Body image and notions of nationalism and modernity


It is easy to think that our interest in what appear to be obsessions around what we look like is a current phenomenon. The contemporary popular discourse surrounding body image is firmly set against the backdrop of what has become repeatedly termed the ‘obesity epidemic’ with attendant images of bulging waistlines. The current obsession with body image and the norms of thinness and the ‘six pack’can be traced back to the 1970s and the emergence in the United States of what Crawford (1980) termed ‘healthism’. Moreover, Crawford asserts that preoccupation with what the individual needs to do to make her or himself healthy paved the way for the more wider acceptance of neo-liberalism which now dominates Western health discourse.
Crawford (1980) used the term ‘Healthism’ to describe this moralisation of health amongst middle class Americans. This marked a shift in the responsibility for ‘good health’ from the state to a position where the emphasis is placed on individual, which ignores the significant role socioeconomic factor play in determining health. Moreover, the rise of neoliberal policies, not only in the area of health but more widely in society, also creates a ‘victim blaming’ culture where sections of society regards individuals who do not conform to the norm are some way at fault or lacking self-control, potentiality leading to a position where they are marginalised.

The body, particularly body image, is layered with cultural meanings . The purpose of this short article is to explore body image in the context of nationality identity and modernity. My aim in writing it is to outline how different body images, both male and female, are used to represent how a nation wishes to be viewed by the wider world.


The body image narrative

The body image narrative is multi-factorial, encompassing among other things class, health and of course attendant pejorative and judgemental assumptions about laziness and lack of self-respect. Levy-Navarro (2010) argues that it is also important to understand the role history plays in framing the current discourse on obesity and body image more generally. Further, in an historical context it is important to recognise the significance of body image in national identity.
The current dominant male body ideal draws on the classical Greek conception of what men should look like: narrow hips, broad shoulders and a broad back – ancient Greek representation of the male nude in art. In contrast male and female participants in research by Rysst and Klepp (2012) used descriptions such as; ‘hourglass figure’, ‘slim and moderately fit’, ‘relatively straight and thin legs…and a flat stomach’ to describe the idea female body. Interestingly Rysst and Klepp reported that the majority of the male participants in their research did not use the term ‘health’ in their descriptions of a good-looking body.

Fascism and the aesthetic ideal

The adoption of the classical Greek ideal male body is not uniquely contemporary. Aesthetics and the notion of the body beautiful were central to fascism. The Nazis drew on the classical interpretation of the human form to set the standard often represented in the sculptures of Arno Breker. Conforming to this ideal was evidence of a disciplined and committed mind. Fundamental to this aesthetic ideal was the creation of stereotypes, for example the Aryan man or the ‘new’ Italian man in Mussolini’s Italy, and the notion of the outsider – in other words the individual that does not conform to the norm. Regardless of the brand or country of origin of fascism, the martial male body was used as a projection of state power. Moreover, as Mangan (1999) points out the strong body as a metaphor for security and supremacy is still a contemporary image of international aspiration. Whilst the various brands of Fascism shared similarities in their use of the male body there were also dissimilarities. Peculiar to Italian fascism, Mussolini embodied the notion of the ‘Italian Superman’ symbolising athletic dynamism amongst other attributes championed by fascism. The Germanic fascists also championed the disciplined athletic body which was regarded as superior to inferior bodies that did not match the idealised. Contrastingly Mangan (1999) describes the almost religious preoccupation with emphasising the slimness of the physique of the Francoist soldiers. Mangan (1999) refers to this characterisation as being in the style of figures depicted by El Greco and hence in stark contrast to the body image promoted by fascist movements elsewhere in Europe.

The Victorian aesthetic of the male body

The Victorian period, created standards of embodiment and a normalising discourse, coinciding with what King (2010) describes as its propensity for defining, classifying and categorising. Moreover, Levy-Navarro argues that the nineteenth century witnessed the rise of body markers as revealing something about an individual’s identity. Using H.G. Well’s short story ‘The truth about Pyecraft’ King explores the culture of reducing or dieting and the angst the Victorians felt at the end of the nineteenth century about the obese male body. King asserts that implicit in the story is the fear of racial degeneration and, concurrently, an emphasis on maintaining a physically fit, muscular appearance, symbolic of and reflecting a physically fit nation and empire. It was also at this time that images of the ‘John Bull’ character were published where his appearance had been bloated. Levy-Navarro highlights one occurrence where John Bull’s bulbous belly is partitioned into the various British colonies, this image functioning as a metaphor for a weaken nation.

