How men’s perfect body types have changed throughout history

man perfect body

When people talk about how
bodies are portrayed in the media, it’s usually about women. But men have had
to deal with body image issues as well. In fact, the “perfect” male body
has changed drastically over time, even more so than women.
Now, the media still focuses
on women’s looks much more than men, but that doesn’t mean there’s no pressure
for a man to obtain the ideal body. When you see how much the idea of an
attractive male body has changed, you’ll find that, just like for women,
“perfect” is completely arbitrary.
Era (12,000-8000 BC)
Neolithic Era
We’re taking it way back, all
the way to the Neolithic Era and how men’s perfect body types began. From
around 12,000 BC to 8000 BC, humans were beginning to switch from a
hunter/gatherer society to a life based around agriculture. Growing food right
where you lived, instead of stalking a buffalo all day, certainly made life a
little easier.
Peter Janiszewski, PhD, a
scientist who’s thoroughly studied the truth behind obesity and co-creator of
Obesity Panacea, a blog dedicated to their pursuits in ending obesity once and
for all, stated that the ideal man at the time was heavy. Agriculture allowed
those with power over the land to have huge feasts and thereby gain weight. So,
a heavier man was seen to be more well off and appealing than his skinny
Greece (800 BC-146 BC)

Ancient Greece perfect man
The ancient Greeks were very
particular about their ideals of beauty and captured them in works of art we
still enjoy today. They weren’t interested in any big guys feasting away;
according to The Guardian, the ideal man was muscular and lean. In fact, they
look a lot like hot guys in magazines we’d see today. If any of those statues came
to life and auditioned for the next Marvel film, they’d at least get a
Though there were specific
ratios for Greek beauty, they weren’t completely realistic. “They have
muscle groups that mortal men can’t ever achieve: you could go to the gym every
day for a year and you wouldn’t acquire an Apollo’s belt like these statues
boast,” said The Guardian.
An Apollo’s belt (sometimes
called Adonis belt) is that abdominal V muscle many guys try to achieve. You’ll
find a wide array of modern workouts that try to get 21st century men in the
same shape as the ideal of ancient Greece.
Ages (800-1000 AD)

Middle Ages men's perfect body
It’s a common thought that
people living prior to the 20th century were shorter and weaker than we are
today. But Professor Richard Steckel paints a very different picture. The Ohio
State Research News reported on a study done by Steckel about the height and
health of humans around 800 AD. In the early Middle Ages, men were nearly as
tall as men of the 21st century. Studying thousands of skeletons from the past
1,200 years, he found that the Middle Ages gave men a real growth spurt, which
then declined by two and a half inches by the 1700s. Said Steckel’s study,
“This decline of two-and-a-half inches substantially exceeds any height
fluctuations seen during the various industrial revolutions of the 19th
century.” The reason height is so important to learning about people of
the time is that it’s a good way to measure their health. Tall people meant
healthy people.
So, why did men shrink? Steckel
posits a number of possibilities. The early Middle Ages took place in a warmer
climate period, so crops were most likely more plentiful. More food equals a
healthier guy. Also, people still lived in relatively remote populations. There
were no bustling city centers of the Middle Ages, but that also meant they were
less likely to rapidly spread disease. As cities came to be and climate
slightly cooled, illness and potential lack of food led to the decline in
health and size.
So, guys were unexpectedly tall
at the time, but what was the “perfect” men’s body of the day? Well,
the art of the Middle Ages doesn’t give us much help in determining the ideal
male figure, since the art was primarily dedicated to religious scenes. Men and
women were seen covered and certainly the days of Adonis were long gone. Art
depicts men as healthy looking and average, nothing more.

