I saw my first physique magazine when I was 13 years old (1966), in a newsstand in downtown Miami. Though I did not yet know what I was, I knew that I found other men attractive, and I was instinctively drawn to the magazines' models, who were completely naked from the back or tastefully covered with a posing strap up front.
Of course having a 13-year old looking at naked men was the last thing the old man who ran the stand wanted, and he was quick to chase me away every time he caught me looking at the magazines (which happened quite often). Still, what little I saw confirmed what I already knew: that, at its best, the male body is the most beautiful thing on God's green Earth. Coming from a family and a culture that claimed men were ugly, it was an epiphany.
I was not the only gay man whose life was changed by physique magazines. In its 1945-1970 heyday, male mags influenced a generation of men who came of age in the crucial decades that followed World War II.
"By the end of the 1950s," wrote the author(s) of Completely Queer: The Gay and Lesbian Encyclopedia, "physique magazines were arguably the most openly - and self-affirmingly - gay male publications available to a wide American audience."
According to F. Valentine Hooven, author of Beefcake: The Muscle Magazines of America 1950-1970, "those little physique magazines were not just an aspect of gay culture; they virtually were gay culture." For many gay men, wrote Hooven, "it was their first awareness that they were not alone, the first contact with others of their own kind." Physique Pictorial consistently outsold homophile publications like ONE and the Mattachine Review: To quote Hooven, by the mid-50s "Physique Pictorial and Tomorrow's Man routinely sold over 40,000 copies each," while ONE magazine, at its height (1955), enjoyed a circulation of just 3,500.
The father of physique magazines was Bob Mizer (1922-1992). In 1945 Mizer started the Athletic Model Guild in Los Angeles as a modeling agency for male body-builders. Mizer, a self-taught photographer, recruited and photographed the models, carefully listing their vital statistics along with their real names and ages. Mizer sold his photos by mail, advertising them in men's magazines.
By 1951 Mizer's catalog was so extensive that he began to collect his photos and sell them in a magazine format. Thus began Physique Pictorial. The first publication of its kind, Physique Pictorial showcased a generation of male pinups and bodybuilders, including the recently-deceased Jack LaLanne, "Little" Joe Dallesandro, Steve "Hercules" Reeves, and Mickey Hargitay (the husband of Jayne Mansfield and the father of Mariska Hargitay). Physique Pictorial also showcased the art of George Quaintance, Tom of Finland and "Art-Bob."
Physique Pictorial became a hit with thousands of men, and it was soon joined by a slew of imitators who hoped its success would rub off on them. Soon newsstands carried titles like the Grecian Guild Pictorial, Adonis, Young Adonis, Body Beautiful, and Tomorrow's Man. Chicago's leather king Chuck Renslow jumped on the physique bandwagon with Kris Studios and its publications Triumph and Mars, which became showcases for Renslow's lover, the late, great artist Etienne (Dom Orejudos).
Not surprisingly, physique magazines faced constant attacks from censors, who would not allow "obscene" material through the mail. Mizer served time in prison for "obscenity" and, if we may believe Thom Fitzgerald's 1999 movie Beefcake, pimping out his models to discerning customers. Renslow and his partners were indicted by the Justice Department for "excessive genital delineation." Publishers went through great lengths to avoid similar mishaps. There was no full-frontal nudity - which made the posing pouch synonymous with beefcake magazines - and no body hair; and even exposed buttocks were controversial.
Though most of the physique magazines' readers were gay men, the mags themselves were never "gay." Instead, Mizer and his colleagues pretended that they published their magazines to promote physical fitness, art, or a so-called "Greek Revival" movement. Grecian Guild Pictorial went so far as to publish a "creed" that pledged "allegiance to my native land... I seek a sound body in a sound mind that I may be a complete man; I am a Grecian."
Models posed in historic-artistic settings that evoked Classical Greece, Imperial Rome, Aztec Mexico or the American West. Since in our society male-male contact is only justified under the cover of violence, models were often shown wrestling, which led to a whole new subgenre. Even so, as time went by the mags became more implicitly gay, and though the photos tried to retain the illusion of art and health, the drawings became deliberately campy and suggestive.
What effect did physique magazines have on gay liberation? According to the authors of Completely Queer, "Mizer was never directly associated with gay and lesbian activism, but his effect on the development of a gay male consciousness was immeasurable. As early as the 1950s, he began urging readers of his publications to demand their rights, join homophile organizations, and fight police entrapment and censorship." Certainly Mizer's war against censorship led to wider dissemination of information about homosexuality, which in turn inspired many of us to come out of our closets and to become active in the homophile and gay activist movements.
By the time I came out of the closet (1973), physique magazines were a thing of the past, victims of their own success. Full-frontal male nudity was no longer "obscene," and publications like Drum and Vector soon proclaimed what the beefcake mags could not admit; that they published photos of naked men to please other men.
Still, I never lost my interest in physique magazines, both for their own sake and as an important part of gay social and cultural history. Happily, publishers like Taschen have preserved some of the physique magazines' best - including, most notably, Taschen's three-volume Complete Physique Pictorial. Mizer himself continued to publish Physique Pictorial, as a semi-annual digest of old and new photos, until 1991. Mizer died in 1992, and his Athletic Model Guild soon followed suit.