I’m strolling past a bunch of Greek statues in the Louvre. There’s a lot of nudity. The males are always incredibly ripped and lean, and the females have nice curves and often are at least partially nude. But then it hits me. And it’s not even new information.
I often thought that the current trend of the ideal male body was a recent phenomena. That the obsession with a muscular physique is a new idea. It is at least certainly pervasive. “… Boys of all ages, from eleven to seventeen, chose a body ideal that possessed about 35 pounds more muscle than they actually had themselves … This means that the majority of boys chose a body ideal that most men could attain only with steroids” (Pope, 2000).
But it has definitely evolved in the last century. Compare a picture of John Wayne from 1936 or Clark Gable from 1934 to Chris Evans and Chris Pratt in Captain America (2011) and Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) respectively, or the promotion of the TV show Arrow with all the male leads shirtless in 2013. Even just looking at how action figures have evolved over time shows this.
And yes, it’s Hollywood, so it’s unrealistic and exaggerated, but this is what people are aspiring for, and yes, it’s different from the 30’s, and heck, very different from the 1870’s when having a rounder figure was a sign of wealth and was therefore more attractive (Lammily, 2016), but I already knew this. What struck me was that it’s not a new idea.
That’s right, our modern idea of a beautiful male body has its roots way back in the fifth century BC in ancient Greece (Macauly, 2015). This was the time of the Ancient Olympics, a time of “ferocious competitiveness which marked all aspects of ancient Greek society” (Most, 1988), a time where the gym wasn’t just for the most professional of athletes – “The gymnasium was one of the fundamental signs of Greek culture” (Goldhill, 2004).
And ancient Greece was also saturated with this ideal image of the male body – statues all around on temples, tombs and civic buildings, even on their pots and cups were decorated with perfect bodies. “The major cities and civic arenas of classical Greece were crowded with hundreds of images of exercised and buffed masculinity” (Goldhill, 2004).
I guess the western world is in a place now where we have plenty, like Ancient Greece, and can afford to pay attention to our physique. Though I’m not sure whether the current trend of overly muscular bodies is a good thing – it does seem like a chasing after a vanity that we will never achieve.
And what is also uncertain to me is whether this “good body” is actually, well, a good body. Yes, muscularity is a sign of dedication and training, and low body fat percentage does reduce the chance of type 2 diabetes and heart disease, but if this is achieved through crazy diets, is it actually better?
But Goldhill (2004) sums it up well:
We are meant to know what a good body is. We may know that different cultures have different ways of defining the good body. We may be well aware that body images are manipulated by powerful media, which have always provided fantasies of bodily perfection, whether a buxom woman painted by Rubens or a gamine model in Vogue. But we still feel that we know what a good body is. And the fact that we think we do know shows how powerfully Greek myth still works in contemporary Western culture.