A Century Of Bodybuilding Photos Show A Marked Shift In Our Perception Of Body Image

Bodybuilding declares itself to be "the desired image of modern manhood." Do you agree?

16/04/2016 1:20 AM AEST | Updated 16/04/2016 1:20 AM AEST

Over the years, bodybuilding has literally grown.

Bodybuilders are getting bigger, bulkier and more orange as time advances, and while it's a part of our culture that many of us don't really understand, bodybuilding -- especially the Mr. America contests -- reflects "a desired image of modern manhood," John D. Fair writes in the introduction to Mr. America: The Tragic History Of A Bodybuilding Icon.

If guys want to beef up to meet some modern standard of desirability, why do they look like a medical illustration of a person without skin, or that they've somehow turned themselves inside-out?

"As societal views toward the male body and physical culture evolved," Fair writes, "bodybuilders had to redefine themselves in light of the clash between revered traditions and concessions to current tastes. The Mr. America Contest, which once epitomized the aspirations of tens of thousands of weight trainees, was premised on adherence to time-honored values of health, fitness, beauty, and athleticism, while Americans -- and especially bodybuilders -- became obsessed with appearances and engaged in training practices and lifestyles that often subverted those ideals. By the end of the century, physique competitors and promoters seemed perplexed about what constituted a perfect specimen of manhood. Reckoning with these cultural questions became the foremost concern in modern bodybuilding not only in the United States but worldwide, since the Mr. America title, at least from the 1940s to the 1970s, was, like other aspects of American culture, a global icon."

It's interesting to see just how much these perceptions of pure fitness have changed over the past 100 years, thanks to advances in supplements, workout equipment and our understanding of how the human body works.

It seems people push these limits harder and farther every year, and when you look at the following pictures of guys at peak physical fitness over history (from a guy who looks like Vladimir Putin sucking in his gut in 1900 to the sinewy muscles on show in 2015, you'll see just how much things have changed.

  • 1900
    Buyenlarge via Getty Images
    A Russian bodybuilder, photographed in a studio circa 1900.
  • 1905
    Reinhold Thiele via Getty Images
    A bodybuilder known as Mr. Eggleton, the manager of Sandows physical school in 1905.
  • 1905
    Reinhold Thiele via Getty Images
    Mr. Murray, winner of the Sandow bodybuilding competition in 1905.
  • 1937
    New York Daily News Archive via Getty Images
    Angelo Siciliano, known more famously as Charles Atlas, lifts four Rockettes, each weighing about 110 pounds, on the roof of Radio City Music Hall.

