Saturday, June 11, 2011

I am Ryan Reynolds' Abs

My teenage son, who regularly runs and lifts weights, is in good physical shape, but he will not be satisfied with his appearance until he has the sort of quality six-pack that other men will envy.  I explained to him that he has been taken in by a Hollywood scam.

The rectus abdominis muscle was emphasized in ancient Greco-Roman statues to put forth an idealized form of the male body.  Often, the subjects of the statues were gods with impossible physical strength.  It was inevitable that these statues would occupy the minds of filmmakers producing sword and sandal epics.  Still, the tunic-clad actors of early Hollywood saw no need to show off their abs.   Here is a picture of early Hollywood strongman Francis X. Bushman in a publicity still for Ben-Hur (1925).

Bushman demonstrated his fitness without being ostentatious about his muscles.

Perceptions didn't change until Charles Atlas introduced clever marketing ploys to popularize bodybuilding in the 1930s.  Atlas gave special attention to his abdominal muscles.  He wrote, "It is all very well to have strong arms and a grip of steel, but of what use are these unless the abdominal area is in perfect condition?"  He assured the public that, if they followed his exercise program, "[t]he rectus abdomus muscles will stand out firmly like a washboard."  It is believe that Atlas and his partner, Charles Roman, coined the terms "washboard abs" and "six-pack abs."

Atlas never missed an opportunity to show off.

This did not have an immediate effect on Hollywood.  Healthy, manly physiques did not have to be bursting with muscles.

But bodybuilding continued to grow in popularity during the next two decades.  This became evident in movies in the 1950s.  Marlon Brando became a sex symbol as soon as his Stanley Kowalski t-shirt revealed his burly weightlifter arms.  Burt Lancaster, a former circus acrobat, made a lasting impression displaying his athletic physique in the beach scenes of From Here to Eternity.  And Brando and Lancaster were far from alone in their muscularity.  Take a look at these pictures of Paul Newman and Montgomery Clift.

Steve Reeves, a bodybuilder with movie star looks, took muscle definition to new heights when, in 1958, he showed off his bulging muscles in the low-budget Italian action film Hercules.

Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger had much greater success than Reeves when they flexed their muscles in big-budget films in the 1980s.  This was a cartoonish form of masculinity that was measured by muscles rather than character.  It is not surprising both of these overgrown actors later got caught up in steroid scandals.

The trend has continued unabated.

Spartacus (1960)

Spartacus (2010)

In recent years, the abs have become a status symbol for the physically fit and it isn't necessary for an actor to play a centurion for him to go shirtless and show off his bumpy midriff.  The fact is that filmmakers will use any excuse to have these actors go shirtless.  The abs obsession has gotten so bad that actors are being given pronounced abs on screen through the use of CGI and make-up tricks.  Gerard Butler's abs are not real in 300 (2006).

Nicolas Cage's abs are not real in Ghost Rider (2007).

It is only to be expected that, with the virulence of this media propaganda, young men today have unrealistic expectations about their appearance and are experiencing growing body image issues.


  1. No cgi here.

  2. True enough. Even a true Body Builder has to reduce over-laying (normal) body fat to achieve the "cut" competition appearance.

    But if anyone wants to be able to improve his over-all appearance, without all the hours of gym effort, - my recommendation is to use a basic Rowing Machine at least six sessions per week. A good secondary exercise system can include lightweight Kettlebells.

    I've never worked-out in a professional gym in my life, and at age 65 have a chest measurement 12" greater than that of my waistline - and can attract female eyes (of all ages) in my direction when lightly clad. There are negatives although; buying clothing can present problems, and sleeping on one's back becomes the norm.