How working out set women free: In the 1950s, they stayed thin by smoking and popping pills. But as a new social history shows, what started as a fitness fad became a revolution that made women stronger in every way
BOOK OF THE WEEK
LET’S GET PHYSICAL
by Danielle Friedman (Icon £16.99, 352pp)
Hovering anxiously outside the Pure Barre studio, Danielle Friedman had to acknowledge that no experience in an adult woman’s life is more likely to reduce her to a sweaty mess of schoolgirl insecurities than a new exercise class.
The 35-year-old New Yorker had signed up to the ballet-based classes because she was getting married.
Although she had spent her journalistic career ‘making the case that women should be valued for their inner selves and not their appearance’, she still wanted to look good in her strapless lace dress. ‘Even feminists’, she says, ‘sometimes fantasise about facing the world with a flat stomach.’
Danielle Friedman, 35, who lives in New York, explores the history of female fitness in new book Let’s Get Physical. Pictured: Jane Fonda
Committing to a regime that brutally exposed her to the judgment of her peers, but ultimately boosted her self-esteem, Friedman began to investigate the history of female fitness. She goes back to the 1950s to trace the tensions that continue to exist between ‘exercise as a tool for women to become strong, or a tool of the patriarchy to control how women feel about their bodies’.
At the time, Disney’s animators cinched their heroines’ waists and doctors warned that exercise could cause a woman’s uterus to fall out.
Women wanting to conform to the skinny beauty standard were left little choice but to starve themselves, drink cocktails, pop diet pills and smoke.
It took fearless mum Bonnie Prudden to call time on such cultural claptrap.
Left horrified by the PE classes offered to her daughter (in which a teacher dressed in full skirt and high heels led 20 minutes of dainty circle games), Prudden hired a hall and taught her own classes.
The nation became her hall as she wrote columns, released records and led classes on television. She moved on from children to adults.
Meantime, in Swinging London, women had been released from restrictive girdles and flapping skirts only to find themselves exposed by the liberating mini-skirt. hairdresser Vidal Sassoon popularised bobs for pixie faces. ‘I work with the bones of the faces,’ he boasted. Any client he judged to be overweight was rejected.
Around the corner from Sassoon’s studio, a former dancer called Lotte Berk was helping women ‘correct the figure faults’ Sassoon identified.
Film star and activist Jane Fonda (pictured) took her 1982 workout to the top of the VHS charts, as she allowed women to get in shape in the privacy of their homes as often as they wanted
Born in Germany in 1913, the Jewish Berk had fled to the UK in 1938. She and her dance partner/husband, Ernest, had a tumultuous open marriage.
‘Sex came into everything she did,’ Berk’s daughter, Esther Fairfax, told Friedman. Berk encouraged her teenage child to perform oral sex on men and to become a topless dancer in Paris.
In 1959, Berk opened her dance studio not for dancers, but for women who wanted to look like dancers.
Classes began with women dangling upside down from the ballet barre. Berk would entertain them with details of her affairs as they stretched and squeezed.
Soon celebrities such as Joan Collins and Bond girl Britt Ekland were copying moves Berk named ‘the prostitute’ and ‘naughty bottoms’. ‘If you can’t tuck, you can’t f***,’ she told them.
In the 1970s, the ‘Lotte Berk Method’ crossed the Atlantic where it evolved — via Jazzercise — into the less overtly sexual Pure Barre classes Friedland takes.
And it was in the 1970s and 80s that the idea of aerobics really took off. Disco music and the invention of Lycra made the classes appealing and accessible. Comfort was further enhanced by the invention of the sports bra. The garment’s initial design was inspired when one of the creators’ husbands was larking around and slung two jockstraps around his chest.
During these decades, female runners and bodybuilders began to smash restrictive ideas about the limitations of women’s strength and stamina.
Female runners and bodybuilders of the 1970s and 80s began to smash restrictive ideas about the limitations of women’s strength and stamina. Pictured: Olivia Newton John in 1984
Film star and activist Jane Fonda took her 1982 workout to the top of the VHS charts. She was 42 when she pulled on her iconic stripy pink leotard and began to realise how much of her life had been spent in the exhausting pursuit of male approval.
Born in 1937, the daughter of actor Henry Fonda and a remote, mentally ill mother, Fonda had a lonely and traumatic childhood. Her mother — socialite Frances Fonda — was admitted to a psychiatric hospital where she slit her throat. Jane was told Frances had died of a heart attack but read the true story a few weeks later in a gossip magazine.
Frances had been a compulsive dieter. Henry constantly monitored his daughter’s weight. No surprise, then, that Jane developed bulimia at school and, later, became hooked on amphetamines.
Ballet made her feel strong but she had to give it up because her eating disorders had weakened her bones to such an extent she kept fracturing her feet. That’s when she discovered aerobics.
Her recorded workout allowed women to get in shape in the privacy of their own homes as often as they wanted. The relentless perfectionist pushed her viewers to twist ever further, clench harder, stretch higher: ‘Feel the burn!’
LET’S GET PHYSICAL by Danielle Friedman (Icon £16.99, 352pp)
But the 1990s also saw a boom in the gentler practice of yoga. Transplanted from India in the 1960s, Friedland notes that the meditative stretching art had been ‘omming away in the background’ for 30 years.
After decades of ‘feeling the burn’, women were ready for something that felt calmer and less competitive.
Celebrities such as Madonna claimed to have swapped their material goals for inner peace. But critics noted that the ‘spiritual’ practice was colonised mostly by thin, white, affluent women in designer Lycra.
It took the democratising voices of the internet to make exercise more inclusive. Friedland concludes her book with the inspirational story of Jessamyn Stanley.
Born in 1987 and raised in a working class home in North Carolina, Stanley yearned to be ‘petite and blonde’ like the models she saw in teen magazines. Instead she had ‘a wide nose, big belly, big ass, big lips, dark skin.’
Feeling uncoordinated and un-athletic, she made every excuse to dodge PE. But at college a friend encouraged her to try yoga to help her out of an ‘emotional hole’.
When Stanley unrolled her mat in that first class ‘every single gaze felt like a judgment’. But she persisted until she located the ‘beautiful identity trapped beneath my distorted expectations’.
Stanley went on to write the best-selling Every Body Yoga for everyone who has felt marginalised by fitness culture. She teaches her online classes in her underwear and strives not for the burn, but ‘to be rather than to seem’.
It’s an enlightened and inspirational motto for everyone resolving to get physical in 2022.