These pages investigate the development of gym culture, its 'masculinity', 'lifestyle', and the images used to represent it. They examine the positive and negative effects of this culture on the individual and collective life of gay men.



The Cult of Muscularity

"... muscularity is a key term in appraising men's bodies ... this comes from men themselves. Muscularity is the sign of power - natural, achieved, phallic."

Anon. "Untitled" c.1903

Image for Sandow's Spring-grip Dumbbell advertisement.


The formation of 'The Cult of Muscularity' in the last decade of the 19th century was a reaction to the perceived effeminisation of heterosexual masculinity. The position of the active, heroic hetero-male was under attack from the passivity of industrialisation, from the expansion of women's rights and their ability to become breadwinners, and through the naming of deviant sexualities that were seen as a threat to the stability of society. By naming deviant sexualities they became visible to the general public for the first time, creating apprehension in the minds of men gazing upon the bodies of other men lest they be thought of as 'pansies'. (Remember that it was in this decade the trials of Oscar Wilde had taken place in England after he was accused of being a sodomite by The Marquis of Queensbury. It is perhaps no coincidence that the rules that governed boxing, a very masculine sport in which a man could become a popular hero, were named after his accuser. By all accounts he was a brute of a man who despised and beat his son Lord Alfred Douglas and sought revenge on his partner, Oscar Wilde, for their sexual adventures). Muscles became the sign of heterosexual power, prowess, and virility. A man had control over his body and his physical world. His appearance affected how he interacted with this world, how he saw himself, and was seen by others, and how closely he matched the male physical 'ideal' impacted on his own levels of self-esteem. The gymnasium became a meeting point for exercise, for health, for male bonding, and to show off your undoubted 'masculinity'.


Anon. "Untitled" c.1890 - 1910

Gym group possibly German/Prussian.



Ultimately going to the gym has more to do with fitting a certain 'ideal' image of 'masculinity', that of the muscular mesomorph, than it has to do with getting fit. Aerobic activity such as swimming or running are much more effective ways of getting fit. But what gym work does much better than aerobic activity is that it builds muscle mass. And for a man that wants to be recognised for his physical presence, having more muscle is the epitome of the 'ideal'. In a patriarchal society, in other words in a society where men have power over women and other men, to have a masculine body was/is seen as the opposite of being feminine or gay - it emphasises the difference between the position of men and women/gays in society. The bodies of 'other' men and those of women and gays are seen as inferior whilst a mesomorphic body confirms the power of 'real' men. No wonder homosexuals found muscular working class men ('rough trade' so to speak) so enticing a sexual fantasy in the early part of this century, and still do to this day. Still, in being named by the majority limp-wristed 'nancies' and by accepting that label historically ourselves, we forget that not all gay men were pansies with effeminate mannerisms, even in those times.



Anon. "Two excellent poses of Siegmund Klein" nd

In contemporary society the division between straight and gay 'masculine' bodies can be seen to have diminished. At dance parties or on the street it is sometimes difficult to tell which is the gay body and which is the straight one. In seeking acceptance and assimilation into the general society gay men have moulded their bodies on the 'ideal' of the muscular mesomorphic model. Both gay and straight men are likely to be striving after the same muscular mesomorphic ideal so much so that they may both become homogenised into a non-feminine, asexual masculinity where, paradoxically, very little sexuality exudes from any-body at all.


"Two excellent poses
of Siegmund Klein."