The Rise of Women’s Fitness Culture with Danielle Friedman

Danielle Friedman is an award-winning journalist and author of the critically acclaimed cultural history of women’s fitness Let’s Get Physical: How Women Discovered Exercise and Reshaped the World (Putnam 2022). Her feature writing has appeared in The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Cut, Vogue, Health, and other publications, and she has appeared as a guest expert on dozens of public radio shows and podcasts, as well on the TODAY show’s 24/7 streaming channel, TODAY All Day. She previously worked as a senior editor at NBC News Digital and The Daily Beast, and she began her career as a nonfiction book editor at the Penguin imprints Hudson Street Press and Plume. She lives in New York City with her husband and two young sons. In this interview, we discuss Let’s Get Physical and changes in women’s fitness culture from the 1950s to the present.

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Cover of Let's Get Physical by Danielle Friedman, a book about women's fitness culture

Greg: Can you tell me a little bit about your background? What led you to write a history of women’s fitness culture?

Danielle: I have been a journalist and editor for twenty years. I started out as a book editor, editing nonfiction for about five years, and then I became a journalist. My whole career has focused on health, culture and gender. Throughout my career as a journalist, I always had an eye out for a topic that I felt was rich enough and complex enough to tackle in book form.

About six years ago now— and I talk about this in the introduction to the book— I started taking barre classes for the first time. I am a lifelong runner and I had done some gym classes, but barre was really my first foray into any kind of boutique fitness. And I became a little bit obsessed with it, partly because of the how strong it made me feel, but also because I became fascinated by the subculture of it. I couldn’t take my feminist journalist hat off. I was doing a lot of reporting at that time about women’s sexual health, and I was sort of struck by the fact that many of the foundational moves in class seemed almost comically sexual in nature, and it was something no one was acknowledging. So I started looking into whether the class could actually benefit women’s sexual health.

As I was researching that angle, I stumbled onto what I felt was a bigger and even more fascinating story about Lotte Berk, the creator of barre. I discovered that sure enough, in the 1950s and 1960s, Lotte designed her workout in part to help women connect with their bodies and their sensuality, and she became a fixture of the women’s sexual revolution in London. So I started researching and writing about Lotte. I wrote about her in a story for The Cut. And while I was in the midst of that, a light bulb went off. I couldn’t believe that no one had written a book about the history of women’s fitness culture. And it became apparent that, for every big fitness movement of the twentieth century, there was a Lotte Berk-like figure or group of figures behind it.

I also saw a bigger, more important story to the rise of women’s fitness culture, which is that in seventy years, women went from being actively told not to work their bodies, not to sweat, not to develop muscles, to today seeing exercise in many ways as a requirement of womanhood and a privilege. So I was interested in looking at how, with the rise of the women’s movement, we saw a parallel rise in women’s fitness culture and how that has both empowered women and, to some degree, held women back.

Greg: You touched on the prevailing view of exercise for women prior to the mid-twentieth century, i.e. that women shouldn’t exercise. What motivated that view?

Danielle: Well, my book begins in the 1950s. Of course, there was fitness culture going back to ancient civilization. But the contemporary fitness industry really began around the 1950s. That was the post World War II era in this country, and it was a time of really strict gender norms. During the war, women had taken the place of men in many workplaces and once the men came home, there was a pervasive fear that men wouldn’t have a place anymore. And the sense that gender norms might be upended was very threatening to society at large.

Danielle Friedman, author of Let's Get Physical, a book about the rise of women's fitness culture
Danielle Friedman

During that time, strength was associated with masculinity. And so in effect, femininity was linked to weakness and submission. In many of the archival texts from that era, women are encouraged to tone everything down—let the man in your life win if you’re playing a game, and ask for help opening the pickle jar. So the gender norms and the social norms at that time were a big part of it.

