Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Hero of the Beach

When President George H. W. Bush described Saddam Hussein's initial aggression in the first Gulf war as 'kicking sand in the face' of Kuwait, pretty much everyone knew that he was alluding to the story of 'Mac' in the Charles Atlas ads. Indeed, to anyone who picked up a comic book during most of last century, the sand-kicking phrase remains about as familiar as ad copy gets. In readers of superhero comic books, Charles Atlas and his business partner, Charles Roman, had found their perfect target audience: one that was overwhelmingly male, of an age to be very concerned about issues of manliness, and primed to buy into the hero mythology that the ad depicts.

As Gene Kannenberg Jr. points out in a terrific essay about the ad, the story of Mac is really a miniature version of the stories of Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk, or Captain America, which are themselves the stuff of male adolescent fantasy. One day you're small and weak 'boy' -- as Mac's lady friend ('Grace' in other versions) calls him in the ad -- the next, you're a muscular 'he-man,' fully in charge of your own fate, a willing and able protector of the oppressed, and an object of universal admiration. It's a primal and undeniably appealing fantasy: maybe, just maybe I could be the biggest and the strongest guy on the block -- the Hero of the Beach.

Mac's physical change is all the more attractive to a reader because it occasions an almost complete change in personality, social status, confidence and outlook. Grace, formerly condescending, now gazes longingly at him, as do other women, attached and unattached alike. For his part, Mac is suddenly more interested in flaunting his new muscles and drinking in the newfound attention they bring him than he is in cultivating a monogamous relationship with the now-fawning Grace: he appreciates her, certainly, but he no longer needs her, because, as a 'real man,' he stands on his own. Funniest of all is the fact that the final caption, "HERO OF THE BEACH!" appears written across the sky, as if decreed from above that Mac's muscles confer upon him the virtue and courage of heroism.

Significantly, the means by which Mac achieves his transformation are completely omitted from the ad -- all we see is the ambiguous caption "Later" beneath the picture of the new Mac admiring himself in the mirror. For all the detail we get about his metamorphosis, Mac's newly muscle-bound condition might as well have been brought on on by a radioactive spider bite.

It's a complete fantasy, an exaggerated picture of how Atlas's program works, and a transparent play on the insecurity and vanity of the reader.

And you know, I'm okay with that. "The Insult" in fact, remains the alpha and omega of fitness advertising: 'exercise,' ads still claim directly or suggest with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, 'will make you desirable, powerful, rich, popular, and, depending on your preference, hypermasculine OR hyperfeminine.' Lou Schuler wrote last week that vanity is underrated as an impetus to get us exercising; I would add that fantasy, perfectly encapsulated in the story of Mac, is similarly underrated, and in fact, remains the primary driving force that gets us to the gym. What is vanity, after all, but a narcissistic fantasy with ourselves as the object of admiration and desire?

Look, I'm happy that exercise and fitness is healthy and will give me a longer, happier life, but that's not what keeps my client list full. Most people come in wanting to look like a particular actor or actress -- they want to become objects of desire themselves. And again -- that's fine, because I get that. I love sports movies (even though I'm largely indifferent to sports) in large part because they inspire me in the gym; there's almost always an image or two that conveys something heroic or mythic in the admittedly silly compulsion I have to thrash my body frantically about several times each week.

As persuasive as the news is about superior blood lipid profiles, cardiac functioning, longevity, joint health and bone density in exercisers, it doesn't really motivate me. I may have outgrown Mac, but the heroic myths are what get my blood pumping. Carl Weathers as Apollo Creed. Jason Statham implacably kicking everyone's ass. Even Daniel Day-Lewis effortlessly skipping rope at 200 rpm in the underrated movie THE BOXER. (He may have been skinny, but you wouldn't have wanted to get in the ring with him.) Somehow the physical strength and competence that these guys possessed on screeen seemed inextricably linked with their confidence, drive, focus, groundedness -- all qualities that I strove to cultivate as a kid. Let's face it: I'm still striving to cultivate them, and guys like these still inspire me to do it.

They're actors, granted, and not "real" athletes (though Weathers played professional football for a time). But they and many other have kept me fired up over the years, kept me getting up early, pushing the weights, hitting the bag, getting in the ring to spar, putting in 20 miles on my bike on Sunday mornings. And I know that no fitness magazine would sell more than a half-dozen copies each month if, next to each article about exercise and liver health, there weren't twelve digitally-enhanced photos of tanned, shapely young men and women frolicking on the beach, ecstatically jaundice-free. We may be mature, educated, secure in our careers, but the fantasy that athleticism and muscularity make men courageous and heroic -- and women some elusive combination of beautiful, desirable, AND tough and strong -- is hard to shake. It appeals to us on a pretty primal level.

So I've just come clean with my superficiality -- anyone care to join me? Who has inspired you over the years? What image, body, moment, face, personality has fired you up?

Comments welcome.

PS: Since Alwyn Cosgrove gave me a plug recently, I thought I'd give him one here: on September 15th, Cosgrove, Chad Waterbury, and Russian Kettleball conditioning expert Pavel Tsatsouline will be giving an all-day seminar in Los Angeles. It pains me that I'm unable to attend, but with these three world-class experts working hands-on with everyone in attendance, it promises to be a pretty amazing workshop, and I'd highly recommend it to anyone who wants to get fitter, stronger, leaner, and healthier. Someone go, take notes, and send me a report, please! --Andrew

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