Eugen Sandow
Eugen Sandow, founder of the Sandow system

When the Irish “physical culturalist” F. A. Hornibrook wrote The Culture of the Abdomen in 1924, he was confident that he had conclusively identified the source of much of industrialised society’s problems: chronic constipation.

“Between the trained athlete and the sedentary bookworm lies a great gulf across which age eventually throws a bridge where both meet in middle life, both burdened with enfeebled bodies, adipose deposits, pendulous bellies, constipated bowels and impaired mental activity... the ponderous speech of the portly magnate finds its echoes in the intestinal rumblings of his ponderous paunch, and awed ignorance acclaims wind for wisdom.”

Calling it “the white man’s burden”, in chapters such as “Sewage System of the Body”, “Buttock Contraction” and “Eating and Evacuation”, Hornibrook advocated a series of measures to promote good stool cultivation, appreciation and, most importantly, expulsion.

Some recommendations relate to diet – “in paraffin, taken in tablespoonful doses three-quarters of an hour before a meal, we have a useful ally in the conflict with constipation” – while others are to do with the vital moment of unburdening. Hornibrook argues that the modern water closet, in failing to replicate the squatting posture of “the native” (whose stools are “soft, pultaceous and easily passed” as opposed to civilised man’s, which are “almost as hard as old putty, and very dry”), needs urgent adaptation to make it more conducive to stool delivery. Failing this, the individual can place a wooden platform eight inches high in front of the toilet, on which the feet can rest during the act of defecation, thus approximating the squat.

Hornibrook – whose followers included H. G. Wells and Arnold Bennett – simultaneously promoted physical fitness based on native dancing rituals. The Culture of the Abdomen has helpful pictures of “modern man” and “the native” – the posture, attitude, dignity and buttocks of the former being compared unfavourably with the latter’s. The book ends with a series of suggested exercises and aids to health including, somewhat randomly, golf. Remember, says Hornibrook, “A short belt is a long life-line.”

Battle of the Systems

Hornibrook’s work grew out of what has become known to historians as the “Battle of the Systems”, a 19th-century clash between various types of physical regime for the promotion of wellbeing. With its roots in European military practices, and fuelled by an increasingly consumerist society both there and in the US, the various systems promoted different physical regimes, often combining them with dietary and “lifestyle” advice. Between 1848 – that Year of Revolutions in Europe – through to the 1930s, newspapers and magazines promoted schemes for improving one’s physical health.

Beginning with the Turner movement – a gymnastic scheme imported to the US by Germans fleeing the 1848 revolution – the Battle of the Systems came to include the Czech Sokol movement (“a strong mind in a sound body”); the Swedish System, which concentrated on calisthenics, breathing and massage; and Muscular Christianity, which sought to combine spiritual and physical health as a bulwark against what many believed to be a decrease in manliness caused by excessive Puritanism.

Promoted by sections of the Church, Muscular Christianity’s version of Christ was the one that “came not to send peace, but a sword”. As one convert, Theodore Roosevelt, put it, in a truly Christian society “there is only a very circumscribed sphere of usefulness for the timid good man.” That many of these systems sprang from military training is no coincidence. Sokol argued that one should think deeply about Czech nationalism while lifting weights, while in the UK at the beginning of the 20th century, Muscular Christianity became part of the myth of how the British Empire was created and maintained. The true Brit had a Bible in one hand and a rifle in the other.

But it was the Sandow system, named for its founder Eugen Sandow, and based on weightlifting, which had convinced Hornibrook of the benefits of physical fitness, having allowed him to reshape his body until he was known, in his own telling, as “Brawnibrook”.

Gym freaks

Sandow was born Jewish, the son of a German and a Russian. He began using weights at the age of ten. Briefly a circus strongman, he is credited with organising the world’s first bodybuilding competition at London’s Royal Albert Hall in 1901 (his fellow judge was Arthur Conan Doyle). At the turn of the century, Thomas Edison filmed him performing one of his “muscle display performances” and he was later designated special instructor in physical culture to King George V.

