The editors of most magazines welcome letters to the editor, allowing readers to praise, question or criticize editorial decisions made by the publication’s gatekeepers. A letter is received, it may be selected to be published, and the only response the writer might get back is an editor’s note in which information is corrected or clarified.
Just as in most areas of his life and business, however, Bob Mizer liked to think differently.
“To Mizer, Physique Pictorial was a way to generate a dialogue between himself and his audience,” says Dennis Bell, founder and president of The Bob Mizer Foundation. “When a reader sent in a question or a criticism, you were sure to find a lengthy response by Mizer in the next issue. He believed not just in setting the record straight, but in making sure his readers’ voices were heard, and responding accordingly.”
Some praise, some criticism
It was something at which Mizer excelled throughout Physique Pictorial’s nearly 40-year run. The highest number of reader feedback – and Mizer’s responses to it – came in the publication’s first two decades of operation. A glance throughout copies of Physique Pictorial from the 1950s reveal the lengths to which Mizer would go to engage readers in critical thought, discussion and general feedback.
The spring 1957 issue, in fact, contains a direct solicitation from Mizer for feedback on his publication: “In order to be of utmost service to its readers, PP conducts surveys from time to time to get an indication of the current thinking of the physical culture public.” Mizer then offers a list of 18 questions, ranging from “What is the approximate youngest age a model should appear to be?” to “Is a model acceptable to you who has only a mediocre body, but has a very handsome face?”
That same issue contains a note from Mizer in which he admits that a majority of the letters he receives are complimentary in nature, and that “…while truly critical letters are in the minority, we are glad to study them and to print them when they are well thought out.”
The reader excerpts that follow Mizer’s plea for letters are indeed a mixture of praise and criticism, especially those that fall under the heading “Homosexuality and bodybuilding.”
“Are you guys naïve?” one exasperated reader from Houston writes. “I know for a fact that all bodybuilders are either active or at least repressed homosexuals, or else they wouldn’t be so interested in their own bodies. A real man is too busy chasing girls to bother building himself up.”
Another reader – this one from Reno, Nevada -- offers the exact opposite response: “I’ve been bodybuilding for five years, and I don’t believe any fellow with an active he-man body could be homo,” the reader opines.
'Trite, banal ... and predictable'
Though many issues of Physique Pictorial contained short excerpts from letters, Mizer printed others in full and responded to them directly.
“I think it is a pity that you waste so much time and space in your magazine and films on the trite and banal,” one reader from Omaha complains in the fall 1963 issue. “Immediately after I see the opening scenes in one of your films, I can almost always predict the end.”
The editor’s reply usually employed the use of the royal ‘we’: “In defense, may we say that though we’ve eaten steak, potatoes, and salad dozens of times, we enjoy it as much today as the first time? Perhaps this is a poor analogy, but we wonder if, since the purpose of the pictures is basically just to show off the models (just as the purpose of food is to nourish while it titillates the taste buds), is this sort of repetition really so objectionable?”
You can't always get what you want
An often-chanted mantra by magazine editors and publishers, “You just can’t please everyone,” was one Mizer shared with his readers in many of his responses to letters and other correspondence.
“Our requests for frank and candid letters often bring us just that, and some letters point out so many of our faults that we wonder (whether) the writers bother to look at our book at all,” Mizer begins one editor’s response in the summer 1959 issue. “Much that is written, however, is far from being opinion, but rather comes in the form of constructive suggestions, and we humbly bow to the many friends who have helped to educate and mold us.
“At the same time,” he continues,” the variance of taste constantly amazes us, and but even more extraordinary is the attitude of some readers who believe themselves to be the ultimate authorities of what is good and bad, right and wrong. It never occurs to them that there can be different standards.”
The summer 1960 issue of Physique Pictorial, meanwhile, included Mizer’s address to one reader who feared that ordering male nudes from overseas could get him “into trouble” with U.S. postal authorities.
“…The U.S. Post Office regards commercially distributed nudes as obscene, (and) will confiscate nude pictures they discover,” responds Mizer, by this time all too familiar with such matters himself. “The maximum penalty for ordering and receiving obscene material by mail is five years in the federal penitentiary and a fine of five thousand dollars for each photo or obscene material received.”
Ever the First Amendment advocate, Mizer closes his response by supplying the reader with the address for the American Civil Liberties office in Washington D.C., reminding his readers to, “Make use of your American rights while you still have them.”