Renaissance Vitruvian man
Leonardo Da Vinci made finding
out what the perfect men’s body would look like in the time of the Renaissance
pretty easy. With his drawing of the Vitruvian Man, he lays out exactly how the
perfect body should look. It’s not just to do with thin vs. fat or lean vs.
muscular, but finding a body with perfect proportions. Plus, the circle and
square that surround the man aren’t there just for extra decoration. They held
deep meaning.
According to Toby Lester,
author of Da Vinci’s Ghost in an interview with NPR, “The circle, since
ancient times, connoted, you know, things divine and cosmic. It’s the perfect
shape, that all of its points on its circumference are equidistant from the
center, and it was the shape that governed all of the supposed concentric fears
that made up the cosmos. And then you’ve got the human element of things, the
square, where you bring things down to Earth and make sense of them, set them
right.” The Vitruvian man wasn’t just a hot bod to aspire to, but the
absolute connection of heaven and Earth.
Macaronis (1700s)

Perfect men's bodies Macaronis
A precursor to the fop, the
Macaronis were originally British young men who went abroad, fell in love with
the Italian food “maccaroni” and the European style of dress.
According to historian Geri Walton, the men would commonly order maccaroni to
show off that they recently visited Italy and eventually got the nickname
“macaronis.” From the 1775 book Easy Phraseology, Joseph Baretti
wrote “Strange, that this word has so much changed of its meaning in
coming from Italy to England: that in Italy it should mean a block-head, a
fool; and mean in England a man fond of pompous and affected dress!” They
began to wear more fashionable and slightly feminine clothing. A trim figure
was preferred as their many layers clung to the body. Basically, they were the
hipsters of their day.
Eventually, Macaronis became a
laughing stock. Their look became so extreme with huge wigs, heavily made up
faces, and ornate and ridiculous accessories that by 1775 people began to
describe the look as “effeminate.” The Oxford Magazine of the time
said, “There is a indeed a kind of animal, neither male nor female, a
thing of the neuter gender, lately started up among us. It is called a
Macaroni…I may perhaps, on some future occasion, be ample in animadversion on
those lady-like gentlemen, who, despairing to be thought men, are ambitious of
resembling women.”
People resented this womanly
look and it soon fell out of fashion and placed a greater importance on looking
properly masculine. Extra fun fact: In “Yankee Doodle Dandy” the song
is about the British mocking the Americans’ tattered and worn way of dressing.
Hence “Stuck a feather in his hat and called it Macaroni,” both
throws shade on Washington for thinking a feather would be enough to be a
snappy dresser and refers back the Macaronis, rather than the pasta we all
loved as kids (and still love now).
Gilded Age (late 1800s-early 1900s)

perfect men's bodies in gilded age overweight
If you’re a big fan of the
“dad bod,” then the Gilded Age would have been your very favorite era
for perfect men’s bodies. In a throwback from the Neolithic Age, weight meant
status. So, fat men were in. It signified that you had plenty of money and
didn’t need to do hard labor. According to the book Looking Good a big belly
was considered attractive. It was so cool to be big, they had Fat Men’s Clubs.
To gain entry to a Fat Men’s
Club, you had to be over 200 pounds to join and there were many clubs across
the country. The Boston Globe wrote (via NPR) about one meeting in 1904,
“This village is full of bulbous and overhanging abdomens and double chins
tonight, for the New England Fat Men’s Club is in session at Hale’s Tavern. The
natives, who are mostly bony and angular, have stared with envy at the portly
forms and rubicund faces which have arrived on every train.”
They’d even have competitive
weigh ins to celebrate who was the biggest. NPR quoted a New York Times article
from 1885, “‘I must weigh over 300 pounds now,’ George Kapp boasted. Alas,
he came in at a disappointing 243…His friends thought he shrank at least 20
pounds more from grief before evening.” Of course, fat women weren’t
fashionable, it was only men. But, this was the last time that a big belly
would be the height of attractiveness.

