Bob's) eyes. Just a little history lesson, kiddies, to show ya how far we've come." - from Muscle Training Illustrated, June 1990

You'll only receive email when 12406 publishes a new post

More fromĀ 12406