As Natalia Mehlman Petrzela points out in her new book, Fit Nation: The Gains and Pains of America’s Exercise Obsession (University of Chicago), despite the advocacy of F. A. Hornibrook and his like, when Sandow made his first tour of the United States, extreme physical health and exaggerated musculature were things to be ogled at, rather than aspired to. Audiences would gather to marvel at what were, in some senses, still freaks. Weightlifting and going to gymnasiums were not only niche activities, but were regarded with a certain amount of scorn.

Fast forward a hundred years and Hornibrook and Sandow would be astonished at the centrality of many of their theories – if not their systems – in western public discourse. We find ourselves in a new Battle of the Systems, with a bewildering array of techniques supposedly aimed at making all of us fitter, happier and more productive.

The global wellness economy was valued at US$4.4 trillion in 2020 – an astonishing 5.1 per cent of all global output. In the US, gyms are now a $40 billion industry. But despite the massive revenue generated, as Petrzela points out, fewer than 20 per cent of Americans actually work out consistently, a similar figure to the UK. In addition, over 73 per cent of Americans are classed as overweight, 42 per cent of them obese. According to a 2022 UK government report, three-quarters of the British population are overweight, and 28 per cent of them obese. The latter group includes one in seven children under the age of five. For all the talk of our fitness obsession, it seems as much honoured in the breach as in the observance.

What one can discern, however, is how closely fitness and capitalism cleave together. If the Battle of the Systems grew from military training, it was no less a product of the Industrial Revolution. The working of the human body gradually became analogous to the working of the new machines which had begun to replace it. Initially, in the early 19th century, there was some upper-class distaste for both sweat and muscle. Both were seen as working class, and even in Sandow’s day, part of the thrill of attending his performances lay in slumming it momentarily, and gawping at the bestial displays of these strange somatic creatures.

A moral debt

Increasingly, however, as the middle class emerged, the idea of both individual and societal productivity became more and more prevalent. Somewhere along the way, we developed the idea that to be unproductive is a sin. Physical fitness was no longer an end in itself – it became, and remains, a moral issue. As endless government campaigns and TV shows tell us, to be unfit is to be bad: a strain on the health service, a burden to society.

Muscular Christianity is instructive here. Tracing its origins, somewhat spuriously, back to the apostle Paul, the movement argued that man – always “man” – had become too civilised, too effete and too intellectual. This was a moral failure as much as a physical one. In fact, one could not separate the two. Just as Hornibrook bemoaned the corpulent, flatulent “magnate”, proponents of Muscular Christianity argued that the degeneracy of the human body leads to moral degeneracy.

As David Graeber argued in his 2011 book Debt: The First 5,000 Years, one of the reasons Christianity and capitalism work so well together is their shared belief that debt is fundamental and ultimately unresolvable. In Christianity we are born with sin and spend our lives trying to repay that debt. In capitalism we must keep earning to stop our financial debt growing. This moral imperative is analogous with the prevalent framing of fitness today as an endless and unresolvable quest: one can always be fitter, and not pursuing this goal is a failing to oneself and to society.

To be fit is a personal responsibility – and therefore it is irresponsible not to be so. The underpinning idea of debt can be seen in the fact that public health campaigns are so often framed in financial terms. “Obesity costs the taxpayer – those who earn enough to pay tax – x amount” and so on, implying that the fit and rich are having to pay for the poor to sit around and get fat. In the UK, as the NHS collapses through chronic underfunding, the scourge of obesity is often held up as a drain on the public purse. Of course, one might argue that it is in fact a healthier middle and upper class, which lives longer, that causes the biggest drain, but this is seldom canvassed.