There were also a lot of fears around what vigorous exercise could do to a woman’s body. The fear that came up again and again in my research was that it could make a woman’s uterus “fall out.” The first time I heard that, I thought it might have been just a one-off urban legend, but it kept coming up again and again. There were also beliefs that too much exercise could “turn a woman into a man.” It was interpreted quite literally—that exercise could make women grow body hair and just present in a very masculine way. I think a lot of these fears and beliefs were a way of basically keeping a social check on women’s power at the time. Because as women gained more social power, it was very threatening to the social order of the time. And these beliefs held women back.

Greg: Do you think there was any earnestness in the belief that exercise might be bad for women? Or were these beliefs always tied up with the goal of maintaining the status quo of gender norms?

Danielle: Oh, I think there was some earnestness. I mean there wasn’t really a field of exercise science until the 1970s. There were all sorts of inaccurate beliefs about what exercise could do to men’s bodies too, and there was as much fear about overexertion as there was about under-exertion. If someone was particularly stressed, the solution was for them to take it as easy as possible. There was just very little for medicine to go on at that time. So I think some of these false beliefs stemmed from ignorance of what hadn’t been researched and discovered yet.

Greg: So what changed around the 1960s that led to a shift in how we view exercise for women?

Danielle: The shift didn’t really start to happen until the late 1960s, or 1970s. But in the 1950s and 1960s, we started to see the rise of these celebrity fitness evangelists, partly thanks to the rise of TV. In my book, I write about Bonnie Prudden, who was one of the forgotten godmothers of women’s fitness culture and one of the very first to demonstrate exercise on TV. She was on the Today Show shortly after it started, and then she had her own show. Jack LaLanne rose to fame during that time as well. And these personalities that were beamed into women’s living rooms during the day when they were home, in many cases doing housework, began to plant the seed that women can do push-ups, too—that women can benefit from cultivating muscle.

The catch was exercise was sold as a beauty tool. So it wasn’t like “muscles are badass.” It was like, “by cultivating muscle and doing push-ups and working your body, you’ll hold on to your honeymoon figure, you’ll stay attractive to your husband.” But it was still progress, and I really tried to look for that incremental progress and give it its due. These early fitness personalities and evangelists were operating within the world and the structure that they lived in. And I think many of them recognized that the public would have been extremely skeptical or would have outright rejected strength for strength’s sake for the average housewife.

But the belief that regular exercise was a virtue started to work its way into society. There were many different shifts that were taking place at the same time. There started to be this fear that the United States was not as fit as the Soviet Union as we navigated the Cold War era. And this applied to men and women. John F. Kennedy famously made it one of his causes to improve the overall fitness of the nation’s children and create a more a more fit nation. So the benefits of exercise were starting to be made more public.

Then with the rise of the women’s movement in the 1960s and 1970s, there was suddenly a lot more interest among women in being strong. And for many, physical strength began to feel like liberation. This was especially true among runners.

Those are some of the big social forces that helped to turn the tide. And then, with each decade after that, there were other cultural forces at play that helped to ignite the women’s fitness movement.

Lotte Berk and Bonnie Prudden, two pioneers of women's fitness culture
Lotte Berk and Bonnie Prudden, two pioneers of women's fitness culture (lostudioesse.com/qiio.de)

Greg: Speaking of those cultural forces and the development of exercise science, how has the view of exercising and what exercises are good for women (or good for anyone) changed since those early days of the fitness boom?

Danielle: How is obviously through a tremendous amount of research. I should call out Dr. Kenneth Cooper, who wrote the book Aerobics, which was published in 1968. He was a military physician and then became a preventative care physician. And he was the first to really quantify how much exercise one might need to be in optimal physical shape. Through his research, he helped convince the public that exercise was safe for both men and for women. So he really helped to launch the aerobics boom—both “aerobics” in terms of dancing in a cardiovascular way, but also just the idea of aerobic movement in general.

