Beefcake from across the pond: The male physique in Britain, part I

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Beefcake from across the pond: The male physique in Britain, part I

Author’s note: This is the first in a three-part series on the history of physique culture in Great Britain. Look for part II on our blog on Tuesday, December 19.

While Bob Mizer was photographing bodybuilders on muscle beaches in Los Angeles, one of Great Britain’s first male physique magazines was ready to hit newsstands. 

Society didn’t always worship the muscular male form as it did in the early and mid-20th century, however. Decades beforehand, the ideal male body during the Victorian era was a far cry from the type of body splashed across the pages of Physique Pictorial. According to the BBC, British society valued a more portly man with a slight belly – more rounded.

“What we think of today as being overweight was a body type considered to be a status symbol in the 1800s and centuries earlier,” says Dennis Bell, founder and president of The Bob Mizer Foundation. “If you were tubby, if you carried some extra pounds, if you had some rolls in your midsection, you were thought of as being wealthy.”

Rich treats, not as nearly available as today’s mass-produced junk foods, weren’t staples of wealthier classes before the Industrial Revolution revolutionized lives in the mid-19th century. Whereas consumption of fattier foods is commonplace today and even associated with poverty, accessibility to such foods in the Victorian era was limited to those with money and elevated social status.

In the years following the Industrial Revolution, when less healthy foodstuffs became more common, a more toned physique became the ideal toward which men strived. Lavish carnival posters advertised muscle men in traveling circuses. According to The Daily Mail, at the end of the 19th century, cabinet cards printed on cardboard showed muscular and lean men alike in a variety of costumes and poses. 

Everyone has a type

By the early 1940s, when Harvard psychologist William Sheldon identified the concept of body types in academic journals, Western publications touting the beauty of muscular, broad-shouldered men began to come into circulation. One of the better-known publications to come from the United Kingdom was simply titled “Vigour.” The magazine was in existence for only nine years, from 1946 to 1955, numbering 115 issues.

Though Mizer’s Physique Pictorial was equal parts beefcake photography and political commentary, the pages of Vigour, which advertised bodybuilding and wrestling, occasionally featured women as well. The first to appear on the magazine’s cover was weightlifter Dorothy Peak, who appeared in the September 1954 issue. A 1949 issue featured Middle Eastern model Mahmoud Namdjou – even in Physique Pictorial’s earliest days, muscle men of color only appeared in illustrations such as those penned by George Quaintance. Vigour even added a bit of American flavor with Mr. Universe and big-screen “Hercules” actor Steve Reeves on the cover of its February 1954 issue. 

Vigour finds a second life

Unlike Physique Pictorial, the last issue of which rolled off the presses in 1992, Vigour made a comeback in the 21st century. The magazine was resurrected in 2013 as a general fitness, health, nutrition, and adventure publication. 

Vigour was one of many UK-based magazines that, just like their American counterparts, sang the praises of healthful living and exercise, but its critics saw it as nothing more than thinly-veiled smut. Shortly after Vigour folded in the mid-1950s, questions about the definition of obscenity reached the halls of courts throughout the land – and possession of such materials could mean jail time not just for these magazines’ publishers, but for those who possessed the pocket-sized treasures as well. 

Next week: More British physique mags, the Obscene Publications Act of 1959, and Britain’s Wolfenden Report.