Where Did Fitness Culture Come From?

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“Physical,” Olivia Newton-John’s horny 1981 chart-topper, was never meant to reference working out. It was only because the lyrics were so sexually forward that the singer tried to camouflage the lust in an ode to working out, creating a music video in which she posed as a bossy fitness instructor in a sweatband. (Of course, fitness culture was so crotch-forward at the time that it didn’t do much to demure the raunch.) Anecdotes like this one high-kick their way across Let’s Get Physical: How Women Discovered Exercise and Reshaped the World, Danielle Friedman’s peppy history of fitness (so named for the Newton-John hit). This detail — that “Physical” was never really about exercise — serves as a bit of a key to reading the entire project: The subject of fitness always conceals something else.

In Let’s Get Physical, we jump-squat our way from second-wave feminism and bodybuilding to Reaganite superficiality and vanity muscles and excessive whiteness in wellness spaces. Through mapping women’s relationship to fitness, Friedman evaluates their political and social place in their era. In one crystallizing example, Friedman traces Gloria Steinem’s shifting opinion on exercise. Steinem criticized how the physical activities available to women at the time she grew up (dancing, cheerleading) emphasized “that the most important thing about a female body is not what it does but how it looks.” Then, concurrent with the exercise boom in the 1970s and 1980s, Steinem began to valorize the power of exercise: “For women to enjoy physical strength is a collective revolution. I’ve gradually come to believe that society’s acceptance of muscular women may be one of the most intimate, visceral measures of change.”

Friedman’s book, which incidentally started as an article about barre workouts on the Cut, arrives at a particularly fruitful time. It’s a moment of big upheavals (more digital, more wellness, more walking), and Let’s Get Physical, like any good history, teases out the cyclical trends (tight pants, at-home workouts) as well as the shifts so cataclysmic we wouldn’t have known how much things changed. Below, Friedman and I talk about fitness as a social history, whether motivations matter at all, and what our contemporary workout culture offers in place of the “fantasy pickup palaces” of yore.

I want to start with a question about the way we work out now. Over the past few years, through necessity, there’s been a boom in digital exercise programs. What effect is privacy having on women’s relationship to fitness?

There were several earlier shifts toward home exercise, most notable being the home-video boom of the 1980s. This contemporary version happened in tandem with quarantine. It’s kind of hard to separate it from the effects of the pandemic. There are two themes that have come up again and again for me, anecdotally, about how the pandemic has affected our relationship with fitness more broadly. One is that we’ve been in this time of forced reflection about what it means to be healthy — and what happens when movement is removed from our lives with people confined to home. There’s a shift toward being kinder and gentler toward ourselves. People are reevaluating the culture of work and working all the time. They’re acknowledging they’re burned-out. I’ve been hearing more of an appreciation for more simple forms of movement like getting outside for a walk. We’ve got a new appreciation for our health and what our bodies can do that’s more about fostering well-being and mental health.

The second is that, confined to the privacy of our homes, I’ve heard that many women have been emboldened to try workouts they might not have tried if they had to go to an in-person class, out of fear of not fitting in or embarrassing yourself. When we’re removed from the kind of social intensity of in-person fitness class, in many cases people have shifted toward trying things that are riskier and out of their comfort zone.

Yes, so you use a beautiful line from Jessamyn Stanley’s 2017 book, Every Body Yoga, about the revelation of doing yoga from home: “I felt free to fall down because there was no one there to see me when I hit the ground.” There seems to be a new fearlessness that’s coming with a more private relationship to working out.

It’s been a perfect storm. People have a greater appreciation for what actually makes them feel good. They are really working out for themselves rather than for other people, whether that was for the male gaze or looking a certain way or trying to meet a socially prescribed physical ideal. If nothing else, people have expanded their thinking about what they can be doing. I’ve also been interested in this resurgence of walking! A decade ago, it would have been written off as “not real exercise.”

One of the juiciest recurring themes in your book is the Trojan horse of fitness messaging, where fitness culture and beauty culture constantly hide inside of each other — for example, Jane Fonda lamenting pressures to be thin in her landmark book, but only featuring thin bodies in the images. Do you think there are fewer conflicting messages now? Or is it just a little sneakier? 

We have seen tremendous progress, particularly in the last five years. Part of that progress comes from unpacking that Trojan horse in a very public dialogue — like all of the conversations on social media about how aspects of fitness culture make people feel.

For better or worse, most major fitness brands have fully moved away from language like “problem areas” or “muffin tops” or “a bikini body” as motivation or incentive. These brands have replicated their messages with language for empowerment and strength. Whether or not this is just a commodification of strength and empowerment, there’s more awareness of what fitness can really offer women — and women are able to choose from more options that work for them in a healthy and constructive way, compared to 10 or 15 years ago.

Along those lines, you quote acceptance activist Virgie Tovar discussing whether body diversity in mainstream fitness culture is profit-motivated, but she says she doesn’t really care: “Either tactic, either motivation is fine, frankly. They can have their awakening later if they need to.” Do you think this change will ever be truly driven by an inclusive impulse?

It’s pretty clear that many of these decisions are motivated by profit and by capitalism, but the scope of representation that we’re seeing, the speed of change that we’re seeing, is really promising. It’s now that we’re starting to get to a point where it’s becoming the new normal. The body diversity that we’re seeing from major, major brands and retailers — it’s kind of like a chicken-and-egg situation. We hope motivations will shift.

