When did America become obsessed with abdominal muscles? When, for that matter, did “abs” become a word? When did the term “six-pack” shift from beverage packaging to above-the-package fitness? When did we stop thinking of people’s core as their heart, soul, and spirit, and began thinking of it as their stomach muscles? Was it 1989 when television’s Baywatch first jiggled our libidos? Was it in the 1990s when R&B artist Usher first flashed his washboard abdomen? Was it in 2000 when singer D’Angelo appeared nude in his “Untitled (How Does it Feel)” video? Or was it long before those moments?
Regardless of when the mania began, it spawned a plethora of products designed to improve abdominal muscle definition and core strength. Equipment. Exercise programs. Gym memberships. Nutritional supplements. They were hawked on television at all hours of the day or night. Physical fitness experts and trainers, too, became constant television staples, achieving a unique celebrity status. The daily presence of these products and people in our living rooms and lives, while primarily aimed at adults with spendable incomes, reached our youth, too, introducing them to the obsession.
Now, while I do remember being aware of stomach muscles in my youth and young adulthood and aspiring to maintain the societal ideal in the 1960s and ‘70s, it was about slim, flat, firm mid-sections, not rippled ones. Those were for freaky body-builders of the Schwarzenegger ilk. But once abs became a focus on television, freaky became normal.
By the time I became a high school special education instructional assistant in 1992, teenage boys were already developing defined torsos rarely found among my generation when young. This continued until I retired in 2014. But how, you might ask, would I know that unless I was perving up and down high school hallways? Well, the knowledge came to me; I did not seek it out.
During the ‘90s, when the Grunge and Skater Boy looks dominated teenage fashion, large, loose, baggy t-shirts were common. I would frequently see boys in the halls or on campus with a hand inserted under the billowing cotton shirts and firmly tracing the lines of their developing six-pack, apparently in an effort to further define them. On occasion, the hem of the shirt would rise exposing the beginnings of a washboard stomach. Surprised, I would think, If you have that, why are you hiding it under yards of material? Wouldn’t a tighter shirt advertise better one of your stronger assets? Fashion be dammed, Dude, and accentuate your positives.
As if sensually running their fingers across their mid-sections was not enough, these boys also would nonchalantly play with their nipples. This titillating activity continued through my teaching years as t-shirts lost their voluminous quality and became more form-fitting. Late in my career, I found myself talking one-on-one with a student who stimulated his nipple non-stop while chatting with me. Finally, exasperated, I blurted,” Would you stop that?” as I motioned to his left nipple. He looked at me with clueless confusion. His expression asked, “Stop what?” or “Why isn’t this appropriate behavior while talking to an adult?” or “What’s your problem, Geezer?”
Arlen was a sophomore I had near the end of my teaching days. He was rather non-descript, but athletic and medium-frame slim. Two years later, as a senior, he appeared shirtless in a school competition of sorts. I was startled by his defined six-pack. When did that happen? I asked myself. The grooves across Arlen’s abs were so deep, my gasps echoed.
It was then I realized that for years teen age boys apparently have been doing countless crunches, sit-ups, and leg-raises in the privacy of their rooms when they could have been studying, listening to music, watching porn, masturbating or other normal teen activities. Perhaps, they were doing all five
I bring all this up because I haven’t seen the same obsession with abs, America’s ab-session, in Mexico. The younger members of my gym here seem to be focused on biceps, pecs, lats, delts, quads, and glutes. These slender, fit young men have the naturally trim, tight, firm stomachs I recall from the 1970s and appear satisfied with them. They don’t seem obsessed with having or developing rippled washboard abs like their American counterparts.