Simone Bacchini writes:
“To the average young man there is no subject quite so fascinating as a discussion of physical strength.” These are the opening words of Secrets of Strength, by Earle E. Liederman. I was going to say that if Liederman is right, then I’m not ‘average’ but as I’m no longer a ‘young man’ it doesn’t really matter.
But who was Earle Liederman? I’m sure I’m not the only one who has not heard of him. Even the mighty internet isn’t very helpful; and what it has is in part contradictory. From what I’ve been able to ascertain, he was born—the son of Swedish immigrants—in New York, some sources say in 1910, others 1926. However, he soon shot to fame when he gave up his medical education to become a ‘Strong Man’.
Strong Men were what we would call culturists, or body-builders. They made a living from taking part in competitions and exhibiting their muscular bodies in theatres and other venues, apparently attracting large crowds.
Earle, however, went one step further. Sensing that there was a market for physical self-improvement, he authored several books on how to develop a strong, muscular body. His books, which later included titles on sexuality (e.g. Sex Dynamite; The Hidden Truth About Sex) sold very well in America and abroad. I have copies of ‘Muscle Building’ and ‘Secret of Strength’ on my desk (the opening quotation is from the latter) that were published in Britain, in 1938. Advertised in the popular press, the books were bought and sold by post, making Liederman’s programme a great success story in the world of postal marketing.
In Britain, we had our own ‘Super Man’: Olympic middleweight champion Harold Laurance. He too had a training programme: ‘The World Beater Course’, and an illustrated book, presumably to whet his potential audience’s appetite for big muscles, suggestively named ‘Supermanity’. Laurance’s course promised to ‘transform a puny, sallow, nervous lad of from 15 to 20 into a strong, active, clear-eyed, self-confident man.’
Today, a visit to any newsagent’s will reveal the numerous magazines, aimed mostly at a male audience, which month after month advertise various programmes to help readers acquire the perfect ‘beach-body’. Similarly, a gym membership seems to be de rigueur for any self-respecting twenty-first century male. But I had always assumed that the current mass obsession with the body beautiful was a rather recent phenomenon; a fruit of the affluent post-war years in the West, but apparently it has a longer history.
However, there are differences as well as similarities between these early programmes and their contemporary descendants. To begin with, they are both aimed at large audiences and make use of the popular media: the press, the internet, and—to a lesser extent—TV. And it couldn’t be otherwise, since the message they convey is heavily reliant on images. Their aim is first to visually stimulate the viewer, convincing him that what he’s seeing is not only highly desirable but also, crucially, attainable.
Back in the Thirties, the focus of the message seems to have been more skewed towards the acquisition of ‘strength’. Other desirable outcomes would have been better health; and last, but not least (if you read carefully), success with the opposite sex. Nowadays, the stress seems to have shifted unashamedly to ‘looking good’, with well-being as a by product. In this respect, both the male and the female body receive equal attention for their aesthetic value. It is now acceptable, it seems, for men to be looked at because they are beautiful as well as strong.
Body builders are adamant that their ‘craft’ is in fact a sport, and attempts have been made to make the discipline an Olympic event, so far without success. Are ideas about ‘narcissism’ contributing to the IOC’s intransigence?
Representations of strong men vary over time: bulky men wearing improbable leotards, or strategically-placed leaves, and gladiator sandals in the old pictures; and shiny alpha males in designer gear in the contemporary ones. Yet, although the accoutrements of physical prowess may have changed, it looks like all the books, magazines, and leaflets promising readers bigger limbs appeal to the one constant of men’s sporting endeavours: vanity. Plus ça change.
Liederman, E.E. Muscle Building. Manchester: Universal Institute of Physical Culture, 1938.
London reference collections shelfmark: Shelfmark: 7393.bb.17
Liederman, E.E. Secrets of Strength. Manchester: Universal Institute of Physical Culture. 1938.
London reference collections shelfmark: Shelfmark: 7393.bb.15
Radley, A.. The Illustrated History of Physical culture, Vol. 1. Blackpool: Radley, 2001.
London reference collection shelfmark: YC.2001.b.730
Thompson, J.K. and Cafri, G. (eds.) The Muscular Ideal: Psychological, social, and Medical Perspectives. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2007.
DS shelfmark: m07/.27303.
Picture Post, 12/11/1938
London reference collection shelfmark: P.P.7000.af (also available as electronic resource).