Spectacular Bodies: Los Angeles Beach Cultures and the Making of the “California Look” (1900s-1960s)

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This article explores the origins, whitewashing, and eventual fetishization of the “California look”—a body ideal centered on bronzed skin, bleached hair, and bulging muscles, which gained a prominent place within American visual imagery in the second half of the twentieth century. Rather than solely focusing on representations of California bodies in popular culture, as other studies have done, the article locates the origins of the California look in the social history of Los Angeles’ beaches and, in particular, their use as sites of corporeal spectacles. Unlike in Europe and the East Coast, where hygienist justifications for seaside recreation endured, from the early twentieth century onwards Southern California beachgoers set medical concerns aside and focused on having fun, and shaping and parading their bodies. In parallel, consumer capitalism, aided by the rise of the beauty, exercise, and diet industries, transformed these local pursuits of health and fitness into a marketable lifestyle and coherent set of body aesthetics. Despite African-American, Asian, and Latino Angelenos’ continuing engagement with local beach cultures, national and popular culture representations of such trends systematically erased non-white bodies, thereby constructing the California look as a conspicuously white icon.
Original languageEnglish
JournalEuropean Journal of American Studies
Issue number4
Early online date23 Dec 2019
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2019


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