More Than Muscle: David Chapman Provides Surprising Depth in His Global History of “Hunks”

uni hunksTo say present day 7-12-year-old girls have anything in common with 19th century male body builders would be a stretch. A big, hulking one.

Yet while reading David L. Chapman’s new book, Universal Hunks: A Pictorial History of Muscular Men Around the World, 1895-1975, I unexpectedly found myself thinking about New York City’s new public health campaign, the NYC Girls Project. This initiative aims to improve the self-esteem of young girls through fitness programs and colourful ads sporting the slogan “I’m Beautiful The Way I Am”. It wasn’t the men featured in Chapman’s book that had me thinking of this movement  but rather their shared themes of health, advertising, and, most of all, beauty.

In Universal Hunks, Chapman shares a stunning set of over four-hundred pictures of muscular men, to tell the story of how one standard of male beauty was born and spread throughout the world. These images – not exclusively photos but also postcards, comic book covers, matchboxes, political posters, and more – date from anytime between the late 1800s and the mid-1970s, and were taken anywhere from Canada to the West Indes to Mongolia.

While perusing the pictures before reading the book (naturally), it wasn’t turn-of-the-century shots from northern Europe that left me uneasy but rather those from other parts of the globe like Sub-Saharan Africa or Polynesia. Was Universal Hunks going to be some unthinking, ethnographic collection of muscle pics? An exploitative coffee table book for the uncritical gay man’s coffee table?

As if in an effort to nip such concerns in the bud, the book opens with an essay by kinesiology professor Douglass Brown, entitled “The Historical Context of Seeing”. Although this is the largest text-based section of the book, I think it can be more or less skipped. Asking “Where do these bodies belong in history?” and examining “postcolonial muscle” is important, but Brown’s academic prose is often convoluted and opaque. As if three-hundred pages of semi-nude men with handlebar mustaches aren’t distraction enough, Brown’s talk of musclemen as “self-constituting subjects of sport or physical culture” does little to hold the reader’s focus. Jump ahead to Chapman’s writing, which addresses colonialism, militaristic and nationalist propaganda, and even his own unearned privileges in a conversational, easy-going tone employed throughout the book.

Universal Hunks is Chapman’s twelfth book on the subject of bodybuilding, a testament to both his expertise and appreciation of the fine flexed form. In this work, he traces the origins of modern bodybuilding to an Anglo-German strongman performing at the height of the Industrial Age: Eugene Sandow, a fascinating man who could very well be the subject of Chapman’s thirteenth book. He certainly led quite the life, with a career spanning the 1880s until the early 1900s. Sandow was equal parts brawn to business-savvy, and he traveled the world, marketing his physique (not to mention a slew of health books and fitness machines) as the product of a rigorous and healthy lifestyle. During his international tours, Sandow visited North America, Africa, India, Australia, China, and Japan, bringing with him the notion that masculine beauty is derived from health and strength, as evidenced by large muscles.

Chapman’s book captures the many ways in which this muscular beauty and the men who embody it have been used since Sandow’s time to sell not only products but also ideas and ideologies. As mentioned earlier, I started reading Universal Hunks with slight trepidation, wondering how Chapman himself might use these historical images to turn a buck. I quickly discovered he is, at his core, a collector, and like every good collector – be their obsession stamps or rocks or porcelain rooster figurines – Chapman knows the history and provenance of just about every picture in his book. He’s like a boy, laying out his collection of baseball cards and sharing not just the stats of every player but also providing their biographies. In Universal Hunks, he honours his subjects through the detail with which he presents each photo. Chapman shares their stories, changing these men from bulging biceps and washboard abs into human beings – lawyers and accountants and men working in shoe factories or repairing telephone lines, men of all classes and races with their own dreams and accomplishments, and coming from all parts of the world.

In the Scandinavia chapter, Chapman introduces us to Jørgen Peter Müller (1866-1938), a Danish author whose 1904 book of calisthenic exercises was translated into every major European and Asian language. Chapman notes: “Part of [the book’s] popularity may have been due to the many photos of Müller’s near-naked, beefy athletic body.”  I can’t help but wonder if it will be the same case for Universal Hunks.

Universal Hunks is certainly no NYC Girls Project. The beauty on display in this book is rigid – defined. But thanks to Chapman, the book also forces us to reflect on how such ideals of beauty are generated and fed to us through the media. So while it may not uphold the motto “I’m Beautiful The Way I Am”, Universal Hunks might still be a book that New York public health can get behind.