Hollywood man
As Hollywood films became
immensely popular, they nearly single handedly shaped the ideal form of beauty
for men and women. It’s an old tale that women have always been pressured to
stay thin for Hollywood, but the same thing happened to men.
According to Looking Good,
people looked about 20 pounds heavier on film, so directors preferred actors
with a leaner frame. Now that the industry had moved from the often freezing
east coast to the always sunny California, people could show off more of their
bodies year round. Plus, movies back then had men riding horses, sword
fighting, and doing a number of physically intense stunts, so men had to be in
shape to do their job.
Only 15 years from the age of
Fat Men’s Clubs, a slim dashing figure was all the rage, while the fat man was
old news.
Atlas (1930s-40s)

Charles Atlas men's perfect body
Men began to slim down for Hollywood,
but Charles Atlas built them back up. Atlas was the first fitness guru and he
worked incredibly hard for his physique.
Smithsonian Magazine details
that Atlas was once a 97 pound guy who got tired of getting bullied all the
time. So, he began to work out, came up with the term “Dynamic
Tension” (a form of mostly isometric exercises) and eventually became an
incredibly strong icon. During the hard times of the 1930s and ’40s, people
were inspired by Atlas’ story.
Harvey Green, author of Fit
for America: Health, Fitness, Sport and American Society, 1830-1940 told
Smithsonian that Atlas’ solution to the Depression and World War II was
“to be bigger than everybody else. Then nobody would mess with you. The
idea that physical size could give you confidence was a powerful message.”
This started the first real fitness movement and began the trend towards men
wanting to build up their physiques.
Executive look (1950s-early 1960s)

executive man
Now that the war and
depression were over, men were slightly less concerned with looking strong, but
they did want to look big. In came the era of the Executive look, where men
aimed to pose large, imposing figures as part of the perfect body. Suit jackets
and overcoats had large boxy shoulders and a much looser fit than we’d see
today. There was some emphasis on a trim waist, but the biggest asset was broad
shoulders on a tall build.
In The Pyramid Climbers by
Vance Packard, a book from 1962 all about success in the corporate world, he
describes what an ideal executive should look like. “The fashion now is
for big men. In the old days in some of the companies the tallest executive was
five feet five, but now the fashion is for big men even though there are plenty
of small men doing a terrific job.” He told of instances where he was
asked to submit only candidates who were over six feet tall and surmised that
the big man is preferred because “he has a certain presence.”
Basically, if you were short
in the ’50s you needed to work harder to get ahead. Packard reported, “If
small, he should make up for it in energy and good health.”

James Bond
The ’60s shook off some of the
formal air from the previous decade and suave, stylish men became fashionable.
GQ lists some of the most fashionable men of the era and you can see the look
was clean and the suits fit closer to the body. The type of man that stayed in
the corporate world maintained this buttoned up style, while rock stars and
younger men often went the more bohemian route. For fashion, men started to
have options that consisted of more than just “should I wear a black or
dark grey suit jacket?”
The era’s perfect male body is
exemplified by Sean Connery, the very first 007. He was trim, but didn’t have a
lot of muscle definition and did have a lot of chest hair. Michael Caine was considered
handsome leading man, especially after his role in role in Alfie, but his
shirtless look was fairly unimpressive by today’s standards. Men should still
have broad shoulders and a flat stomach, but cut biceps and a six-pack was
definitely not required.
1960s-early 1970s

David Bowie
For the first time since the
age of the Macaronis, a less ruggedly masculine look came into style as the
perfect men’s body. Androgyny was huge for David Bowie and even Mick Jagger,
who according to The Guardian enjoyed playing with looks that were both
masculine and feminine. A thin, lanky frame became popular for followers of
this look. Though unisex clothes became popular, they didn’t really affect
gender roles or decrease the importance of having a perfect body.
Professor Jo Paoletti said in
her book Sex and Unisex, “Part of the appeal of adult unisex fashion was
the sexy contrast between the wearer and the clothes, which actually called
attention to the male or female body.”
Not all men were into the
gender bending idea. They sported mustaches and wholeheartedly embraced the new
trend of bell bottoms. Men’s clothes were tighter fitting than years past, so a
reasonably toned physique was in fashion. Still no need for six-packs, but you
couldn’t hide a beer gut with those high waisted pants and snazzy jumpsuits.

