History & Classics, Interviews
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Body beautiful: in search of 18th-century male ideal

Dr Sarah Goldsmith (above) talks about her work which focuses on the history of masculinity and the 18th-century. She is one of BBC Radio 3’s ten 2018 New Generation Thinkers whose research will be made into radio and television programmes for the BBC, in collaboration with the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).

Tell us about yourself

My research had led me to examine topics such as the body, education, travel and danger. I did my undergraduate and MA degrees at the University of Nottingham, before working for a few years in the museum industry. I then started a PhD at the University of York. I completed that in 2015 and I am now part way through a Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship at the University of Leicester.

I love my work in history and the humanities. Research is like falling down a rabbit hole: one question or quote leads to another, and suddenly you’re thinking about the occasionally traumatic fate of 18th-century pets during travel (one poor spaniel was eaten by wolves while crossing the Alps) and how that connects to the period’s culture of masculinity. I love the intellectual generosity of my fellow academics, whose questions and criticisms are vital to improving my work. I love the astonishing variety of the job, ranging from teaching to digging through archives to engaging with the public. Having recently become an AHRC/BBC Radio 3 New Generation Thinker this year, I’m looking forward to a challenge of honing my communication skills on the airwaves.

What is the area of your research?

Currently, my main research project, ‘Embodying the Aristocrat: A History of the Eighteenth-Century Elite Male Body,’ explores the importance of the body to elite 18th-century masculinity. It responds to claims by gender historians that studies of 18th-century masculinity are often ‘disembodied’ and seeks to reconstruct men’s physical world and bodily experiences through using case studies of families and individuals.

Identifying the expectations and physical experiences of historical bodies remains a considerable challenge, but the living, breathing body lurks in all sorts of unexpected places: in the postscripts of letters, in dry, dusty financial accounts, and on the neglected edges of country estates.

One of the most fascinating sources I’ve found so far is the Dukes of Richmond’s Weighing Books – over a century of Dukes weighed their families and guests as part of their dinnertime entertainment. It’s a source that gives a great insight into different historical attitudes to the body (here weight is a public matter, rather than a deeply private one), and that also provides important statistical information on the long-term weight patterns of several hundred individuals ranging from the Duke of Wellington to stable staff.

Using sources like these, we can start to knit together sinew, muscle and bone, to rediscover what men did with their bodies. Another Richmond source, the 3rd Duke of Richmond’s political diary, reveals that he undertook a form of exercise almost daily, and, in particular, played tennis almost every day he was in London. Reconstructing the 3rd Duke’s daily physical activities can help us identify how environments and daily routines shaped his body.

My project also considers the intersection between ideals and reality: how did men view their own and other male bodies? Who did they idolise and what was the role of families, friends and public discourses in establishing body ideals? Known as the ‘most handsome man in England’, the 9th Earl of Lincoln was also compared to Hercules by his friends. Were they referring to a certain body type or ability alongside all other cultural connotations of this name?

Equally significant is the question of whether men strived to achieve certain body ideals. Was attaining ‘the body beautiful’ important? What strategies did men use to achieve this? The poet, Lord Byron, undertook rigorous dieting and exercise regimes while the royal princes of the late 18th century favoured cunning tailoring, male corsets and flattering portraiture. Finally, what were the ramifications of success or failure? Was one a lesser man for having the wrong body shape or physical abilities?

What is the importance of this research?

Starting on a perhaps more conceptual note, my research takes part in a much bigger debate that reflects on the outcomes of the cultural turn. It moves beyond examining the cultural trends that are evident at a public level that are, for example, found in contemporary newspapers, books, plays and visual sources, to look at how families and friendship groups discussed and reacted to these ideas. It goes further still in tentatively considering whether we as scholars can move beyond identifying how the body was represented and discussed, to how it may have been experienced.

Understanding the history of masculinity is also a worthwhile pursuit. The field actually emerges from women’s history. Coming under the banner of gender history, it reflects the need to understand the dynamics between the different sexes and the need to recognise that tropes of masculinity can be as constructed as those of femininity. Studying the history of masculinity is valuable in exposing and reflecting on the often-silent discourses that shaped men’s identities and behavior. Male bodies and body images are central to these discourses. Articulating the history of the male body is therefore a very valuable enterprise.

Equally, these topics are highly pertinent in today’s society. The contemporary body is a contested site that is simultaneously a deeply intimate matter and subjected to widespread judgement. Despite a countervailing culture that celebrates bodies of all shapes and sizes, women and men face body ideals driven by competing cosmetic, aesthetic and health concerns, where the line between healthy bodies and unattainable ideals is often confused.

I hope that my research provides a valuable historical contextualisation of the issues surrounding men’s body image and physicality that stimulates men and women of today to reflect on their own bodies and identities. In the 18th century, we find a world in which our own contemporary preoccupations with being ‘beach body ready’ are both deeply rooted and distorted beyond recognition.

 

 

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