You note that the price of fitness, and what people spend on fitness, has grown astronomically. At the same time, you draw a connection between fitness’s historical association with wealth and its association with morality. Do you think as fitness classes get more expensive, the link between fitness and “virtue” gets stronger?

Yes. There’s a long history that goes back well before the 1980s. The earliest days of the contemporary women’s fitness industry — in the 1950s and 1960s — was body-shaping programs at spas, like Elizabeth Arden. These were society ladies. For the first few decades, fitness catered to the elite.

The 1980s was a decade largely defined by conspicuous consumption. A fit body was a worthy body and an expensive body. In the 1980s, health was something people wanted to project and signal. It showed you had the means, the time, the leisure time, the class status to devote to shaping your body in a certain way.

You make another connection — between superficiality and exercise — in your analysis of exercise clothes from the 1980s. This is when gyms started to become coed and you see workout clothes that reflect a new mandate to be “sexy.” People are wearing clothes that are super-high-cut and tight, in peacocking colors. How would you read the trends in exercise clothes now and what they say about our expectations? 

So first, I want to step back: It was notable that the first lines of women’s workout clothing produced contradicted how uncomfortable and restrictive women’s wardrobes were. In the 1970s, Gilda Marx, this grande dame of women’s fitness who taught Jane Fonda, was looking at her students and realized that the leotard was long overdue for innovation. At that time, the dancewear that was worn was made from natural fibers that weren’t very comfortable. Marx snatched up these rolls of stretchy Lycra fabric to create more comfortable and fashionable leotards and tights to make exercisewear for grown women’s bodies.

Women who didn’t have access to that kind of clothing before did experience this as liberation. Gilda’s leotards were built to be supportive to a woman’s body, to a woman’s breasts. For women who were comfortable wearing those clothes, it promoted a confidence and ecstasy that mirrored the fitness classes at the time. Then, in the 1980s, it just jumped the shark and we got “high-intensity crotch” leotards. Comfort became secondary. This reflects a larger shift that happened in the fitness industry. Because, by the early 1980s, most health clubs became coed and doubled as a singles scene. Because they were known as a pickup spot, the ante was upped. The fashions became increasingly sexualized and increasingly over the top.

Today, the trend that feels the most notable to me is this remarkable shift in representation and diversity of body sizes. I don’t want to oversell the intentions here. It’s a step in the right direction if nothing else. One notable thing about workout clothes now is there’s so much more variety. It’s fun to see in the 1980s how much uniformity there was. You look at photos and there was literally a uniform that women wore to exercise. Partly to the way the pandemic has shaped workouts and everyday fashion is that it’s everything, from crop tops and leggings to sweats.

It seems like there’s often a toggle between language about exercise empowering women and punitive language about women needing exercise in order to improve themselves. That’s felt pervasive; you note that even back in the ’50s, fitness entrepreneurs were “selling the idea that one must change to be lovable.” Can fitness seem appealing without the promise of transformation?

Well, it certainly can be done without the promise of cosmetic change. A lot of it comes down to having an incentive, the thing that motivates people to start moving. For me personally, even with everything I know and I’ve learned, I still find the most convenient incentive is the promise of a makeover.​​ This is one of the thorniest parts of this topic for me, but the promise of being able to feel good in the jeans I currently own, it’s like the lowest-hanging fruit. It’s the candy of incentives. It’s human nature to want to be bettering ourselves and our circumstances. My hope is that there’s more conversation about the dangers and toxic aspects of encouraging people to change the way they look to meet one pretty rigid heteronormative beauty standard. Then we can focus more on the benefits of our mental health, or a sense of social connection and overall well-being.

I think some fitness professionals are becoming increasingly enlightened. They’ll say, “If change is what you want, we’re here for you, but if you’re happy and you’re just here to feel good, that’s great.” There’s more subtlety and diversity in the messaging. I think because there were so many centuries — decades covered in my book — of women being told they need to change the way they look to be loved, it’s not bad at all to entirely de-emphasize any promise of physical change until we get to a place of greater equality.

Within that, I think a lot about the recent infusion of spirituality into fitness classes; they promise deep transformation of your whole soul. Is that just coded language for this same desire for a makeover?

My first reaction is to quote from my reporting for this book from Judith Lasater, the co-founder of Yoga Journal: “Women are longing for refuge.” They’re seeking it out on the mat, in the barre studio, through running, all of these programs that offer a feeling of relief and peace. And it’s no surprise — I don’t fault women for seeking it out in these environments that promise this metaphysical transformation. I’m just wary of any program that promises transformation.

The incentive that gets people in the door doesn’t have to be the incentive that keeps them going. So many women in the 1970s and the 1980s started working out to change the way they looked. They worked out to lose weight, for the promise of a “whole new you.” These are many women who had never exercised before, and these motivations felt like an acceptable reason to sweat. They found these meaningful social connections and community. They pretty quickly discovered how good it made them feel.

Everyone is feeling beleaguered now, and people feel drawn to programs that offer something of a respite. Try it; just be really mindful of how it’s actually making you feel.

Where Did Fitness Culture Come From?