    In his bodybuilding career, Atlas pioneered an early form of isometrics and became known as the "World's Most Perfectly Developed Man." 
  • 1940
    General Photographic Agency via Getty Images
    A bodybuilder lifts weights in 1940.
  • 1940
    John Grimek wins the trophy at the Mr. America competition in 1940 at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The judges said he was the "best developed and proportioned amateur athlete."
  • 1945
    Hulton Archive via Getty Images
    Charles Atlas flexes his bicep while posing in a leopard print swimsuit on a rock by the water's edge.
  • 1949
    Keystone-France via Getty Images
    Grimek inspects candidates competing for the title of Mr Muscle Great Britain in London.
  • 1955
    Alan Oxley via Getty Images
    Bodybuilder Leo Robert, holder of the Mr. Universe title in 1955, checks out his reflection in a large gym mirror.
  • 1955
    BIPS via Getty Images
    English bodybuilder Reg Park flexes his muscles as his wife, South African ballet dancer Marion Park, exercises in the background. Park was the first Englishman to win the Mr. Universe title and later went on to act in five Italian Hercules sword-and-sandal films in the early 1960s. Park ran his own businesses, publishing a bodybuilding magazine and supplying weight-training equipment.
  • 1956
    Keystone via Getty Images
    Former Mr. America Jack Delinger flexed muscles for Mrs. Sheila Saunders, whose husband competed in the "Mr. Universe" in London in 1956.
  • 1960
    Silver Screen Collection via Getty Images
    American bodybuilder and actor Steve Reeves holds up the world in 1960.
  • 1965
    Archive Photos via Getty Images
    Portrait of actor and body builder Lou Ferrigno, who would find fame as television's The Hulk, in his second appearance in MTI as "Boy Wonder," circa 1965.
  • 1965
    Michael Ochs Archives via Getty Images
    Arnold Schwarzenegger, here just 18 years old, lifts a friend in Thal, Austria.
  • 1965
    Jack Mitchell via Getty Images
    Model and bodybuilder Tony Catanzaro photographed in April, 1965.
  • 1966
    Michael Ochs Archives via Getty Images
    A year later, Schwarzenegger poses his bigger muscles for a portrait circa 1966 in Austria.
  • 1969
    Jack Mitchell via Getty Images
    Bodybuilder Paul Zuckerman in 1969.
  • 1970
    Chris Dickerson, 30, flexes his biceps as he poses with his Mr. America 1970 trophy in his New York City apartment on July 10, 1970. He won the contest in Los Angeles, June 14, 1970.
  • 1976
    Keystone via Getty Images
    Serge Nubret flexes his muscles during the preliminary judging stage of the 1976 Mr. Universe contest.
  • 1976
    David Ashdown via Getty Images
    Shigeru Sugita, a Japanese contestant Mr. Universe contest at London's New Victoria theatre.
  • 1979
    Jack Mitchell via Getty Images
    Professional bodybuilder Frank Zane photographed in 1979.
  • 1980
    Bodybuilding World Champion Sergio Oliva poses on the podium after he won the Bodybuilding Professional Championships, November 8, 1980, in Paris, France.
  • 1985
    Jack Mitchell via Getty Images
    Bodybuilder and model Von Hackendahl photographed in February, 1985.
  • 1985
    Tony Bock via Getty Images
    Bodybuilder Tony Pearson demonstrates a dumbbell technique in 1985.
  • 1993
    Antonio RIBEIRO via Getty Images
    Manfred Hoeberl lifts a block at the World's Strongest Man contest in Orange, France on August 30, 1993.
  • 1995
    ullstein bild via Getty Images
    German Bodybuilder Rolf Evers in 1995.
  • 1996
    Mel Melcon via Getty Images
    Bodybuilders Tammi Singer, 29, of Oxnard, California, and John Bezerra, 28, of Ventura, strike a pose outside of Gold's Gym in Ventura. They won first place in the National Physique Committee's mixed pairs competition in Dallas in 1996.
  • 2001
    NBC via Getty Images
    Geena Davis looks on as Bodybuilder Mr. Olympia Ronnie Coleman squeezes his muscles during an interview with host Jay Leno on November 27, 2001.
  • 2001
    Robert Cianflone via Getty Images
    Dallas Scholes prepares himself for the Men's Masters division prior to the pre-judging section of the NPC-IFBB 2001 Victorian Body Building Championships, held at the Darebin Arts Centre, in Melbourne, Australia.
  • 2003
    Robert Cianflone via Getty Images
    Claude Groulx, John Davie and Troy Alves in action during the finals of the Australian Pro Bodybuilding Grand Prix three at the John Batman Theatre in Melbourne, Australia.
  • 2004
    Ronnie Bianco / Reuters
    Jay Cutler of Las Vegas performs his routine for the crowd and judges at the finals of the 16th Arnold Classic, during the Arnold Fitness Weekend held at Veterans Memorial Auditorium in Columbus Ohio, March 6, 2004. He went on to win the bodybuilding competition.
  • 2013
    Robert Cianflone via Getty Images
    Edward Nunn, Tony Freeman and Dexter Jackson pose during the IFBB Australia Pro Grand Prix XIII at The Plenary on March 9, 2013 in Melbourne, Australia.
  • 2013
    Marcel Thomas via Getty Images
    Four-time Mr. Olympia Jay Cutler poses on stage during the 2013 NPC Jay Cutler Desert Classic at The Pearl concert theater at the Palms Casino Resort on March 30, 2013 in Las Vegas.
  • 2015
    Dave Kotinsky via Getty Images
    Dexter Jackson (left), winner of the Arnold Classic 2015 and second place winner Branch Warren pose onstage at the Arnold Sports Festival.
  • 2015
    YASUYOSHI CHIBA via Getty Images
    Professional bodybuilders pose on stage during a competition at the Arnold Classic Brazil 2015 in Rio de Janeiro on May 30, 2015. The third annual multi-disciplinary sports competition is named after -- who else, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Correction: A photo incorrectly mentioning Lee Haney has been removed.

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