Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Bag Of Bones

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The Charles Atlas ad showing the guy getting sand kicked in his face might be one of the most famous and long-running ads of the Twentieth Century. The phrase, "97-pound weakling*," entered into popular culture decades ago.

The ad trades on the basic insecurity and paranoia about our body image. Looking around us every day we'd be hard-pressed to see one person in 50, or even 100, who has a perfect body. Hell, I see a really imperfect body every time I look in my mirror! Most of us are dissatisfied with our bodies in one way or another, but not a whole lot of us want to go the trouble of working out at the gym, eating right, jogging or even walking for exercise.

Charles Atlas was a believer in being fit, having stayed fit all of his life. Like the old saying goes, "Eat right, exercise, die anyway." Charles Atlas died in 1972, but he died rich from selling the program of isometric exercises he called Dynamic Tension.

Looking at the ad a couple of things jump out at me. There is the familiar guy looking weak in front of his girl. A situation no man, young or old, would want to be in. The bully is some sort of psychopath who pushes our 97-pound weakling around just because he can.

The ad shows the weakling, Joe, kicking away in frustration. He's going to "gamble a stamp," (itself a phrase that insures this is a pretty old ad) and send away for the course. Then we get the diagonal black bar with the word LATER. Now he's a muscleman, and he goes to the beach to the give the bully a "love-tap." This wins the hearts of the women around him. Women just love to see men turn themselves into gorillas so they can go around giving love-taps to other men, and they show their appreciation with exclamations of "What a man!"

The biggest thing is that word LATER…how much later? Weeks? I doubt it. Months? Possibly. A year? More likely. We can figure that Joe probably worked out with his Dynamic Tension course over the winter, building himself up, seething with his need for revenge. Every time he went for his workout he was thinking, "I'm gonna go back to the beach and find that guy and give him a big love-tap to the jaw!" He's thinking revenge, people. He's still burning with humiliation from being made to look like a wussy in front of his girl.

So what happens? He gets his revenge, he gets his girl's respect, he gets admiration for his muscular masculinity from the nearby females, but after we leave Joe walking off with his girl he also gets pinched by a local cop who witnessed his battery on another guy. That's the part of this little revenge fantasy that Charles Atlas wouldn't want you to see.

If this situation were suddenly transformed into real life, what would really happen is after all of the exercise it would take to build his body, Joe's brain would be flooded with endorphins. He'd feel great! He'd swagger a bit walking down the beach, catching out of the corners of his eyes the admiring looks from chicks in bikinis. He'd see the bully, who may or may not recognize him with his new physique. But Joe likely wouldn't punch the bully, because he'd be more self-assured with his new body image, and the best revenge is just looking good, after all.

Joe should thank the bully, not punch him. If not for getting shoved around he'd still be a 97-pound weakling, not the Adonis he's become.

Ciao for now, El Postino

*That phrase isn't used in this ad, even though it's associated with Atlas, but this particular ad uses terms like "bag of bones," or "skinny scarecrow."

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