Women’s personal fitness was once considered unfeminine.

Everything changed with fitness trailblazers like Lotte Berk and Judi Sheppard Missett.

But look closer and there’s a whole lot more to the story than jazz shoes and leggings.

The message of women’s fitness became intertwined with cultural norms of class, perfection and sexuality.

Today, About: The history of women’s fitness and the next turning point in women’s relationship with fitness.


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

Jessica Rialplus size yoga instructor, fitness and wellness advocate.

Extract from book

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

When the popular media explored the historical significance of women’s fitness culture, they mostly treated it as a collection of disparate fashions with little impact on women’s lives or on society at large. It’s often covered in kitsch – reminders of a past that women would just as quickly forget, from vibrant belts that promised to gut fat to neon leggings.

We can always find reason to laugh at the choices made by our younger, less wise or our ancestors – thong leotards? really ? – but this popular treatment also surely stems from the fact that we live in a culture that diminishes women’s interests as stupid and trivial. Rejecting the things women say they like as inconsequential allows our culture to stealthily ensure that women remain subordinate to men.

The history of American women’s fitness is more than a series of misguided “follies.” It’s the story of how women chose to spend billions of dollars and collective hours in pursuit of health and happiness. In many ways, it’s the story of what it’s been like to be a woman for the past seven decades.

For much of the 20th century, most women didn’t move much. They grew up being told they were physically limited. “For centuries, women have been chained to a perception of themselves as weak and ineffective,” writes Colette Dowling in The Frailty Myth. “This perception has been nothing less than the emotional and cognitive equivalent of having our whole body linked.”

In the late sixties, however, women began to question whether they were truly defined by their biology. A new wave of feminists wondered: What if women were not born physically weak, but became so in some sort of self-fulfilling prophecy? After all, little boys were encouraged to climb trees and throw balls, while little girls were rewarded for their balance and grace. Boys were encouraged to get dirty; girls, to keep their clothes spotless. Even the clothes themselves discouraged movement: the restrictive dresses, belts, and high heels of midcentury women’s wardrobes prevented them from bending, stretching, running, and sometimes even breathing.

Men have spent their lives learning to use and trust their bodies; women no.

In the early 1970s, the authors of the seminal guide to women’s health, Our Bodies, Ourselves, wrote, “Our bodies are the physical foundations from which we move through the world,” but “ignorance, Uncertainty – or even, at worst, shame – about our physical selves creates in us an alienation from ourselves that prevents us from being the whole people that we could be. Imagine a woman trying to work and establish equal and satisfying relationships with other people. . . when she feels physically weak because she never tried to be strong.

The rise of women’s fitness paved the way for this strength.

For most of her life, feminist icon Gloria Steinem actively avoided exercise, feeling more comfortable living in her head. “I come from a generation that didn’t play sports. Being a cheerleader or drum majorette was as far as our imaginations or role models could take us,” she wrote in her book Moving Beyond Words. “It’s one of the many reasons why I and other women of my generation grew up believing – as many girls still believe – that the most important thing about a female body is not not what it does but what it looks like The power does not reside in us but in the gaze of the observer.

As she watched her friends start exercising in the 70s and 80s, her perspective changed. “For women, the enjoyment of physical strength is a collective revolution,” Steinem later wrote. “I gradually came to believe that society’s acceptance of muscular women could be one of the most intimate and visceral measures of change,” she also observed. “Yes, we need progress everywhere, but an increase in our physical strength could have more impact on the daily lives of most women than the occasional pattern in the boardroom or the White House.”

Steinem herself began practicing yoga and lifting weights in her 50s.
Of course, women’s fitness culture is far from universally empowering. As this book will make clear, it is deeply tied to the culture of beauty, which sells the idea that women must change to be lovable, even acceptable. Over the decades, fitness purveyors promising to uplift women have instead held them back and held back by exploiting their insecurities. And the fitness industry as a whole is a formidable capitalist force that has long tried to commodify female empowerment for its own gain. But to dismiss the rise of fitness culture among women as merely harmful is to deny the experiences of millions of people who see exercise as vital to their well-being. Simply put: it’s much more nuanced than good or bad.

Like my experience with Pure Barre, many women start exercising to change their appearance, but stick with it after discovering more meaningful rewards. For some, becoming strong helps them overcome the desire to shape their bodies for someone else’s pleasure. As journalist Haley Shapley writes in Strong Like Her, “strength breeds strength,” and not just muscle variety.

By understanding the history of women’s fitness – the good and the bad, the silly and the serious – we can better understand ourselves. And we can better harness exercise in a way that truly liberates all women.

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