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The days when Charles Atlas was afraid of a man’s nipples and a woman’s midriff

November 12, 2011

When I was scanning the glorious minutiae from that inexhaustible Hopalong Cassidy book (this shall be the last bit — YOU’RE WELCOME, WORLD), this almost slipped past me. It’s an early version of the famous ad for Charles Atlas’ patented “Dynamic Tension” muscle-building course. Been there, done that, even Grant Morrison’s clever incorporation of it into Flex Mentallo’s Doom Patrol origin. Something made me take a closer look, though. It’s like one of those blindingly dull games where you have to pick out the differences between one picture and the next. “Hey, that Captain America shield has a Star of David in the center!”

Let’s play a blindingly dull game!

For your ease of comparison (once more, YOU’RE WELCOME, WORLD), here’s the later iteration:

I’ll ruin the suspense and just come out with it (as if the post title didn’t already). In the older ad the men are wearing undershirts and the woman is in a one-piece. That’s the big difference. The woman’s hair is differently styled, and she’s also wearing her hat in the first. The skeletal weakling (who bears a painful resemblance to the teenage me) is also called Joe instead of Mac, though it’s hard to penetrate the reasons for the name change (perhaps Mac was hipper than the generic predecessor).

Let’s not get distracted, as the hair, the hat and name aren’t the attention-grabbers — back to the half-naked human forms! The obvious reason for the change in attire is the evolution in “decency” that allowed men’s nipples and a woman’s navel to be on display before the entire world in subsequent decades. Body issues. Bikinis and bare chests NEED NOT APPLY in the 1940s, whether it’s on a real beach or a bodybuilding ad beach. Only when a man is privately admiring his Atlas-forged physique in front of his mirror can his nips come out and play. Unless you’re Atlas himself. Which is mildly odd.

Though the earlier version seems horribly prudish (Janet Jackson’s nip-slip would have destroyed Western civilization), Atlas’ advert was only reflecting the beach fashions of the time, and the same was true a couple of decades later as the bare skin got a little more sun. Hence the alteration. You couldn’t have 1960s boys thinking that they were going to get a hunky bod but also their grandfather’s wardrobe. Understandable. “With each booklet you also receive moustache wax and a watch chain!”

I realize that this is all old news (here’s a page with an excellent selection of Atlas ads showing how the public face of CHARLES ATLAS AMALGAMATED INDUSTRIES INCORPORATED evolved over the years), but this change was news to me and struck me as rather funny, and I thought others might be similarly edified/amused. If not, apologies. Permission to kick sand in my face granted.

Finally, I’m compelled to observe that the bully in the earlier ad is about a half-step away from sporting one of those horizontal striped Victorian era bathing suits. He probably rode to the beach on his gigantic penny-farthing bicycle.

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