Charles Atlas, Muscles And Genders

There is an amusing side to asking, “What is your definition of a woman, Denny?”

I do not answer right away.

I have to wait until I stop chuckling.

I chuckle because I remember how at age 12 or 13 this testosterone-overloaded boy first really noticed that some of the kids on the school playground were … well … different.

They had curves!

And those former “just kids” began to look at some guys differently. Some guys had muscles!

Note the use of “some.”

I did not have bulging muscles. My muscles were pathetically small and smooth by comparison with the “pipes” and “abs” of the guys who drew admiring glances from girls.

My ribs were countable all through high school whenever I donned swimming trunks.

One part of me did change so people were pretty sure I am a man, not a woman. My voice crackled and squeaked, then settled into a baritone.

Another part of me was agonizingly slow in sprouting. I wanted facial hair for the same reason that I wanted bulging muscles. Girls, I was told, were attracted to manly boy/men, not smooth-cheeked, droopy-shirted geeks.

Back then, I had no idea why I wanted girls to notice me, or why I fixated my gaze on … what? Back then, we called the shapes of females “figures.” Today, we routinely refer to how people are built by using anatomical terms, or slang. Back then, just saying that a girl had a “nice body” could bring a slap upside the head. The acceptable euphemism was, “She has a nice figure.”

Heaven forfend that we would even whisper “breasts.” That area was a “bosom,” if it was even mentioned above a whisper in mixed company.

What did girls say about boys?

I never really found that out. Girls would chirp and flutter in their own private language when no guys were close by. If one of us approached, the chirps and flutters sank into giggles and knowing glances … though I never knew what the “knowing” was about.

As I look back on those days, my first reaction to “What is a woman, Denny?” is amusing, because the question would have been retrospectively flummoxing.

Back then, the answers to “What is a woman?” or, for that matter, “What is a man?” would follow the Justice Potter Stewart line of reasoning.

In 1964, when I was still in college, Justice Stewart famously described his threshold test for obscenity. He could not formulate a specific definition, but he could make judgments

about whether a specific motion picture was obscene because, “I know it when I see it.”

Similarly, we wolf-whistled or shouted “Hubba Hubba!” (and coarser phrases) when we saw sexy women — and back then, the women mostly just took the abuse or ignored it.

We were crude. They were probably made to feel objectified. But nobody gave that a thought. We spoke and thought in pigeonhole terms.

Today, I feel sadness and some guilt for the damage to self-esteem that we boys dished out upon girls we saw as sex objects — or ridiculed because we did not view them that way.

To a small extent, I know how they felt, because of the “Charles Atlas” syndrome. Charles Atlas was a bodybuilder and seller of exercise books and equipment.

He made millions from a cartoon strip that showed a well-built guy kicking sand onto a skinny stripling of a boy lying on a beach towel while the boy’s girlfriend gazed admiringly at the bully boy.

Later panels showed the boy ordering and using Charles Atlas bodybuilding techniques and equipment — then admiring his newly muscled body’s reflection in a mirror while saying, “What MUSCLES! That bully won’t shove ME around again!”

Left unsaid was the implication that the shapely girl in the cartoon would also turn her admiring glances toward the newly muscled man.

I bought Charles Atlas stuff. I worked out. But I never got those bulging muscles. I shrugged off the deprecations of older, bigger, stronger boys — but it did hurt when shapely girls looked right through me while gazing at those hunks.

I can only wonder how the gay and lesbian teenagers, the transgendered and non-binary among us, felt. Those gender attributes were deeply hidden a half-century ago. To show them openly was to invite scorn, verbal abuse — and physical beatings.

My initially humorous memories quickly fade away when I consider the hurt we still can inflict these days when we angrily reject definitions of “man,” “woman,” “non-binary,” etc.

The discussions are necessary because our knowledge has changed, both scientifically and behaviorally.

The anger, vehemence and intolerance — on all sides of these issues — are not necessary. They actually make it harder for us to reach consensus while treating our fellow Americans with respect and dignity.

Denny Bonavita is a former editor/publisher at newspapers in DuBois, Brookville, New Bethlehem and Warren. He lives near Brookville. Email: notniceman9@gmail.com.


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