The temple of the body

The human body shaped by today’s hyper-capitalist work regime may not be the only product of this kind of thinking. But if we were designing people who would best fit what capitalism wants, then a set of beings who run on coffee and are fitter than humans in the past would not be far off the mark. Perhaps the dramatic fall in alcohol consumption among younger people in recent years is the result of a partial internalisation of the moral requirement to be useful and productive. (As the French philosopher Georges Bataille noted in his 1949 book The Accursed Share, in a capitalist society, leisure, uselessness and luxury are increasingly only the domain of the upper classes, and are seen as sinful for working people.)

As Petrzela notes: “Fitness has become a socially acceptable form of conspicuous consumption in a society that celebrates the pursuit of health as practically holy.” The body itself has thus become both corporatised and a devotional object – our temple.

In addition, even more than in the Battle of the Systems, our current fitness obsession places the emphasis on individual empowerment at, Petrzela notes, the expense of collective solidarity. We are in a competition with others, but also with ourselves. It is part of a “culture of narcissism” which valorises an imagined freedom we can find – “a lofty idiom of enlightenment” where exercise is “something more than bodily cultivation”.

This has led to some extreme outcomes. The Washington Post in 2022 ran a series of articles about deaths in the bodybuilding industry, caused by athletes pursuing ever more unnatural physiques. With steroids freely available, both male and female bodybuilders build themselves up to a point where, as one coach put it, the young Arnold Schwarzenegger would not even be able to compete, let alone win. It has led to a new form of body dysmorphia in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM): “bigorexia”, where there is no such thing as big enough. “Once you step into a gym, you’re forever small” sums up the thinking.

Some individual empowerment is obviously positive. The relationship between feminism and fitness for instance is complex precisely because some of the gains in personal agency and self-esteem are so great that it is difficult to disentangle them from the negatives to do with, for instance, objectification. But a culture where the self is absolutely sovereign increasingly seems just another of capitalism’s false versions of liberty. That “the body beautiful” has become such an aspiration conforms to an incredibly narrow definition of liberty. Like Eugen Sandow a century ago, we are suddenly all engaged in “muscle display performances”.

The business of the body

On an individual level, we all basically know how to be healthy, and have for a long time: eat plenty of fruit and veg, stay active, don’t drink or smoke and get plenty of sleep. But the countless iterations of this story, emphasising new and different ways to approach the “problem”, force us to set up a plan – a corporate system of selfhood. We then micromanage as though our body were a business, which we have to run at maximum yield. Our fitness journals become individual profit and loss statements.

However, as Fit Nation points out, despite the pursuit of individual health being seen as practically holy, it has not in fact become a “public good”. In the US, 80 per cent of the population live in what she terms “fitness deserts” – defined as “an area without a public park in a half-mile radius”. Additional factors such as higher pollution in deprived areas, as well as inadequate street lighting, also lead to a bias in favour of the wealthy when it comes to achieving the “freedom” that fitness vaunts.

The pursuit of fitness requires both time and money. Witness the 2018 Mayo Clinic study which found that playing tennis could add 9.7 years to your lifespan. That those who play tennis tend to be older, richer and already healthier than the general population was not considered. Obesity rates in both the US and the UK are highest among people lacking time and money. Leaving aside the merits or demerits of fitness for a moment, what is notable here is that despite clear structural factors, this is still seen as a moral failing.

For Petrzela, who is not only a professor of history but a fitness instructor, access to fitness is therefore a social justice issue. One cannot make fitness an issue of personal responsibility and then not enable equal access.

“It does not,” Hornibrook wrote in 1924, “add to the enjoyment of life to carry round superfluous flesh. It does not add to the enjoyment of life to have stuffed up bowels. It does not add to the enjoyment of life to have a sagging abdomen and atrophied muscles.” No one can really argue with that. But nor does it add to the enjoyment of life to make the pursuit of physical health yet another moral quest, which is more often than not a moral failure and another unfulfilled debt.

As Graeber put it, there is no better way to make things seem moral “than by reframing them in the language of debt – above all, because it immediately makes it seem that it’s the victim who’s doing something wrong.”

This piece is from the New Humanist spring 2023 edition. Subscribe here.