Today, exercise is a multi-billion dollar fitness industry, and women account for more than half of all gym memberships and dominate yoga, pilates, and barre studios.
But that wasn’t always the case. For much of the 20th century, sweating was considered unfeminine and women were discouraged from exercise.
Women could not run marathons if they turned into men or lesbians, and it was feared that physical exertion could damage a woman’s reproductive organs or cause her uterus to fall.
Journalist Danielle Friedman traced the fascinating history of women’s exercise culture through her book Let’s Get Physical: How Women Discovered Exercise and Reshaped the World.
It wasn’t until the late 1950s and 1960s that some forward-thinking fitness pioneers began promoting exercise for women, Friedman tells Kathryn Ryan.
“I was amazed to find that bar [fitness] was invented in the late 1950s by a woman named Lotte Berk who became a swinging 60s fixture in London. She was a German refugee and dancer living in London.
“[It was] one of the first contemporary group fitness classes in part to help women connect with their sexuality and body and pelvic thrust was no accident.
It was postwar period that created the scene, and gender norms were strict for men and women, says Friedman.
“The idea that a woman would undertake a strenuous exercise routine with the goal of getting strong was really radical and unacceptable and… there were a lot of fears about what movement could do to a woman’s body.
“There was a fear that vigorous movements such as running could cause her uterus to fall out and I think this is largely due to the fact that the idea of a woman becoming strong at that time was so threatening that there were these kinds of social controls in place to keep women somewhat immobile. “
And because women replaced men – who had been sent to war – in their traditional day jobs, there was fear that they would become too masculinized, she says.
“So there have been a lot of propaganda campaigns and even just popular media, like women’s magazines, that have really encouraged women to go home, quit their jobs, go back to the kitchen to reassure men that the correct social order is the gender dynamic were still in place “.
The few pioneers of women’s fitness at the time got their message across by selling exercise as a beauty tool, she says.
“In a way it laid the groundwork … for what we would see in the following decades, where basically the culture of fitness, the culture of beauty and the culture of diet for women were really intertwined.”
Then in the 1970s and 1980s came aerobic dance and jazzercise, which in 1982 was the second fastest growing franchise in the United States, and women began moving en masse, setting an exercise revolution in motion, Friedman says. .
Jane Fonda also made training videos, and her original became one of the best-selling videos of all time, she says.
“Jane Fonda was truly the first celebrity fitness influencer. There had been figures like Bonnie Prudden or Lotte Berk, or Judi [Sheppard Missett] who became famous for their fitness routines, but Jane Fonda was already an Oscar-winning actress and extremely well-known activist.
But it was a double-edged sword, she says, because it increased the pressure on appearance that was expected of women.
“She, of course, is a feminist and has always been very aware that every woman should strive for whatever her goals are, but just by being the top woman for her workouts, she has set a standard for how women at that time made an effort to watch ”.
Throughout history, fitness for women has been a tool of liberation and oppression, says Friedman.
“So these movements took off and women became physically stronger and more self-confident, the business side would somehow conquer and capitalize on women’s insecurities and it was almost a way, like in the 1950s, of offering social control. which kept women consumed forever by working on their bodies as a project.
As fitness has turned into a source of shame and guilt for women, a significant shift in the industry is beginning, says Friedman.
“I think we’re just starting to discover the mental health benefits of movement and as more and more women and men experience that the focus has shifted more to empowerment.
“And okay, there’s a whole other thorny issue with the commodification of empowerment and selling, but the language is changing and the representation of what a fit body looks like is also changing. We are starting to achieve greater diversity in body size and diversity in fitness as well. “
In today’s world, browsing social media can be toxic to healthy body image perception, but there’s also a flip side, he says.
“Social media has allowed fitness professionals who did not look like fit professionals in the past to gain thousands and thousands of followers and created these kinds of subcommunities and subcultures for people who have never truly felt at home in the traditional fitness culture and who are really focused on feeling good ”.
Regardless of how exercise evolved, one constant Friedman found in talking to women is the lasting friendships that are created when they train together.
“I think the key is to really find your community and your people, and the space of movement that really supports your mental and physical health and doesn’t make you feel uncomfortable. So those communities have been there since the rise of women’s fitness since the early 1970s, but they’re not always that easy to find, you have to look for them. “