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The complicated history of women's fitness

18th August 1947:  Women physical training teachers train at the English-Scandinavian Summer School at Nonington College of Physical Education near Dover.  (Photo by William Vanderson/Fox Photos/Getty Images)
18th August 1947: Women physical training teachers train at the English-Scandinavian Summer School at Nonington College of Physical Education near Dover. (Photo by William Vanderson/Fox Photos/Getty Images)

Personal fitness for women used to be considered unladylike.

That all changed with fitness pioneers like Lotte Berk and Judi Sheppard Missett.

But look closer and there’s much more to the story than jazz shoes and leg warmers.

Today, On Point: The history of women’s fitness, and the next turning point for women’s relationship with fitness.


Danielle Friedman, journalist and author. Author of “Let’s Get Physical.” (@DFriedmanWrites)

Jessica Rihal, plus-size yoga instructor, fitness and wellness advocate.  (@jessicajadeyoga)

Book Excerpt

From Danielle Friedman’s ‘Let’s Get Physical: How Women Discovered Exercise and Reshaped the World’

When popular media have explored the historical significance of women’s fitness culture, they have mostly treated it as a collection of disparate fads with little impact on women’s lives or society at large. It is often covered as kitsch—reminders of a past that women would just as soon forget, from vibrating belts that promised to eviscerate fat to neon leg warmers.

We can always find reasons to laugh at the choices made by our younger, less wise selves or forebearers—thong leotards? really?— but this popular treatment also surely stems from the fact that we live in a culture that diminishes women’s interests as silly and trivial. Dismissing the things women say they love as inconsequential allows our culture to stealthily ensure women remain subordinate to men.

American women’s fitness history is more than a series of misguided “crazes.” It’s the story of how women have chosen to spend a collective billions of dollars and hours in pursuit of health and happiness. In many ways, it’s the story of what it has meant to be a woman over the past seven decades.

For much of the twentieth century, most women didn’t move very much. They grew up being told they were physically limited. “For centuries women have been shackled to a perception of themselves as weak and ineffectual,” Colette Dowling writes in The Frailty Myth. “This perception has been nothing less than the emotional and cognitive equivalent of having our whole bodies bound.”

By the late sixties, however, women began to question whether they really were defined by their biology. A new wave of feminists wondered: What if women weren’t born physically weak, but became weak in a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy? After all, little boys were encouraged to climb trees and throw balls, while little girls were rewarded for displaying poise and grace. Boys were encouraged to get dirty; girls, to keep their clothes pristine. Even clothes themselves discouraged movement: The restrictive dresses, girdles, and high heels of mid-century women’s wardrobes made it difficult for them to bend, stretch, run, and sometimes even breathe.

Men enjoyed a lifetime of practicing how to use and trust their bodies; women did not.

In the early seventies, the authors of the seminal women’s health guide Our Bodies, Ourselves wrote: “Our bodies are the physical bases from which we move out into the world,” but “ignorance, uncertainty—even, at worst, shame—about our physical selves create in us an alienation from ourselves that keeps us from being the whole people that we could be. Picture a woman trying to do work and to enter into equal and satisfying relationships with other people . . . when she feels physically weak because she has never tried to be strong.”

The rise of women’s fitness offered a path to this strength.

For most of her life, the feminist icon Gloria Steinem actively avoided exercise, feeling more comfortable living in her head. “I come from a generation who didn’t do sports. Being a cheerleader or drum majorette was as far as our imaginations or role models could take us,” she wrote in her book Moving Beyond Words. “That’s one of many reasons why I and other women of my generation grew up believing—as many girls still do—that the most important thing about a female body is not what it does but how it looks. The power lies not within us but in the gaze of the observer.”

As she watched friends begin to exercise in the seventies and eighties, her perspective shifted. “For women to enjoy physical strength is a collective revolution,” Steinem later wrote. “I’ve gradually come to believe that society’s acceptance of muscular women may be one of the most intimate, visceral measures of change,” she also observed. “Yes, we need progress everywhere, but an increase in our physical strength could have more impact on the everyday lives of most women than the occasional role model in the boardroom or in the White House.”

Steinem herself began practicing yoga and lifting weights in her fifties.

Of course, women’s fitness culture is far from universally empowering. As this book will make clear, it is deeply intertwined with beauty culture, which sells the idea that women must change to be lovable—or even acceptable. Over the decades, fitness purveyors promising to lift women up have instead held them back and held them down by exploiting their insecurities. And the fitness industry at large is a formidable capitalist force that has long tried to commodify women’s empowerment for its own gain. But to dismiss the rise of women’s fitness culture as only harmful is to deny the experiences of millions who consider exercise vital to their well-being. Put simply: It’s a lot more nuanced than good or bad.

Like my experience with Pure Barre, many women start exercising to change their appearance, but they stick with it after discovering more meaningful rewards. For some, becoming strong helps them overcome the desire to shape their body for anyone else’s pleasure. As journalist Haley Shapley writes in Strong Like Her, “strength begets strength,” and not just of the muscular variety.

By understanding women’s fitness history—the good and the bad, the silly and the serious—we can better understand ourselves. And we can better harness exercise in ways that truly liberate all women.

Excerpt from ‘Let’s Get Physical: How Women Discovered Exercise and Reshaped the World’ by Danielle Friedman. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.


This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.