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Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Guest Post by Mycah Harrold

Strong Muscles & Strong Morals: Charles Atlas’s Aim to Develop Strongmen of Physical and Moral Purity

“A weakling, weighing ninety-eight pounds
Will get sand in his face when kicked to the ground...”-Frank-N-Furter
[this and all other bold quotes from“I Can Make You A Man,” Rocky Horror Picture Show]

Angelo Sicilano became Charles Atlas after winning the ‘World’s Most Beautiful Man’ contest and used his prize money to develop a fitness plan [Elizabeth Toon & Janet Golden, “‘Live Clean, Think Clean, and Don’t Go To Burlesque Shows’: Charles Atlas as Health Advisor,” Journal of the History of Medicine 57 (2002): 42-44]. With marketing help from a young account executive, the “Dyanmic Tension” title was coined, the iconic cartoon strip-style advertisements were created and the pair found a receptive audience and much financial success [Toon & Golden, 45].

An interesting theme present in the print materials published in Atlas’s campaign is the idea of maintaining purity. Atlas’s intended audience, young men between the ages of fifteen and twenty-five, is not one that our current popular culture tends to associate with purity and wholesomeness. However, Toon and Golden report that by 1980, Atlas’s plan had reached 1.5 million people, the majority of whom were in this group [Toon & Golden, 50].

“He'll be pink and quite clean
He'll be a strong man...
He'll eat nutritious high protein and swallow raw eggs”


One particularly purifying practice this “World’s Most Perfectly Developed Man” prescribed with enthusiastic fervor was that of bath-taking. He suggested his trainees bathe daily and also preached the benefits of “cool baths, warm baths, sunbaths, and rubdowns,” “air and sun baths,” and “music baths.” Atlas also encouraged his readers to consider their “inner hygiene.” Toon and Golden explain that “Consuming natural, pure substances was a vital element in Atlas’s system.” Atlas promoted drinking pure water and milk and breathing pure air, which he believed would allow for one to have “pure blood.” However, Atlas was not just a proponent of keeping the physical body pure and clean; he was also concerned with moral purity [Toon & Golden, 48-58].

“I don't want no dissention, just dynamic tension.”

Atlas’s teachings have been compared by Toon, Golden and others to the advice given by Emily Post. He encouraged his readers to be cheerful and to engage in “‘light, sociable conversation on pleasant topics’ (lesson 2)” during dinner. Atlas also offered advice to curb any “lack of sexual control” they may have experienced and urged them to sacrifice “temporary pleasures” to benefit their own purity. He identified “will power as the primary key to overcoming such habits.” It seems Atlas was implying that having strong muscles and strong morals were powerfully intertwined [Toon & Golden, 52-57].

“Seal of Approval”

In 1975, toward the end of Charles Atlas’s peak and a few years after the man’s death, the movie musical The Rocky Horror Picture Show made its debut in America. In the story, unorthodox “scientist” Frank-n-Furter has created his own Muscle Man, Rocky [The Rocky Horror Picture Show, directed by Jim Sharman (1975; Berkshire, England: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, 2002), DVD]. Two songs- “I Can Make You A Man” and its reprise- are rife with allusions to Charles Atlas and imply that Rocky is a similar being. Rocky, while exemplifying the other traits Atlas’s followers would be aspiring to, was the epitome of purity. He was created as such and, as Frank-N-Furter makes clear in his songs, will be adhering to the Charles Atlas way of life and remain pure. Frank-N-Furter even claims that his creation “carries the Charles Atlas Seal of Approval” [The Rocky Horror Picture Show]. While it may be surprising in this day and age to imagine a popular public body-builder endorsing regular baths and polite dinner conversation, or bodily and moral purity, Charles Atlas did just that for the fifteen to twenty-five year old men who made up his intended audience. Rocky Horror, in his own purity and commitment to the Dynamic Tension system, was second only to ‘the World’s Most Beautiful Man” [Toon & Golden, 42].       

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