ThighMasters, Jazzercise, Yoga and other chapters in the history of women and exercise


The history of personal fitness is strewn with objects that once shone with promise and now seem redundant, if not ridiculous. Take the Platoon, please! (As many ask on Craigslist.) And while you’re at it, the step aerobics bench and its modular risers that hide under the bed are only ridden by dust bunnies. As a bonus, we’ll throw in those aptly named “resistance bands” lying around in the waste drawer. Are we laughing at them or are they laughing at us?

“Let’s Get Physical,” Danielle Friedman’s full of facts but bouncy new book on women and exercise in 20th Century America, lists many material curiosities: Vibrating Belts, ThighMaster by Suzanne Somers, Get in Shape, Girl! sets of toys. He also draws less obvious signposts along the long road to a sedentary standard for the fairer sex – they didn’t call boneless bodices “stays” for nothing – to today’s sometimes punishing ideal of a. regular vigorous activity. Tampons, for example, which entered the market in the 1930s but did not become very popular until the 1960s, when they were marketed to the “working woman”; and Vidal Sassoon’s ragged headdresses – “Without having to worry about ruining their carefully designed bouffant hairstyles,” Friedman writes, “women could move their bodies in new ways.”

Designer Mary Quant, client and friend of Sassoon, also makes a surprise appearance in these pages. As is often credited with the miniskirt, that mixed blessing that freed women from constricting underwear but subjected them to new standards of feminine slimness. It also apparently inspired the name of a women’s-only six-mile run around Central Park in 1972, the Mini-Marathon, originally sponsored by Crazylegs, a new shaving gel.

Analyzing the ways in which we worked, and why, is perhaps inextricably entangled in marveling at what we wore while doing it. Few people will try to remember the sweatbands and leggings that actress and fitness leader Jane Fonda put in fashion in the 1980s, or the origin story of the Jogbra. But Friedman also charmingly introduces readers to “leotite,” a modest but accommodating one-piece garment made partly of wool and sold at Montgomery Ward; and “Flexatard” by Gilda Marx, published in multiple colors and enriched with Lycra, “with all the backing of a belt and none of the cultural baggage”. Both were forerunners of the athleisure that currently graces or plagues the streets of the city, depending on your perspective. Both were once intended for casual outdoor recreation – more forgiving than jeans – and then evolved into tight-fitting cases, another incentive to develop what an advertisement for Levi’s scornfully called “the best seat in the house. “.

Friedman obviously had fun flipping through old commercials like this, and the sometimes surprisingly backward magazine layouts overseen by serial dieters like Helen Gurley Brown, longtime Cosmopolitan editor. But the main event of her book is a relay race of about two dozen fitness evangelists and entrepreneurs, passing the baton of wellness (or in the case of the ugly Lotte Berk, a whip). over the decades.

Credit…Lindsay May for classic children’s photography

Some are household names, like Fonda, who made a lot of money selling her signature workout on VHS tapes, but then worried, “I didn’t want pelvic tilts to define me.” In her day, Berk, a rather creepy-looking character who taught society people tight and thrilling maneuvers, writer Edna O’Brien and at least one Bond girl, was also a celebrity, trotting around in a monogrammed Mini Cooper. Berk’s unorthodox method led to what is now called the bar class, and Friedman’s popular essay on The Cut on its sexual benefits was the seed of this book.

Most enjoyable is when Friedman puts the spotlight on less sacred figures, like Judi Sheppard Missett, the relentlessly optimistic founder of Jazzercise, whose classes “changed the rhythm of women’s days”; and Bonnie Prudden, “the Lady of the Leonite” and descendant of Davy Crockett. Prudden complained during the Cold War that America was raising “kids with custard muscles” and laying upside down on the sports illustrated cover. After viewing a YouTube sample of Prudden doing Swedish gymnastics in capri pants on carpet, I quickly ordered a copy of his 1959 fitness manual to get me through a possible Lockdown 2.0.

Having YouTube by your side will complete your reading of this book, in which paradigms are constantly shifting and the prose, covering so much ground, can at times be too contorted (“British shoe brand Reebok danced on stage”). Like Gurley Brown, Friedman prefers italics. She’s conducted plenty of first-hand interviews, but some of her most impactful moments come from other sources, like this journal describing the aftermath of an 800-meter run at the 1928 Olympics: Fire. ”Or the Columnist of the San Francisco Chronicle which referred to her teenage crush on Prudden, “that attractive tease”.

Along with the sexism rampant in the fitness industry, the author closely follows elitism and racism, noting how social media has helped level the playing field for leaders like Jessamyn Stanley, black yoga teacher and advocate. of body positivity with a dedicated audience. (The heavy importation of yoga into the United States, “unfolding like a lotus flower,” has its own chapter.)

In 2004, for “n + 1”, Mark Greif wrote a lacerated conviction modern gymnasiums called “against exercise”, arguing that “despite the new emphasis on female athletics, the task of the woman exercising remains a task of emaciation”. In his own very different style, Friedman offers some invigorating updates and fixes. His book is a very “professional” exercise, but for the right reasons: not slimming but management of the corporal’s mood, of the community, of spirituality.

We could not have predicted that a pandemic could cause people to miss the gym like they do in the theater; any chance of collective breath.