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The barest generation
The Olympics may remind us of classical forms, but in modern times public appreciation of the unclad male body began with the Everyman who served in World War II

THERE THEY WERE, glistening and largely unclad in the Athenian sun: male bodies in perfect shape, with classical lines and deliciously defined muscles, straining to the limits of their physical and mental endurance. Sure, the Olympics displayed the innate beauty of the human form, grace under pressure, and the quest for athletic excellence. But it was also pretty damn sexy.

While the undraped, eroticized female form has been ubiquitous throughout most of Western culture — one could trace a clear, if methodologically scraggly, line from the Venus de Milo to Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue — the uncovered male form has had a far different, more contested history. In fact, the images of the sexy male form — in magazines like Men’s Health, advertisements for Calvin Klein, and, of course, the ever-daringly suggestive, even lurid, Abercrombie & Fitch catalogue — are just the latest flowering of a fairly recent trend in Western culture, one that began, surprisingly enough, with the images of fighting men in the Second World War. Think about it: the "greatest generation" not only made the world safe for democracy, they also made the exposed male body sexier, and a fit object for public consumption — for both women and men. Now that’s something to celebrate.

Of course, that’s not to say representations of unclothed men were unheard of before WWII. As the Olympics have impressed upon us, the Attic Greeks were enamored of the male form. In the original games, athletes performed naked, not just because they moved faster unencumbered by clothing, but because the naked male body was a thing of beauty, itself worthy of public appreciation — an attitude clearly reflected in Greek statuary and vase painting. But aside from the revival of classical forms during the Italian Renaissance — Michelangelo had no problem getting funding from Florence’s guild of wool merchants for his unabashedly naked, 13-foot-tall David (funding that would not likely have been awarded by the National Endowment for the Arts today) — the naked male body has not been acceptable in Western culture.

By the late 19th century, the male nude inched back into public again. In the 1880s, a heavily muscled Prussian named Eugen Sandow (born Friederich Wilhelm Mueller) began as a traveling circus strongman in Europe, then performed in British music halls. Sandow was famous: Edison made two Kinetoscopes of him flexing, and by the 1890s his image appeared on millions of "cabinet cards" — six-by-four-and-a-half-inch artistic photographs of celebrities sold at theaters and bookstores. In 1893, "The Great Sandow" toured America in one of the first national traveling shows produced by Florenz Ziegfeld. But aside from his muscles, Sandow’s greatest contribution to Western culture lay in his marketing genius. In 1895, he essentially invented what was called "physical culture" — what we would now call gym culture. In 1897, he opened an Institute for Physical Culture, the first of several gymnasiums, in upscale British neighborhoods, and published five profusely illustrated books on body improvement, most notably Strength and How To Obtain It. In 1898, he began publishing Physical Culture magazine, which, in turn, generated the Half-Crown Postal Course — a mail-order business that, for the slight sum of two shillings and six pence, mailed the subscriber monthly personalized exercise instructions.

Indeed, the world was ready for "physical culture" — and stronger men. Sandow, along with the modern Olympics and the Boy Scouts, which also arose in the 1890s, became part of the "muscular Christianity" movement. Its mission was (as Sandow stated in his books) to build strong men devoted to national strength, racial purity, and brazen heterosexuality. But the physical-culture movement was plagued with an innate contradiction: its promotion depended upon its constituency — men who wanted to be strong — looking at near-naked photos of men who were strong. At some point, this started to look pretty queer.

That’s undoubtedly why, until the 1950s, the physical-culture movement amounted to little more than "bodybuilding ads" on the backs of boys’ comic books and a few physical-culture magazines for men. True, the occasional Sandow-like creature would burst across the Hollywood screen — Tarzan being the most famous — but American culture was essentially a modest culture when it came to the male. Indeed, until the 1940s, most men routinely wore bathing-suit tops at the beach, and no man would have dreamed of taking off his shirt on a hot summer day to mow the lawn. As far as mainstream American culture went, the male body was pretty much under wraps.

WORLD WAR II changed all that, and a few other things about men and masculinity as well. As American men — and women — went off to war, the entire country began thinking about sex, gender, and the body in new ways. As men underwent training to fight in the European and Pacific theaters, the mass media began portraying a "new" type of American man. He was the common man, the citizen-soldier heroically defending democracy and fighting for American values. He was the democratized hero, the Everyman, the very image of fitness and strength. In endless photos in national publications — newspapers as well as magazines such as Life, Look, and the Saturday Evening Post — he was often pictured exercising and performing physical feats such as wrestling, rope climbing, or straddling a run-wall climb. More often than not, he was shirtless, sweaty, and straining — a poster boy not just for physical culture, but for democracy, freedom, and American manhood as well. This turn of events would have been a wet dream for Sandow and Boy Scouts founder Lord Baden-Powell: the embodiment of patriotism, masculinity, fortitude, and ennobled heterosexuality. (Oh, and great muscles, too.)

For the first time in American culture the unclothed male form became commonplace. No longer the preserve of a few athletes, faddists, and superhero-worshiping prepubescents, nakedness marked the common man — your neighbor, son, husband, or father. Anyone who lived through the war had firsthand knowledge of these photos; they were ubiquitous both in the media and in advertising. (Canon Towels produced a whole series of illustrations featuring mostly naked men wishing they had access to fresh towels while at war.) But it is difficult for us now to imagine their influence.

Evan Bachner’s just-published At Ease: Navy Men of World War II (Abrams), a collection of photos that are both eye-opening and provocative, helps us to comprehend their effect. Bachner has uncovered a wealth of photographs taken by the Naval Aviation Photographic Unit, a project started by photographic genius Edward J. Steichen when he served as a Naval officer. Leading a group of master photographers, Steichen documented the lives of Naval men in a way that was as revealing as it was beautiful.

Here are images of young men at their physical peak, primed to fight. While training they are shirtless; if relaxing, they’re often wearing less — just shorts, briefs, and sometimes nothing at all. But while they look like they just stepped out of the pages of a physical-culture magazine — no 98-pound weaklings here — there is another, far more luminous quality to these photos. In so many of them, these men are not only relaxed with one another (as one might be with comrades who are on a battleship waiting to go off to war or for the next siege), but they are gentle, loving, and physically affectionate. There are photos of men resting on a ship’s deck, one with his head nestled in the other’s groin; photos of men sitting with their arms entwined while reading letters; photos of men staring into each other’s eyes as they talk and work on enormous gun turrets. In page after page, At Ease gives the impression that life at sea during World War II was something of a cross between a physical-culture magazine and a romantic, soft-core gay-porn movie. (Indeed, these images look like they could have inspired Bruce Weber, who created the earliest Calvin Klein advertisements.) But their power lies in portraying men not just as strong and heroic, but also as gentle and vulnerable.

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Issue Date: August 20 - 26, 2004
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