Let’s get physical: the history of women’s exercise

Today, exercise is a multibillion-dollar fitness industry, and women account for more than half of all gym memberships, and dominate yoga, pilates, and barre studios.

But it hasn’t always been this way. For much of the 20th century, sweating was considered unladylike and women were discouraged from physical exercise.

Women were not allowed to run marathons in case 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 out.

Journalist Danielle Friedman has tracked the fascinating history of women’s exercise culture through her book Let’s Get Physical: How Women Discovered Exercise and Reshaped the World.

Photo: Lindsay May / Supplied

It was only in the late ’50s and ’60s that a few forward-thinking fitness pioneers began to promote exercise for women, Friedman tells Kathryn Ryan.

“I was amazed to discover that barre [fitness] was invented in the late 1950s by a woman named Lotte Berk who became a fixture of the swinging ’60s 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 to connect with their sexuality and bodies and the pelvic thrusting was not an accident.”

To set the scene, it was post-World War II and gender norms were strict for men and women, Friedman says.

“The idea that a woman would take up a strenuous exercise routine with a goal of becoming strong was really radical and unacceptable and … there were a lot of fears around what movement could do to a women’s body.

“There was a fear that vigorous movement like running could make her uterus fall out and I think that is largely because the idea of ​​a woman becoming strong in that era was so threatening that there was these kinds of social checks in place to keep women somewhat real estate.”

American marathon runner Katherine Switzer, who was the first woman to run the Boston Marathon as an officially registered competitor in 1967, and a trainer races after her to try and pull her off the track.

American marathon runner Katherine Switzer, who was the first woman to run the Boston Marathon as an officially registered competitor in 1967, and a trainer races after her to try and pull her off the track.
Photo: bedman

And as women replaced men – who had been sent off to war – in their traditional day jobs, there was a fear they’d become too masculinised, she says.

“So there were lots of propaganda campaigns and also just popular media, like women’s magazines, that really encouraged women to go back to the home, leave the jobs, go back to the kitchen to reassure men that the proper social order and gender dynamic was still in place.”

The few fitness pioneers for women at the time got their message across by selling exercise as a beauty tool, she says.

“It kind of laid the groundwork … for what we would see in the decades that followed where basically fitness culture and beauty culture and diet culture for women were really intertwined.”

Then into the ’70s and ’80s came aerobic dancing and jazzercise, which by 1982 was the United States’ second fastest growing franchise, and women began to move en masse, setting in motion an exercise revolution, Friedman says.

Even Jane Fonda made workout videos and her original one became one of the best-selling videos of all time, she says.

“Jane Fonda was really 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.”

Bonnie Prudden, and an American physical fitness pioneer, teaching fitness to women in 1960.

Bonnie Prudden, and an American physical fitness pioneer, teaching fitness to women in 1960.
Photo: Genevieve Naylor/Corbis via Getty Images

But it was a double-edged sword, she says, because it added to the pressure of how women were expected to look.

“She, of course, is a feminist and she was always very conscious of saying that every woman should strive for whatever their own goals are, but just by being the front woman for her workouts, she did kind of set a standard for how women in that era strove to look.”

Throughout history, fitness for women has been a tool of liberation and oppression, Friedman says.

“So these movements took off and women became more physically strong and confident, the commercial side of it would kind of sweep in and capitalize on women’s insecurities and it was a way almost of, like in the 1950s, sort of offering a social check that kept women consumed forever with working on their bodies as a project.”

While fitness had morphed into a source of shame and guilt for women, a significant shift in the industry is starting, Friedman says.

“I think we’re sort of just beginning to discover the mental health benefits of movement and as more women and men experience that the focus has shifted more to empowerment.

“And granted, there’s a whole another thorny issue with commodifying empowerment and selling it but the language is changing and also the representation of what a fit body looks like is changing. We are starting to get more size diversity and body diversity in fitness as well.”

In today’s world, navigating through social media can be toxic for healthy perceptions of body image but there is a flipside too, she says.

“Social media has allowed fitness professionals who don’t look like what fit pros have looked like in the past to gain thousands and thousands of followers and they’ve created these kind of sub-communities and subcultures for people who never really felt at home in the mainstream fitness culture and who are really focused on feeling good.”

Regardless of the evolution of exercise, one constant Friedman has found in talking with women is the long-lasting friendships created when they work out together.

“I think the key is really finding your community and your people, and the movement space that really supports your mental and physical health and doesn’t make you feel self-conscious. So those communities have been there since the rise of women’s fitness really starting in the early ’70s but they’re not always so easy to find, you have to seek them out.”

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