Angelo's Revenge

Barrett L. Dorko, P.T.

My son Alex is now thirteen and these days I watch him and his friends on the basketball team. They are the kind of gangly bunch I remember being a part of at that age. I especially remember how much I wanted more size, and how the gaze of any girl could really alter my posture.

Early in this century a self-described "97 pound weakling" was on the beach at Coney Island with his girlfriend. A burly lifeguard began to harass him, literally kicking sand in his face. Eventually the larger man walked off with the girl.

The loser in this brief battle was an Italian immigrant named Angelo Siciliano. Devastated, he vowed to grow big and strong enough to fend off any future attacks. He began to exercise with the equipment available in those days but was discouraged at the result.

One day Angelo walked through a zoo and noticed that the lions in their cages would commonly move mightily in a way that seemed to pit one muscle group against another. He was impressed with their apparent strength despite the fact that they were caged and had no access to the equipment he was depending upon.

He reasoned that if the lion could acquire such an appearance that he could develop a regime of similar exercises for himself. He did so, and built a physique so remarkable that he was dubbed "The World's Most Perfectly Developed Man" at a physical culture exhibition in 1922. Angelo opened a gym and served as the sculptor's model for depictions of George Washington and Patrick Henry.

Early in the morning I often lift weights and will surf the TV channels during a break. There are a wealth of fitness programs and the message is all pretty much the same: your appearance, your posture, the flatness of your stomach are keys to success, happiness and physical attraction.

In 1929 Angelo began to advertise a mail-order course on fitness exercise called "dynamic tension". The ad featured a photo of Angelo in briefs displaying his massive chest and shoulders and his tiny waist. A drawing of an adolescent boy being bullied on the beach as his girlfriend watches was always included as well.

About a month ago I had an eighty year old male patient lying supine in considerable discomfort. He held his stomach in, his chest high and his hips in adduction. He was perfectly at attention while lying down. When I questioned this effort despite the fact that it increased his pain, he looked at me and said: "Charles Atlas". This was the name Angelo Siciliano chose once his physique convinced him he deserved something with more appeal.

I doubt that there has ever been a more successful or more well-known advertising campaign than Charles Atlas'. Millions of adolescents in several different countries were convinced that this was a perfectly reasonable investment because of its promise of an astounding appearance, to say nothing of what the girls would think. It went directly to their heart's desire and they could not resist.

Last night I had dinner with my father. He will be eighty in two weeks. I spoke of my recent fascination with Charles Atlas and how influential have been his ideas about posture.

I wondered aloud about the underlying message; that being loved is a consequence of our physical strength. I mentioned all of Atlas' successors on TV today and I said that I found it interesting that this man identified so strongly with a caged animal, an animal on display and unable to fully express itself. I even brought up the fact that Atlas the Greek god held up the world not as a display of strength, but as a punishment from Zeus.

My father listened carefully and then told me that he had always been impressed by the ideas of Charles Atlas, that he held his own large chest and shoulders as he had been told to in the ads beginning in 1929.

He was thirteen.