Arnold Schwarzenegger
Men’s perfect bodies went in
two completely different directions in the ’80s. One path had the hard bodied
men exemplified by action heroes like Sylvester Stallone and Arnold
Schwarzenegger. In her book Hard Bodies, Susan Jeffords wrote that the action
films of the time mixed with Reagan’s “return to values” perfectly
defined the masculine ideal of the ’80s.
For this decade, having broad
shoulders but a bit of a pudge wouldn’t cut it anymore. The Reagan era brought
in a new wave of heightened masculinity where hitting the gym hard made you
more of a man.
On the complete other side of
the spectrum was the rise of glam metal. In her book Look What the Cat Dragged
In, Anna Kurennaya said, “The genre of glam metal, marked visually by
high-volume hair and lurid dress, and lyrically by a ravenous lust for the
opposite sex, constitutes a site of complex transgression that upends our
collectively constructed notions of gender, sexuality, and authenticity.”
Though songs like “Talk Dirty to Me” and “Unskinny Bop”
might not seem to really challenge gender roles, the fact that these
hyper-masculine bands who dressed in a very feminine way was a completely new
idea that the ’80s embraced.
and more muscular (1990-today)

Henry Cavill
With its beginning in the
’80s, the idea of a cut, very muscular man being the ideal has only increased
over time. You can see this in the timeline of superhero movies. Compare
Christopher Reeve in the 1987 film Superman IV to Henry Cavill. They both played
Superman (Reeve from 1978-1987 and Cavill in 2013-2016) and though they’re both
in excellent shape, Cavill makes Reeve look like a little boy. Now, anybody who
plays a “hot guy” in film has to be cut. Just being thin or athletic
isn’t good enough and from the ’90s to today, it’s only become more extreme.
The Telegraph posits that
these action figures may be giving boys body image issues. The newspaper quoted
a study from Alpha Magazine that found that men were more anxious about their
bodies in 2015 than they were five years before. The Boston Globe reported that
male body-shaming is on the rise with sites like TMZ dedicating whole sections
to “Livin Large,” where they show unflattering pictures of famous
people (mostly me) who’ve gained weight.
Though this is something women
have been dealing with for decades, men are now getting near equal media
pressure to have unattainable bodies. And they might be able to blame Superman.
thing that’s never gone out of style — hair

man combing hair
The one thing that has remained
constant for the perfect man? A full head of hair. Men have fretted over losing
their hair since the beginning of time.
In Looking Good, the author
quotes Arabian Nights where a woman says, ” Is there anything more ugly in
the world than a man bald and beardless as an artichoke?” According to the
book, Julius Caesar sported his signature crown mostly to hide his disappearing
hairline. In ancient Rome, according to the Getty blog, baldness was associated
with wisdom and many philosophers were shown as bald, but everybody else did
whatever they could to hide diminishing hair. Men would dye their grays and
were very emotionally attached to their hair. Emperor Domitian said of hair,
“Be assured that nothing is more pleasing, but nothing shorter-lived.”
That guy was an emperor and was still super sad about going bald.
Later, Looking Good stated
that men wore wigs to hide their real lack of hair and as years passed, people
invented tons of questionable potions to bring your hair back. In the 21st
century, a fully bald man can be considered attractive (the Rock and Vin Diesel
are great examples), but the hair loss treatment industry still makes $1
billion each year. Though styles and body types will continue to change, men
wanting long, luscious locks will never change.
ever changing idea of “perfect”

perfect men's body
What’s considered the perfect
men’s body has so drastically changed over the years, it proves that trying to
live up to any kind of arbitrary ideal is always silly. Just imagine those poor
men in the Fat Men’s Clubs who were considered prime hotties, then getting past
aside for the thin Hollywood types? This obsession with muscles will surely
pass and hopefully one day “perfect” will be whatever body you
naturally have.
Kayode Ojo
Kayode Emmanuel Ojo is the Co-Founder and Managing Director at SHEFFA Limited. He is presently studying Computer Science at the National Open University, Victoria Island, Lagos.