Ideal of beauty The Tyrants of our Day – Where Did this Cult of Fitness Come From?

“Beauty is a relic of observation.”
“Beauty is a relic of observation.” | Photo (detail): vlkvojtech © 123RF

As a social ideal, the desire to look beautiful is not unique to our time. It has always existed, but these days it is most commonly equated with fitness. The flawlessly toned body is the modern expression of discipline, success and eroticism. But why?

Beautiful or not beautiful – the verdict that has fallen mercilessly on us since the beginning of time. Indeed, the concept of beauty has defined entire epochs throughout history, even dividing societies into so-called winners and losers. “Each society has its own concepts of beauty. They are the result and expression of each epoch and are therefore subject to cultural and historical transformations,” explains Swen Körner, professor and sports science specialist at the German Sports Institute in Cologne.

Körner continues that, “In other words, beauty is a relic of observation.” “Aesthetic” in its literal sense means nothing more than “perception” and people perceive beauty with all of their senses. We see it. We hear it. We feel it.

The perfect body as an expression of discipline

This perception is of course always in flux. In centuries past, fuller, paler and less toned bodies were seen as beautiful. Having enough food and not having to do much physical activity were signs of a lifestyle reserved for the upper echelons of society. While the majority of people worked hard in the fields and had very little to eat, the privileged classes lived lives of abundance and inactivity.

In today's affluent society, on the other hand, being physically fit is a statement of discipline, self-control and hard work on your own body. “At the moment, a slim and fit body is clearly the tormentor,” says Körner. “It is the dividing line between what is socially desirable or undesirable.”

The consequence is that the ideals which define beauty also define its opposite: the unattractive, the ugly. “The monikers beautiful or ugly have no mercy. They produce winners and losers in a competition for recognition,” opines Körner.

The overweight stigma

Advertising in the media ensures that we are constantly bombarded with these ideals. Realistically speaking, however, the degree of perfection dangled so shamelessly before us is unattainable, thinks Körner. “The beautiful body is the tyrant of our times and it is spreading. The message is nearly everywhere.” That body we see idealized everywhere in the media is defining our perception of normality.

It is no surprise, then, that there are a lot of losers in this scenario, the worst being people deemed as overweight. In baroque art, an ample figure was ideal for women. For men in power it was a sign of strength and assertiveness.

“By contrast, heavier people these days have a problem,” says the expert. “Being overweight is a stigma that requires a massive amount of justification and is more often than not associated with considerable consequences with regard to how a person's personality, abilities and recognition are judged.” While slim people are connected with discipline, success, being healthy and social acceptance, heavier set people are associated with laziness, inactivity and being unhealthy.

The body as a defining element in trying times

The dilemma is this: These days, our workaday and everyday lives don't require a lot from our bodies. “We travel in cars, buses, trains and airplanes. We communicate with mobile phones. Everything we see is digital and all we seem to do all day is press buttons or touch screens,” summarizes Körner. As a result, our bodies have lost much of their importance as a tool for activity or mobility.

And yet Körner is seeing increased awareness of the body as a direct consequence of this development. Anti-aging, diets, wellness, sports and the booming fitness industry are taking on quasi-religious overtones these days.

Körner has also identified another element of the cult of fitness: “Our bodies provide meaning when nothing else means anything.” Religion is losing its significance in society. We no longer understand political decisions. Crisis and conflict fuel uncertainty. “In an increasingly complex world, the dedication to one's body can provide much needed feelings of uniqueness and a belief in one's own abilities.”

In addition, scientists have proven that exercise is a direct investment in your own desirability. A fit body communicates healthiness, youth, the ability to perform and a general sense of desirability. If you are slim and fit, you are seen as able, successful and – last but not least – sexy.