The secret history of women’s fitness

Personal health for ladies was thought-about unladylike.

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

But look nearer and there’s far more to the story than jazz footwear and leg heaters.

The message of ladies’s health grew to become interwoven with cultural norms of sophistication, perfection and sexuality.

Today, On Point: The historical past of ladies’s health, and the subsequent turning level for ladies’s relationship with health.


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

Jessica Rihal, plus-size yoga teacher, health and wellness advocate.

Book Excerpt

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

When standard media have explored the historic significance of ladies’s health tradition, they’ve principally handled it as a group of disparate fads with little influence on girls’s lives or society at giant. It is commonly lined as kitsch—reminders of a previous that girls would simply as quickly neglect, from vibrating belts that promised to eviscerate fats to neon leg heaters.

We can at all times discover causes to chortle on the selections made by our youthful, much less sensible selves or forebearers—thong leotards? actually?— however this standard therapy additionally absolutely stems from the truth that we stay in a tradition that diminishes girls’s pursuits as foolish and trivial. Dismissing the issues girls say they love as inconsequential permits our tradition to stealthily guarantee girls stay subordinate to males.

American girls’s health historical past is greater than a sequence of misguided “crazes.” It’s the story of how girls have chosen to spend a collective billions of {dollars} and hours in pursuit of well being and happiness. In some ways, it’s the story of what it has meant to be a lady over the previous seven a long time.

For a lot of the 20th century, most ladies didn’t transfer very a lot. They grew up being informed they had been bodily restricted. “For centuries girls have been shackled to a notion of themselves as weak and ineffectual,” Colette Dowling writes in The Frailty Myth. “This notion has been nothing lower than the emotional and cognitive equal of getting our entire our bodies sure.”

By the late sixties, nonetheless, girls started to query whether or not they actually had been outlined by their biology. A brand new wave of feminists puzzled: What if girls weren’t born bodily weak, however grew to become weak in a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy? After all, little boys had been inspired to climb bushes and throw balls, whereas little women had been rewarded for displaying poise and beauty. Boys had been inspired to get soiled; women, to maintain their garments pristine. Even garments themselves discouraged motion: The restrictive attire, girdles, and excessive heels of mid-century girls’s wardrobes made it troublesome for them to bend, stretch, run, and typically even breathe.

Men loved a lifetime of working towards how you can use and belief their our bodies; girls didn’t.

In the early seventies, the authors of the seminal girls’s well being information Our Bodies, Ourselves wrote: “Our our bodies are the bodily bases from which we transfer out into the world,” however “ignorance, uncertainty—even, at worst, disgrace—about our bodily selves create in us an alienation from ourselves that retains us from being the entire people who we could possibly be. Picture a lady attempting to do work and to enter into equal and satisfying relationships with different individuals . . . when she feels bodily weak as a result of she has by no means tried to be sturdy.”

The rise of ladies’s health provided a path to this energy.

For most of her life, the feminist icon Gloria Steinem actively averted train, feeling extra snug residing in her head. “I come from a era who didn’t do sports activities. Being a cheerleader or drum majorette was so far as our imaginations or position fashions might take us,” she wrote in her e-book Moving Beyond Words. “That’s considered one of many the explanation why I and different girls of my era grew up believing—as many women nonetheless do—that an important factor a few feminine physique just isn’t what it does however the way it appears to be like. The energy lies not inside us however within the gaze of the observer.”

As she watched associates start to train within the seventies and eighties, her perspective shifted. “For girls to take pleasure in bodily energy is a collective revolution,” Steinem later wrote. “I’ve progressively come to imagine that society’s acceptance of muscular girls could also be probably the most intimate, visceral measures of change,” she additionally noticed. “Yes, we’d like progress all over the place, however a rise in our bodily energy might have extra influence on the on a regular basis lives of most ladies than the occasional position mannequin within the boardroom or within the White House.”

Steinem herself started working towards yoga and lifting weights in her fifties.
Of course, girls’s health tradition is way from universally empowering. As this e-book will clarify, it’s deeply intertwined with magnificence tradition, which sells the concept that girls should change to be lovable—and even acceptable. Over the a long time, health purveyors promising to elevate girls up have as a substitute held them again and held them down by exploiting their insecurities. And the health business at giant is a formidable capitalist pressure that has lengthy tried to commodify girls’s empowerment for its personal achieve. But to dismiss the rise of ladies’s health tradition as solely dangerous is to disclaim the experiences of thousands and thousands who think about train very important to their well-being. Put merely: It’s much more nuanced than good or unhealthy.

Like my expertise with Pure Barre, many ladies begin exercising to alter their look, however they keep it up after discovering extra significant rewards. For some, turning into sturdy helps them overcome the will to form their physique for anybody else’s pleasure. As journalist Haley Shapley writes in Strong Like Her, “energy begets energy,” and never simply of the muscular selection.

By understanding girls’s health historical past—the great and the unhealthy, the foolish and the intense—we will higher perceive ourselves. And we will higher harness train in ways in which really liberate all girls.

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

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