“Hey Skinny, Your Ribs Are Showing”: Charles Atlas and American Masculinity



Consciously or unconsciously, we are all aware of Charles Atlas and his business. In today’s article we will look at Atlas, Physical Culture and constructions of White Masculinity in 1920s to 40s America. I believe Atlas’s ‘Dynamic Tension’ product was successful in this time as claimed to provide men with masculine qualities that they wanted at a time when American White masculinity was seen as threatened. Atlas did not target other races, genders or sexual orientations instead focusing solely on white male heterosexuals. Atlas once said: “15 minutes a day! Give me just this and I’ll prove I can make you a new man.” Well in much less than 15 minutes you’ll have an idea of what type of man Atlas and his customers had in mind.

In 1922, Angelo Siciliano or ‘Charles Atlas’ marketed a workout programme that is still in use and has served 30 million customers. To understand Atlas’s success we have to examine the historical context and place Atlas and his marketing partner Charles Roman into it. Following this, we will look at the product, and it’s advertising. Finally the qualities that Atlas claimed to provide, namely a sense of control, increased attractiveness and a strong personality will be examined. These qualities were promoted as cornerstones of White Masculinity.

Historical Background

Looking at the background and crises of white masculinity in early 20th century America, we have to distinguish between short and long term trends. Regarding health in the 19th century, American men of rotund proportions were considered the embodiment of health. By 1900, perceptions changed due to a rising interest in Physical Culture, Christian Muscularity, and sport among other pursuits. Muscularity became desirable for men. Men like Eugen Sandow became, for many, physical culture incarnate in the early twentieth century and proved successful in spreading the concept in the US.

Increases of immigration and industrialization in America during this time also challenged white masculinity, with contemporaries arguing that such trends resulted in white men becoming somehow feminine. Kimmel felt that immigration coupled with economic competition led to a destabilized sense of white masculinity. Perceived crises of masculinity help explain why physical culture became popular. Pettegrew argued white men sought muscularity in the early twentieth century as a mean of distinguishing themselves from women and immigrants.

Behavioural trends like Social Darwinism were also important. ‘Survival of the Fittest’ and perfectly developed races were ideas penetrating America. Eugenics Movements hosted everything from ‘Better Baby’ to ‘Fitter Family’ Competitions. Atlas was tied to Social Darwinism, winning the title of World’s Most Perfectly Developed Man in 1921 and 22.

Short-term trends also provide insights into crises of white masculinity. In sports, white masculinity was damaged when black boxer Jack Johnson defeated the ‘Great White Hope’ Jim Jeffries in 1910. Du Bois, writing in 1910 noted a “new religion of American Whiteness”, whereby attempts were made to re-construct White Male dominance. By 1922, Atlas’s business was doing likewise, celebrating White Male Heterosexuality. And what’s more… Atlas made profits during the Great Depression, the 1930s and the Second World War promoting a course that reinforced white masculinity when traditional conceptions were under threat. Roman, speaking in 1942 noted business improved during crises, as men linked unemployment to a lack of physical power. Wiegers argued that men turn to fitness as compensation for social changes that left them feeling stripped of power. Additionally the road to World War II made men conscious of their bodies, as military fitness became important. Physical fitness became a means of survival. These long and short-term trends help explain the society and White Masculinity into which Atlas and Roman tapped.


Of relevance to Atlas’s success was Atlas’s public persona presented by his company. Be wary of such personas. Roach characterised the fitness industry best as ‘muscle, smoke and mirrors’. Atlas was an almost mythical embodiment of many of the trends discussed. He was an Italian immigrant who went from being a ‘97 pound weakling’ to winning Bernarr McFadden’s ‘Most Perfectly Developed Man’ competition in 1921 and 22. He preached a healthy, clean life, reminiscent of ‘Christian Muscularity’. Atlas set up an exercise mail order programme in 1922, but it did not take off until 29 when Roman joined the business. Roman seems to have been very influential, indeed, the New York Times labelled him: ‘the Brains Behind the Brawn’.

Advertising Campaign

With Atlas as the face, and Roman marketing, business flourished, earning over $300,000 in 1941 alone. We come to understand this success when we examine Atlas’s product and advertising. Atlas sold a mail order workout program, delivered in twelve lessons, demanding a user’s complete commitment and promising radical change.


The Atlas Workout Lessons

What was novel, and advantageous, was that equipment wasn’t needed. It was based on ‘Dynamic Tension’; meaning muscles would be built by pitting one against the other. As shown in the photo below


Atlas Demonstrating Dynamic Tension

And this is what the programme was all about. No free weights…just your body. Roman marketed the product with bold statements such as “Don’t be a half man” or “I manufacture weaklings into men”. Famously there was the advertisement, in which a young man (‘Mac’) is bullied in front of a girl, retreats in shame, begins Atlas’s course, defeats said bully and gets the girl. It signalled what a white man should be strong-willed, in control…muscular. See the end of the post for the advertisements.

The advertisements’ delivery was crucial. ‘The insult that made a man out of Mac’ advertisements was produced in dozens of comic strips.


