Described as the man who made bodybuilding popular, Atlas is best remembered for his exercise program ‘Dynamic Tension’ and the advertising campaign that featured in comic books for decades.
The strips first appeared in the 1930s, and although some of the details would change, they invariably followed the same formula.
Each centred around the story of young Joe, a self-confessed “skinny scarecrow” who is taunted by a muscle-bound bully while walking with his girlfriend on the beach.
Arriving home and feeling humiliated Joe decides he needs to buff up. He orders the Atlas program, and after a miraculously short time returns to the beach with his own muscles, giving his tyrant a hiding and winning the admiration of the women looking on.
The cartoon would end with an image of Atlas himself, touting his personal promise to make anyone who purchased his program “healthy and husky” with just 15 minutes of exercise per day.
Atlas claimed to be “The World’s Most Perfectly Developed Man”, and at the height of his fame in the 30s and 40s he might have been.
But put him next to your average gym junkie today, and it’s likely he’d look positively deflated.
While the jury is still out on the why, the way we see fit male bodies has certainly changed dramatically over the decades.
Dr Zali Yager, an expert on body image from Victoria University, says the change comes down to a relatively recent shift in “cultural ideals”, through which young boys and men have come to view bigger as better.
“Back in the 90s it was just Arnold Schwarzenegger that had to have a big upper body, but now it’s as if everyone has to have that,” she says.
Yager believes that changing ideas of what it is to look strong are having negative effects on young men, who are taking increasingly big risks with their bodies to achieve the perfect image.
In Victoria, 25 per cent of 14 to 16-year-old boys are regularly using unregulated supplements, and approximately 1 per cent are using anabolic steroids.
And while the dangers of using anabolic steroids are well-documented, supplement use is just as worrying, Yager says.
“I don’t think there’s been any public-level critique about using muscle-building supplements,” she says.
“There’s a sort of halo effect here; people think it’s a good thing because it’s associated with physical activity and with health.”
“Some are completely benign ... [but] then there are others in those big tubs with the very persuasive advertising that have a whole range of other ingredients in there.”
Yager is principal researcher with the Three Dimension (3D) Project, an early intervention research initiative for 14-to 16-year-old boys that addresses body image as a key predictor for the use of steroids and performance-enhancing drugs.
Funded by the World Anti-Doping Authority the three-phase project will culminate in a formalised program that teachers can deliver as part of the health and physical education curriculum.
Yager and her team are currently in the process of developing materials in consultation with parents, young boys and schools.
And it’s the latter that she’s keen to learn more from.
“I have an education background, but current teachers in schools are the real experts here.”
“We’d love to hear from them in terms of knowing the sorts of things that will make it easier to implement this sort of program.”
Schools that are interested in getting involved can go to www.3dproject.org to find out more about Three Dimension.