Charles Atlas: unlikely public health educator

Would you take health advice from a man in leopard-print trunks?

Several generations of young men have–by sending away for Charles Atlas’s Dynamic Tension System. This was a mail-order subscription series of illustrated lessons in exercise, diet and health, presented as a series of letters from Atlas himself, a bodybuilder judged ‘The World’s Most Perfectly Developed Man’.

How better to get your message across to teenage boys than the promise of body that teenage girls will die for?

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From the 1930s on, this unorthodox health expert sought potential subscribers through comic book advertisements such as “The Insult That Made a Man Out of Mac”.  A classic tale of teenage transformation, the ad begins with ‘ninety-seven-pound weakling’ Mac getting sand kicked in his face by a beach bully. He turns to Atlas for help, sending away for the lessons in ‘Health and Strength’. Soon, a newly muscular Mac gets his revenge: he returns to the beach and punches the bully, while a nearby bathing beauty gushes “Gosh! What a Build!”

No wonder teen boys eagerly sent off for his System.

The original Charles Atlas is no longer with us, although his advertising persona is still ‘alive’ and peddling Dynamic Tension on the internet. He lives on in popular culture, too. Those of us who frequented midnight showings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show will remember Dr. Frank-N-Furter’s double-entendre-laced ode to Dynamic Tension, “I Can Make You A Man.” And of course, the trope of the bully kicking sand in the weakling’s face lives on in everyday speech as well as popular media.

But a closer look at Atlas’s lessons, which contained a great deal of health advice alongside the exercise instructions, forces us to think more carefully about the ways we learn about health. In fact, while some of Atlas’s guidance echoed that of ‘food faddists’ and naturopaths, much of what the strongman suggested to his young disciples was indistinguishable from the guidance offered by orthodox health authorities. Government agencies, health campaigners, and public health educators may not have signed their pamphlets “Yours in Perfect Manhood,” as Atlas did his lessons. But they also may not have reached – and changed the behavior of – as many boys and young men eager to take control of their bodies and their health.

Like many 19th- and early 20th-century health promoters, for example, Atlas endorsed sunbathing and “full baths each day,” as well as good posture. He also demanded his subscribers get plenty of fresh air. The Metropolitan Life Insurance Company gave its immigrant and working class customers similar advice in its 1910 health pamphlet, warning “To nail one’s bedroom window shut is to drive a nail into one’s coffin.” Atlas gave a shorter and brusquer version of this advice, commanding: “NEVER CLOSE YOUR BEDROOM WINDOW.”

Like health textbooks of the early and middle 20th century, Atlas portrayed the human body as a motor--and advised keeping one’s internal combustion engine clean by eating healthy food. For him, as for many less orthodox dietary advisers, this meant avoiding “undernatured foods” such as white flour and polished rice. He also termed coffee and tea “narcotics and poisons” that “paralyzed the nerves,” recommending that subscribers skip their unhealthy cake-and-soda lunches.

The beverages Atlas did approve of were milk and water – and more milk. Like nutritionists of his era, he believed milk to be the perfect food. After reminding his adolescent readers, many of them probably worried about acne, that babies had clear skin, Atlas insisted that the same awaited other drinkers of milk. His advice: drink a glass of milk an hour for a few days, working up to a glass every half-hour.

Perhaps the most interesting advice concerned what we now call “stress”--and treat with everything from yoga to pharmaceuticals. Atlas urged his readers to simply banish all unpleasant thoughts and instead fill their minds with happier ones, to always “think high and beautiful thoughts.”

This could be aided by taking “music baths”; the really eager pupil could even buy an instrument and let its “beneficent harmonies elevate and refresh mind, body, and soul.” (Research does indeed suggest that music can alleviate tension and stress). Of course, only appropriate music would do: “Too much of this new swing stuff tends to lower the tone of mind,” Lesson One admonished subscribers.

Atlas’ psychological advice, though, was more in keeping with a popular culture that stressed positive thinking than it was with Freudian psychoanalysis. Concerning one’s self with worry over the past was useless, as was anxiety about the future: “The past is dead. Forget it! Why dig up the corpse. And the future has not yet arrived, why anticipate what will probably never happen? And why worry over the present? Can your worry accomplish anything good?”

Charles Atlas’ role as a health adviser reminds us that everyday people seek and encounter guidance on matters of body and mind from a mix of advisers, some conventional and some not. The fitness literature of the past (like that of the present) sometimes offered outdated advice or suggestions that conflicted with sound health practices. But in other instances it reinforced the messages being delivered by public health authorities. If we want to understand – and shape – how Americans have learned and how they continue to learn about health, we need to acknowledge and understand the complexity of the information marketplace available to them.

Elizabeth Toon teaches and researches at the University of Manchester’s Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine

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