Constructs of what muscles could achieve was delivered at a time of identity formation for teens. In 1942 Zolotow wrote how, “the iron muscled body of Atlas fascinated adolescents”. Roman noted that in the businesses early years, subscribers’ average age was between 15 and 25. Marketing was geared towards younger generations, yet Atlas was quick to remark that his workout could be done by all ages… but not all creeds it seems. Advertisements only featured white male heterosexuals.

The programme helps illustrate constructions of white American masculinity. Atlas’s product came after America’s success in World War One, and a period of relative prosperity, followed by the Great Depression. A time of great instability and questioning of masculinity. White masculinity, for Atlas and Roman, was concerned with control, and they promoted ideas that men had to take control of their lives. This is clear in their advertisements. In 1936 Atlas wrote, “This is essentially the age of survival of the fittest”. Atlas’s product held “the key to your future”. Accordingly the message was that muscularity equated with taking control.

Control even extended to mental control. Lesson One of the course declared: “The first great step is the reformation of habits”. Atlas called this “personal power”. It represented a new means of taking control. Advertisements challenged men to “take charge of your life”. The workout demanded that ‘students’, Atlas’s term for customers, “mastered methods for acquiring great internal strength”. Roman sent out testimonial forms to students asking them to note changes in their will power since buying the product. Atlas and Roman saw control over oneself as integral to White masculinity.


How did customers respond? Letters to Atlas provide some suggestion. One student wrote that due to Atlas’s course, he had stopped drinking. Another wrote, “today I feel no man can rule or oppress me”, exhibiting the importance of control. Pope argued that control is an incentive for men to exercise and this seems to have been the case for some customers. One wrote “my body will show anyone how I am today.” Wiegers argued that America’s physical culture was tied to a strong work ethic, and that ‘unmuscular’ bodies represented weakness. Control resonated with some of Atlas’s students as a characteristic of white masculinity. It indicated a strong work ethic and discipline during a period of often-economic instability.

Sexual attractiveness was also important. An aspect of physical culture promoted in the early 1900s, was that it helped those men with sexual impotency, or a ‘lack of vigour’. Atlas was no exception, and certainly not subtle, highlighting dangers that would befall marriages in which husbands were too tired “and constantly interested only in ‘sitting down to rest’ at night.” Increased vigour was combined with the message that muscles made men more attractive to women. This was strongly suggested in the ‘Mac advertisements’, in which the newly muscled white male gets the girl after defeating the bully. Men were encouraged to “show your girl what you’re really made of.”

Revealing was the letter informing Atlas “I got my girlfriend through you.” Another explained it “never ceases to amuse me to see the expression on their faces when they grab my arm and feel the muscle there.” Customer’s letters suggest the idea that muscularity made one more attractive. Attractiveness and success with the opposite sex, it would seem, underlined constructions of white masculinity.

The final construct of white masculinity marketed was a strong personality. Atlas promised, “Others will see by your bearing, that you have personality, reserve power and magnetism.” How important was personality? Atlas’s 1936 pamphlet is telling. He wanted customers to become “the perfect man, mentally and physically.” He lamented that as a ‘97 pound weakling’, he had no personality. Such writings were accompanied by product advertisements, grandiosely declaring,

“You cannot be a leader and a weakling. The weak, timid man is afraid. He lacks the courage, the daring…the strength.

MacMonnies, writing about Atlas, echoed this message; “Health and Strength accompany honesty and integrity”. According to advertisements, weaklings’ employment status was unstable: “Be the husky who’s hired, while the weaklings are fired”. This message came soon after the Great Depression and during the build up to the Second World War, demonstrating that a cornerstone of white masculinity was a man of strong conviction and personality. Exercising allows a person to make strong personal statements. Atlas’s students seemed to agree.

One wrote that he had “changed in looks and personality” due to the course. Very interesting was the letter informing Atlas,

“I shall always think of you as the man who has brought me from darkness and has enabled me to become a real man among men”.

It appears, in the words of one ‘student’, that men were “very proud of their body, thanks to” Atlas. This pride in physical appearance seems, at least from some of the customers, to have had beneficial effects on their personality. Returning to another, customer, “Today I feel no man can rule or oppress me”, it is arguable that for many, a strong body correlated with a strong personality. One student wrote he was now a “he-man” thanks to Atlas. It seems that for some who subscribed to the course a strong personality was a pillar of white masculinity.


Focusing on the early years of Atlas’s business, specifically 1920s-40s America, I looked at the business’ success at a profound juncture in America when there existed a perceived crisis of white masculinity. In response to this crisis, Atlas’s product purported to provide a sense of control, increased attractiveness, and a strong personality. Such qualities were promoted as the foundations of white masculinity desperately needed. Atlas’s success provides a window into qualities identified as important to constructs of white masculinity. Atlas once said: “15 minutes a day! Give me just this and I’ll prove I can make you a new man.” Well in less than 15 minutes you learned exactly what kind of man Atlas had in mind.

Sample Atlas Advertisements




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