Kouroi

by Long Nguyen

The Ultimate Male Physique
A few months ago, I Googled the correct daily dosage of the amino acid supplement L-Carnitine. Soon I found myself curiously clicking around Bodybuilding.com, a website where photos of rippled abs and bulging neck veins flank the site’s bodybuilding workout programs, nutrition and supplement sales.

‘Teen Transformation of the Week’ is a section where teens share real stories about how they changed their bodies and their lives. An article featuring Robinson Rodriguez is pretty typical: “Skinny-fat didn’t cut it for Robinson. Kids harped on him daily and his self-confidence was in the toilet. He needed to transform.”

Rodriguez is a 17-year-old bodybuilder and that means he adheres to an utterly meticulous iron-pumping routine and calorie-precise diet, coupled with a supplements program in pre- and post-workouts.

“I love the way I see my new body because I know I worked so hard at it. I can’t be any more proud of myself. I pictured my body the way I wanted it and I got it,” he told me.

His absorption with aesthetics echoed the other teens on the site, and it got me thinking: Is there a specific vision of the ideal male body throughout history, an idealized concept of beauty that’s now innate because it’s been ingrained in our minds over time? Are there other sign posts in contemporary visual culture besides magazines like Muscle & Fitness et al—like fashion publications for instance—that can influence a teenager still muddling through puberty to strive for a muscular body?

Rodriguez says no. “When I look through fashion magazines, it really doesn’t affect me because most of those men don’t really pack on mass—just mostly skinny with abs, which to me doesn’t count,” Rodriguez told me. “I don’t really read sports magazines or any magazines at all, but when I do it’s either about muscle or health. Only one athlete inspires me the most, and that is Arnold Schwarzenegger.”

But the ideal that bred the likes of Arnold didn’t materialize from nowhere. Let’s start at the beginning.

Carved from a single marble block around 540 B.C, the Kroisos Kouros is a 1.95 meter tall free-standing marble male nude statue with hands clasped to his side and left foot in a forward striding motion. A grave marker for a young warrior whose name was inscribed at the base, the beardless and hairless muscular body of the youthful Kouros became the symbolic representation of the accepted aesthetic portrayal of the ideal male silhouette in classical Greek art.  It manifested all the attributes of athleticism—broad shoulders, defined deltoids and trapezius, large and deep pectorals, fierce abdominals, a slim waist, large thighs and calves—and became the ancient Greek standard of male beauty and vigor. Etched on common objects used by people in everyday life like mixing bowls and drinking cups, or carved on marble for public display, these muscular nude male figures pervaded classical Greek society, becoming the artistic and philosophic foundation for Western culture.

That the Greek ideal male figure survived incognito during the Dark Ages in Europe following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire from the 5th to the 14th century and flourished in a spectacular revival during the Italian Renaissance era where the Hellenist aesthetics were centerpiece to the arts in Florence then Venice testifies to the enduring characteristics of male body image championed by ancient Greeks. Michelangelo’s David would not be possible without the silhouette of his predecessor, the Kroisos Kouros.

Now, fast forward to the late Victorian era. By espousing the “Grecian Ideal,” the Eugen Sandow built his highly developed body based on the exact proportions of Greek and Roman statues, establishing an exercise routine to achieve the ideal proportions. Considered the father of modern bodybuilding, the representative strongman of the 20th century, Sandow bridged two millenia of the ideal male body when he posed for a new version of The Dying Gaul statue wearing only leather sandals and a large leaf shaped loincloth. In our recent era, Arnold Schwarzenegger has taken Sandow’s place.

Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical” and Diana Ross’ “I Want Muscle” further defined the 80s era obsession with the XXL aesthetics. In fashion, that meant protruding shoulders with large paddings—broad shoulder silhouettes reserved for football players suddenly slipped onto runway fashion shows for designers like Claude Montana. Underneath the armor-like clothes were the buffed and muscular men that fashion embraced as prime torch carriers of the ideal male body.

The muscular male body incarnated by Alex Lundqvist, Jason Lewis, Mark Vanderloo and Marcus Schenkenberg commanded fashion’s discourse in the age of the male supermodels of the early 90s. Gianni Versace’s Miami collections—skin-tight black leather pants and unbuttoned silk print shirts—provided the perfect platform for these super body supermodels. Tyson Beckford’s buffed ads for Ralph Lauren expanded the dominating type of fashionable male bodies, on a mass level.

In staging his influential second runway show in Paris in the summer of 1997 titled Black Palms, Raf Simons bussed in teenagers from his hometown in Antwerp in lieu of using top models. Gone were the big men who populated men’s fashion stratosphere.

Not long after, Hedi Slimane cemented the skinny black suit silhouette worn by his cast of teenagers, many from the Berlin underground music scene, in his seven years at Dior Homme. High school kids adept with new wave and punk music took their place in fashion’s limelight.

But is any of fashion’s impact lasting?

When I started working in fashion at Dolce & Gabbana in January 1990 as the designers launched their first men’s collection, the clothes were made in Italian size 50 which corresponded to a 40 regular.  Over the course of the next decade and a half, sample size—the clothes designers make for fashion shows—had shrunk one full size to a 48 (38 regular) and depending on which fashion houses even size 46 (36 regular).  That meant the bodies to fit in these clothes have also diminished significantly.

During that decade, muscular models didn’t completely disappear. Big guys became the underground look (there is always a need for buff guys at Undergear catalogue); they waited in the wings for the right moment to return to center stage. That moment occurred in 2006 when Tom Browne showed built guys wearing super small clothes at his influential presentations, where the designer aimed to change the perspective of proportion with his shrunken silhouette of tight fitted jacket with shorter sleeves and ankle length pants. Kriosos had reared his head once more.

With the return of Hedi Slimane as creative director of the revamped Saint Laurent, skinny boys will surely make a big comeback in 2013. But they will have to share the center stage with the resurgence of buff men, the likes of whom populated Donatella Versace’s recent menswear collections based on the house’s early 90s heritage (meaning her brother’s fondness for muscle men wearing tight silk print shirts and leather pants). With Riccardo Tisci’s tough, urban images for his Givenchy men collections, buff men—in particular a large cast of Latino and mixed race men—are also experiencing a renaissance today.

As I surfed through the many life transformative anecdotes posted by teenagers and their adult counterparts at Bodybuilding.com, it occurred to me that the aesthetics promulgated by the sophisticated modern fashion machinery has little impact over individuals removed from fashion’s immediate orbit.

For a major industry specializing in crafting ubiquitous images, fashion lacks the unique enchantment of bodybuilding, where the Greek ideal still resonates. Beyond its immediate surface-level allure, fashion’s tenets have very limited impact on an individual’s life on a long term basis; it doesn’t offer a life changing situation in any meaningful manner beyond the mere capacity to fabricate momentary trends. While fashion designers are incredibly adept at crafting and trafficking in ever-changing stereotypes of the ideal male, the seasonal zeitgeist rarely endures. The Greek archetype, meanwhile, has survived beneath millennia of societal changes. It is a permanent idea.

Bodybuilding.com is where today’s Kouroi worldwide gather, relating their shared experiences of physical transformation. There, fashion has no relevance. What appears as perhaps a subculture of enthusiasts for bench presses is, in fact, the affirmation of an ideal established by the Hellenist Greeks more than 2500 years ago.

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