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The Changing Face of Man

January 27, 2012

I watched a film the other day, ‘Captain Horatio Hornblower’, an old 1950’s swashbuckler starring Gregory Peck. However, it wasn’t the lead role that interested me, but the support actors. The crew of the ship with their big strapping chests and tight waists. The film was made in an era when men still tied their trousers up around their waists (the thin portion of the body between the pelvis and the rib cage), but as we move forward through the years of cinema we see not only the fashions changing, but also the shape of the actors themselves. By the 70’s the strapping chests tend to have gone and bodies are much slender, but still well formed with volume to the buttocks. Jeans still have high waistlines, but are tight fitting and hug the buttocks. Jumping forward to the present day, actors are obsessed with muscles and the gym induced six-pack, but such misguided approach to fitness comes at the cost of a strong foundation and the icons of today tend to be lacking a little in intrinsic capacity. Heads are often craned forward and chests low in volume. Waists have all but disappeared; pelvic development is poor and buttocks missing. No wonder jeans these days have to hang off the hips. Even the big muscle men are not immune. Those that manage the big strapping chests rarely have tight waists; more often they have bulging abdomens. I may be exaggerating, but the changing nature of man’s bodies is clearly evident and this is not confined to the icons of the day. If we look at old footage of the general public we see that, to a great degree, these actors do reflect the population at large.

Going back around five hundred years, we can see in the sculptures and paintings of the renaissance period a much more developed figure with enormous intrinsic capacity or inner volume. There is also strong definition between portions of the body. The head and neck rarely blend into each other, but in the portrayals of great men of the time the chest, lumbar and pelvic regions are also strongly defined as separate entities. In antiquity, women too are portrayed with a much fuller figure and this is not the case of being overweight or fat rather than thin, but the case of being extremely well developed. You could argue that even in antiquity, fashion played a part in how people were portrayed and that proportions were exaggerated to elevate the status of heroes, but the evidence is there to suggest that man’s bodies have changed to a considerable degree over the years.

It is true that over recent decades the general fitness of populations has declined, particularly in western countries, and this has resulted in the so-called obesity crisis of today. ‘So called’ because I believe that many of the thin people are as lacking in quality as the fat people and that the crisis is one of underdevelopment and not weight. It is also true that allowing yourself to get out of shape is nothing new. Pictures of Henry VIII tell a story of overeating and declining exercise, but, generally speaking, the neglect of the human form to the extremes that we see around us today is a very modern phenomenon, only really taking off in the eighties.

For centuries our working lives have played a large part in shaping our bodies, but that way seems to have come to an end to a great degree. I remember, as a child, the old man who worked in the post office and was hunched over from years of working, stooped over the same counter. I remember, until he retired only a couple of years ago, my coalman whose wiry body was shaped by that single job of lifting sacks of coal off of the lorry and tipping them in the bunker. These days working lives tend to be far more sedentary than they were in the past and even manual labour is often not the vigorous or strenuous exercise that it used to be. So our bodies today are shaped more by our inactivity than our activity, but before we despair too much, I would like to examine another angle on this subject.

It is easy to see that he or she who takes up the shot put would not become a high jumper, one requires a bulky muscular body and the other a slender agile body, and so what we choose to do in life could be influenced by the body we possess. However, if we look at another example it is not so clear-cut. If you gave me a group of men who were either ballet dancers, football players or rugby players, I would be fairly confident of identifying who pursued which profession from their physical appearance, but do they choose to pursue the profession because they have the body for it or is it that the sort of person who follows the path of a ballet dancer develops the necessary physique, he who fits in with the rugby crowd develops the strong solid frame necessary to take the bruising and he who is fanatical about football develops the rather lanky body that seems to be more and more prominent in football players, quite possibly from growing up through years of fancy footwork.

I’m sure that every baby is born different and that the type of person we become, be it tall and slender or short and stocky, is already defined in us the day we are born, but the diversity of the human form is far more obvious in the adult population than in young children and as for babies, well, to the untrained eye they all look the same, so I would suggest that we are all born close to the archetypal human form and that as we develop we diverge from that form to become the wide variety of shapes and sizes.

It is common to see someone’s mother or father in them and physical traits often run in families. The geneticist would suggest that the shape of our bodies are predetermined by the genes passed on from our mother and father, but I would suggest that although the building blocks are defined by genetics, the manner in which those building blocks are fashioned to form our bodies is determined by other factors. The way of life in the era we are born into has an affect. Our character and the life it leads us to pursue has an affect, as does the work we do. In the past the lives we lived were far more predetermined by the position we were born into and the physical nature of life led to a far more natural development of our bodies. These days we are all much freer to choose our own path and as a consequence of this freedom of the individual we have to become more responsible than ever for the development of our own bodies.

Never before in the history of mankind have we struggled so much with our human form. Never before have we seen so many out of shape and poorly formed bodies. I would suggest that our bodies are far more malleable than we tend to think and if we are to address the health problems of our time we must become far more aware of the development of our bodies and of how the characteristics of who we are as individual human beings, and the lives that we live, affect that development.

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