When men started to obsess over six-packs
The ideal male body took on a new definition in the 19th century. Strongman project, CC BY
The cultural obsession with six pack abs shows no signs of subsiding. And if the exploration of the male body image is to be believed, it will likely only grow thanks to social media.
There is an entire industry these days that focuses on maintaining and caring for chiseled abs. They are the subject of books and social media posts while every action movie star seems to wear them. The pressure on women to wear six pack abs is also increasing as the body ideals for athletic women have evolved.
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All of this begs the question, when did the six pack madness begin?
It appears to be a relatively recent phenomenon, a by-product of the fitness culture boom of the 1970s and 1980s, when Arnold Schwarzenegger and Rambo ruled and men's muscle magazines and aerobics declined.
History proves otherwise. In fact, Western culture's fascination with chiseled abs can be traced back to the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when the ideal male body image began to change in the West.
Greeks arouse envy
While exploring Irish health and physical cultures, I was fascinated by the change in male body ideals.
The French historian George Vigarello has written about how the ideal male figure and male silhouette have changed in Western society. British and American cultures in the 17th, 18th, and to some extent the 19th centuries valued large or rounded male bodies. The reasons for this were relatively simple: rich men could afford to eat more, and a larger frame indicated success.
It wasn't until the early 19th century that lean and muscular bodies became very popular. Within a few decades, plump bodies were viewed as sluggish, while lean, athletic, or muscular physiques were associated with success, self-discipline, and even piety.
Part of this transformation resulted from renewed European interest in ancient Greece. Kinesiologist Jan Todd and others have written about the impact ancient Greek images and statues had on body images. Much like how social media has distorted body image, artifacts like the Elgin Marbles - a group of sculptures brought to England in the early 19th century and whose male figures have lean and muscular bodies - have sparked interest in male muscles.
A piece of the Elgin Marbles on display in the British Museum in London. Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA
This interest in muscles deepened over the course of the century. In 1851, London hosted a major commercial and cultural celebration known as the Great Exhibition. Greek statues stood in front of the exhibition halls. British physical education teacher George Forrest wrote about the impact of these statues in 1858, complaining that the British "apparently do not have this beautiful set of muscles that run down the waist and are beneficial as such in the ancient statues".
Projections of military power
Statues and paintings were important long before photography influenced fitness standards in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Equally important, however, was the growth of military gymnastics at the beginning of the century. At the same time, the ideal body types for men were changing, as was European society.
As a result of the Napoleonic Wars at the beginning of the 19th century, several gymnastics programs were developed to strengthen and strengthen the body of young men across Europe. French soldiers were known for their physical fitness, both in terms of their ability to march for days as well as move quickly in combat. After suffering humiliating defeats by Napoleon's forces, many European states took the health of their troops much more seriously.
The gymnast Friedrich Ludwig Jahn was commissioned through his gymnastics system of calisthenic exercises to strengthen Prussia's military strength.
In France, a Spanish gymnastics instructor named Don Francisco Amorós y Ondeano was hired to rebuild the body and endurance of French troops, while in England a Swiss fitness instructor named P.H. Clias trained the military and the navy in the 1830s. In order to meet the growing European interest in fitness, ever larger gyms were built across the continent.
People exercise in the gym with high ceilings.
Soldiers weren't the only ones participating in these programs. For example, Jahn's Turner system, which encouraged the use of parallel bars, rings, and horizontal bars, became one of the most popular exercise programs of the century among members of the European public and gained a following among Americans. Clias, meanwhile, opened classes for men of the middle and upper class, and Amorós y Ondeano - along with other European gymnastics teachers - was regularly quoted in gymnastics texts published from the 1830s.
The six-pack industry is born
So the seeds for the modern six pack mania were planted in two ways: First, men began to look at Greek statues with envy. Then they developed the means to sculpt their bodies in the images of these statues. Meanwhile, writers from the 1830s and 1840s urged men to strive for lean bodies, strong stems, and without excess body fat.
But the obsession with six-packs blossomed in the early 20th century. By then, strong men like Eugen Sandow had been able to expand the existing interest in Greek images and gymnastics by using photography, cheap postage and the new science of dietary supplements to benefit from the longing for the perfect body.
Eugen Sandow wears leopard skin trunks and classic-style sandals.
Sandow himself sold books, exercise equipment, nutritional supplements, children's toys, corsets, cigars and cocoa. Sandow, once hailed as “the world's most developed specimen,” inspired countless men to shed excess “meat” - the name for body fat - to show off their abs. By the way, abs was always the term that was used at the time.
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It wasn't until the late 1980s and early 1990s that a “six-pack” did not just refer to beer cans and served as a substitute for visible abdominal muscles. Searching Google Ngram shows that the term's popularity grew exponentially from the mid to late 1990s.
"Six-pack abs" quickly became the talk of the town thanks to brilliant marketers determined to sell a range of "Get Fit Fast" machines from Abs of Steel to 6 Minute Abs.
Few have stood the test of time. But the longing for the coveted six-pack - as the more than 12 million Instagram posts with the hashtag #sixpack can confirm - continues.
This article was republished by The Conversation, a non-profit news site dedicated to exchanging ideas from academic experts. It was written by: Conor Heffernan, University of Texas, Austin College of Liberal Arts.
The ideal female body type is becoming increasingly difficult to achieve
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Conor Heffernan does not work for any company or organization that would benefit from this article and does not consult any stocks or companies that would benefit from this article, and has not disclosed any relevant affiliations beyond her academic appointment.
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