The archetype of the 98-Pound Weakling (originally the 97-Pound Weakling) derives from this famous advertisement for Charles Atlas fitness training. The ad appeared regularly in comic books of the 1940s (starring muscle-bound heroes who fit the “Atlas” mold) (“Charles Atlas”).
The “97-pound ‘runt'” gets sand kicked in his face, emasculating him in front of the young woman sharing his towel. She refers to the muscle-bound “nuisance” as a “man” and her friend as “little boy.” Frustrated beyond belief, the young man sends away for the Charles Atlas program so he can build a “REAL body.” The result? Muscles, violent vengeance, and the woman’s declaration that the former “little boy” is a “real man after all.”
The lesson is obvious: real men have muscles (a “‘Greek-God’ type of physique,” according to the ad), and they further prove their masculinity and sexual attractiveness through shows of aggressive strength—that is to say, fighting.
The popular Queen song “We Are the Champions” includes a clear allusion to the Charles Atlas ad: “I’ve had my share of sand kicked in my face…”
The Marvel Comic superhero Captain America—who debuted in 1941—is a variation on this same archetype: a “puny” zero turned hero.
The “Greek God” obviously traces back to the mythology/religion depicted in the works of authors like Homer (The Iliad, The Odyssey). Not only were the gods magnificent specimens in idealized human forms, but the greatest among humans were likewise idealized in their physical strength and/or beauty. The Greeks were, like us, obsessed with muscular men and curvy women, as depicted in all of that Greek statuary, chiseled to perfection. So when you see the rippling muscles of a movie star (Brad Pitt did play Achilles in Troy) or athlete or comic-book superhero or video-game character, you may look at them much as the Greeks did: as an ideal you hope to match.
Fitness is, of course, an admirable goal, but the “98-Pound Weakling” and “Greek God” archetypes reinforce body-image neuroses and unrealistic expectations still perpetuated by comic books, movies, athletes who “juice,” and doctored magazine covers that take already impressive specimens and use the likes of Photoshop to perfect them to a fantastical degree. For many years, conventional wisdom pegged unrealistic body image as a problem that mostly plagued women, leading to “body dysmorphia” (a distorted self-image of the body) and eating disorders. But since the advent of steroids (guess when? the 1940s), body dysmorphia among males has gradually risen. The 2000 book The Adonis Complex: The Secret Crisis of Male Body Obsession describes this rise and how even muscular men can suffer from “muscle dysmorphia,” believing themselves to be “puny” (Pope).
Psychologically, it stands to reason that men who are made to feel weak, shamed for their lack of muscles, or constantly encouraged to bulk up will find ways to prove they are strong to themselves and others. Those ways exist on a spectrum from healthy exercise to various forms of bullying to anabolic steroid use and eating disorders to, in a worst-case scenario, picking up a gun and using it in a show of power and control.
“Charles Atlas.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 23 Jul. 2013. Web. 19 Aug. 2013.
Pope, Jr., Harrison G., M.D.; Katharine A. Phillips, M.D. and Roberto Olivardia,Ph.D. The Adonis Complex: The Secret Crisis of Male Body Obsession. New York: The Free Press, 2000.