If you think the notion North America is in horrible shape is a recent anguish, think again. As a nifty short documentary of ours demonstrates, issues of fat and figure, vim and vigor, were already weighing heavily on the minds of Canadians in the year 1960.
The film is I Was a Ninety-pound Weakling and its premise is simple: our sedentary lifestyles are killing us, little by little. Like the narrator says, no one shovels coal to feed the stove anymore. No one lugs hefty buckets of ashes back outside. Life is getting more convenient – and more comfortable – every day the Lord brings. But that, obviously, isn’t 100% good news. “Every time a machine robs us of the work a muscle used to do,” the narrator intones ominously, “we get a minute fraction weaker.” The living, it turns out, is getting too easy.
The film then, is a 24-minute exposé on what people are doing about it. First we visit , a wrestling instructor (and ex-wrestling champion) at his gym. As the camera studies the wrestlers writhing behind him (holy crotch shots, Batman!), McNabb says he feels wrestling is the “best thing to build a man up” and that the nation would be better off “if there were more wrestlers in it.”
Zipping along to weight lifting, we get to spend a little quality time with Ben Weider, the man behind Weider, the fitness and sporting goods company, and co-founder of the International Federation of BodyBuilding & Fitness. Weider, a strong believer in physical culture (in his mouth the words sounds oddly like “fiscal culture”), shows the viewers before and after picture of a certain André Lepain, a Montreal fellow who used to be skinny, get colds a lot and suffer from an inferiority complex caused by his “thin condition.” The “after” photos show him all buff and pumped-up, his shoulders easily measuring 3 times his waist.
Another bodybuilding fairytale is that of Billy Hill, “a former 90-pound weakling” who went on to win just about every athletic title in bodybuilding, including Mr. Canada, in 1954. We get to marvel at Billy Hill in all his glory as he flexes his guns in front of a mirror in one of Montreal’s thousands of “physical culture studios” i.e. gyms.
From programs extolling the virtues of bona fide physical exercise, the film then travels to different kinds of studios where women use odd, antiquated-looking machines that promise to melt the fat away by jiggling it. The underlying notion here is that of the “passive workout,” a myth still routinely peddled by sham workout implements “as seen on TV.”
Interestingly, I Was a Ninety-Pound Weakling ends on a relaxing “ommmmm.” Taking us to those “who believe neither physical nor mechanical means alone get to the root of the problem,” the film invites itself into a yoga class led in Montreal by peace activist and founder of the International Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centres and Ashrams, Vishnudevanada Saraswati. There, we see what yoga looked like before the advent of Lululemon (girls in tights and shorts, mainly) and what incredible physical benefits its sustained practice may bring about. Sure, Mr. Canada’s muscles look fab, but I doubt he could lunge into Scorpion Pose as smooth as Vishnudevanda does.