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97-Pound Weakling

97-Pound Weakling

Jan 1, 2011

SF Gay Parade 2006: COLT guys
Image by Franco Folini via Flickr

The 97-Pound Weakling

When we consider the icons of American maleness – several images come to mind: the cowboy, the soldier and the sports hero.  Clearly, when considering body image – the athlete represents the definition of the ultimate male specimen. Our current muscular ideal harkens back to a 1928 advertisement found in the back of pulp fiction publications: primarily comic books and those that featured “true crime” stories.   The “97-pound weakling” advertisement that was made infamous by Charles Atlas was built around a phrase he coined that became an enduring metaphor for puniness and humiliation.  The ad itself promised a better physique in just 7 days.

The premise was supposedly based on an encounter that Mr. Atlas himself had experienced while he was still a skinny youth. The original advertisement comprised several panels in comic-book format. They told the tale of the 97-pound weakling, a boy named Mac, who was humiliated by a bully while at the beach with his girlfriend.

Mac loses the girlfriend, sees the light and decides to get the Charles Atlas program. Before long he looks in the mirror and says, “Boy! Look how those muscles bulge!” And in the last frame he punches the bully while the girlfriend watches and is impressed.

Male thinness was considered a weakness.  Thus creating the association between thin (“skinny”) and a negative male body image.  Where else is male weakness more tested and challenged than in the sports arena.  Who amongst us hasn’t suffered the trials and tribulations of PE class?  Young males are “tested” and groomed through the sport’s system – from Little League to high school football, the “jock” is always the winner.  When was the last movie you saw where the girl goes for the math club president or even the long distance sprinter for that matter?  It’s the beefy quarterback every time.

As I child, I grew up watching Popeye.  Popeye was forever being bullied by Bluto and his manhood challenged in front of Olive Oil.  His masculinity was constantly tested.  It wasn’t until he ingested the spinach, causing his biceps to swell with manly vigor, did he defend his honor and win the girl.  Hmm, makes you kinda wonder if there was some kind of performance enhancing compounds in those greens?

Today’s professional athletes continue to be manlier and bigger than ever.  As illegal enhancement drugs and steroids plaque professional sports, we have to wonder why everyone is surprised that are kids are getting bigger.  Look at their role models!

Athletes who transform themselves from “normal” men into hulks with tree trunk biceps don’t get there without a little “help.”  And in the quest to get big, these guys are getting fatter, too.  A new study suggests that a whopping 56 percent of NFL players would be considered obese.

As we continue to push our sons to get bigger, who is looking out for their long-term health?  Who warns about health dangers of prolonged steroid use?  Why is it such a scandal when a lineman has a heart attack during training camp?  Connect the dots folks, its not that hard.

I remember a wrestling coach back in 7th grade who would limit our water intake and have us sweat off “pounds,” so that we could wrestle in a lighter weight class.  Two years later, I tried out for football.  I wasn’t big enough. “Go eat and come back next year. . .” was the advice of that coach.  I took his advice, and have been eating ever since. My football coach would be so proud of the NFL’s 350 pound club.

So now America has an Obesity Crisis?  Really, who would have thought?  In a culture where “Big” is considered manly, today’s linemen are just the modern equivalent of bigger, stronger, chemically-enhanced gladiators.  Currently, there are over 350 players in the NFL who are over 300 pounds and 9 topping 350.

A lot has been written about the media’s negative portrayal of female body ideals, but what about men?  One simply needs to peruse the magazine rack at the local Piggly Wiggly to see that men’s body images are just as distorted as women’s.  A plethora of fitness magazines litter the shelves – Flex, Men’s Health, Muscle & Fitness, Men’s Fitness and Muscle are but just a few of the titles.  Not all of us want to  – nor will we ever have to worry about -looking like Arnold.

So ladies, if it makes you feel any better – men have become equally dysfunctional about our bodies.

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