The 20th century

The angst felt at the turn of the twentieth century about the fat male body in particular was not restricted to Britain. The body became a target for attention throughout Europe following the conclusion of the First World War as nations sought to rejuvenate national health (Jensen 2010). Following the constitution of the new Weimar Republic in 1919 the Berliner Illustrite published a picture of the new the German president, Friedrich Ebert, and the defence minister, Gustav Noske, in their bathing trunks whilst on a trip on the beach. Jensen (2010) notes that few Germans had seen their leaders so physically exposed. The Berliner Illustrite commented on the frail and droopy appearance of these two men drawing an analogy between the way they looked and the state of the postwar German republic. Across the political spectrum Germans reacted to the perception of a ‘soft’ and ‘fat’ German nation by calling for a new physical body, symbolic of a new body politic and body aesthetic (Jensen 2010).

In contrast to today where increasing emphasis is placed on the muscular male body, Weimar Germany judged that Athletes with their sleek and streamlined body provided the model of a modern body. Moreover, as Jensen (2010) notes, this was also in contrast to the body ideal promoted in prewar First World War Germany. Then the ideal favoured for men is described by Jensen as brawny heft and tightly corseted curves for women. In the subsequent Weimar republic both men and women were encouraged to embrace the streamlined androgynous body. Modernity and society’s embrace of notions of speed also mediated against excess weight which slowed the body down.

Riso_AmaroWhilst the slender athletic form for both men and women had established its hegemony in the Weimar Republic post world war two, Italy turned to the fuller female form, typified by Sophia Loren and Silvana Mangano, in attempt reconstruct the nation’s national identity. Carman (2014) highlights the long association in Italy between feminine beauty and national identity which she contrasts with manipulated beauty of the ‘modern woman’ as represented by Hollywood stars like Greta Garbo and Rita Haywood. With Mangano’s role in the Italian neorealist film Bitter Rice, Carman (2014) highlights how her character, Silvana’s, curvaceous body manifests health and natural beauty reflecting all the qualities of Italian regional peasant culture. Carman asserts the female body as represented by Mangano and Loren was in stark contrast to the ideal female form promoted by the Fascists. Moreover, Mangano and Loren were both contestants in beauty pageants that exploded in postwar Italy. These acted as the vehicle to select the ideal female form to represent both regional and national identity. They became a way to define Italy following the moral stain of Fascism and the postwar devastation that left Italy bereft of a national identity (Carman 2014)

In contrast Goellner (2014) highlights the different female body promoted in Brazil during the 1930’s and into the early 1940’s. During that period educating and strengthening the white woman’s body became part of a national project to strengthen the white race. Goellner (2014) points out this was not only about keeping women healthy but also the nation itself. Goellner’s analysis of articles published in Brazil’s first scientific journal of Physical Education and Sports, Revista Educação Physica, during this period reveals the remarkable emphasis placed on sculpting the female body through physical exercise. Attention was paid to symmetry and proportionality highlighting the classical aesthetic, represented by images of Greek sculptures, as examples of absolute body perfection.


It is easy to think that what you look like is fundamentally a reflection of you as an individual. However, even a brief examination of the history surrounding body image demonstrates that what we look has been used as a metaphor for the ‘heath’ of a nation. Moreover, the type of body image that is valorised is not static and is influenced by a range of factors such as dominant political and cultural ideas at a point in time.

Simon Whiffin, Senior Lecturer, School of Health Sciences


Carmen E. 2014 Mapping the body: Female Film Stars and the Reconstruction of Postwar Italian National Identity Quarterly Review of Film and Video, 31(4) 322-335
Crawford, R. 1996 Health as a meaningful social practice Health 10 (4) 401-420
Goellner S.V. 2014 Body, Eugenics and Nationalism: Women in the First Sport and Physical Education Journal Published in Brazil (1932-1945) The International Journal of the History of Sport, 31(10) 1278-1286
Jensen E.N 2010 Body by Weimar Athletes, Gender & German Modernity New York: Oxford University Press
King N. 2010 ‘The fattest Clubman in London’ : H.G. Wells’s ‘The truth about Pyecraft’ and the culture of reducing in England at the turn of the Twentieth Century. In Historicizing Fat in Anglo-American culture edited by E. Levy-Navarro Columbus: The Ohio State University Press
Levy-Navarro, E. ed, 2010 Historicizing Fat in Anglo-American culture edited by E. Levy-Navarro Columbus: The Ohio State University Press
Mangan J.A. 1999 Global fascism and the male body: ambitions, similarities and dissimilarities The International Journal of the History of Sport 16 (4) 1-26
Rysst M., I.G. Klepp 2012 Looking good and judging gazes: The relationship between body ideals, body satisfaction and body practices among Norwegian men and women Health 4 (5)