Throughout the late 1970s and heading into the 1980s, we saw the rise of strength training and weightlifting for women. Lifting was particularly challenging to social norms, because the image of a woman lifting weights—there’s no way around it—is an image of strength

In addition, the passage of Title IX and then the generation of athletes that followed helped to turn the tide in terms of what was acceptable for women. As these female athletes graduated into the real world, many wanted to continue to exercise and lift weights and feel fit. So that gave rise to both instructors and the women who wanted to populate these fitness spaces.

In the bigger picture, the idea that women’s bodies are frail and delicate and not up to the same kinds of movement that men’s bodies are has been disproven again and again in the decades since. There are still some major exceptions, and some outdated beliefs that have persisted today. But in general, we don’t face nearly as many stigmas about how women can and should move their bodies.

Greg: What are some of the myths that still persist?

Danielle: Some of them are aesthetic. I think many women still fear bulk, although this is changing with CrossFit and the steady rise of strength training and weight training. The language of women’s fitness culture has started to change, but a lot of workouts that have become popular over the past ten years still promise long, lean muscles or a dancer’s body. And these terms are a kind of code language for not becoming bigger, not gaining “too much” muscle, not bulking up.

So even though we’ve come such a long way in our cultural understanding of the benefits of muscle and of cultivating strength, there are still stereotypes and stigmas against women who choose to bulk up.

And with pregnancy and exercise, there are still women who face a stigma for choosing to vigorously move their bodies while pregnant. Pregnant women will often face commentary about the potential dangers of exercise.

Greg: To be clear, current medical evidence indicates there isn’t a danger to women from exercising while pregnant, correct?

Danielle: That’s right. Of course, as with all exercise, every person is different, and it depends on your circumstances during pregnancy. But as a rule, if you’ve been cleared by your doctor and you have the foundation to exercise, it is generally safe and beneficial.

Through exercise, women collectively became more embodied and more financially empowered.

Greg: You talked about how the feminist movement and the rise of more equal gender norms convinced women that exercise was something that they could participate in and something that would benefit them. To what degree did that increased fitness participation also influence the way women thought about their place in society?

Danielle: It’s a little bit of a chicken and egg situation. Something I was really interested in exploring in the book were the collective stories of individual women who found strength through exercise and then found the courage to change their lives or make decisions that they wouldn’t have otherwise made. A theme throughout the book was that physical strength can lead to other forms of strength: emotional strength, mental strength and confidence. Through exercise, women collectively became more embodied and more financially empowered. For example, Jazzercise was the second fastest growing franchise behind Domino’s Pizza in the early 1980s and gave rise to hundreds, if not more, franchisees who were able to earn a good living through teaching. So exercise empowered women internally and also created career paths that didn’t previously exist.

Many of the experiences women have had through movement and exercise are very intimate, very personal. I interviewed many women in their seventies and eighties who talked about how they had been actively discouraged from moving their bodies once they hit like puberty and felt very disconnected from themselves for decades. And it wasn’t until, in some cases, middle age that they started exercising and sweating for the first time. I don’t think you can overestimate the effect that sense of physical autonomy and competence can have in how we make our way through the world.

Greg: Early on our conversation, you mentioned that there are some ways in which how we see exercise actually holds women back. Can you speak a little bit more about that?

Danielle: Fitness is often marketed as a beauty tool and a weight loss tool and a path to achieving aesthetic ideals. Going back to some of those early fitness pioneers, the way to make the idea of fitness palatable to a skeptical public was to sell it as a way for women to be attractive. And throughout the second half of the twentieth century, as women gained more opportunities to move and it was more acceptable to be strong, body ideals inched further and further out of reach.

In the 1950s, there was an extreme focus on dieting. There were fad diets and thinness reigned supreme. But heading into the 1970s, the models that were held up as the most beautiful were thin and toned and kind of sporty. In the 1980s, the ideal became a body that was largely devoid of that softness that had been linked to femininity a few decades earlier. By the early 1990s, women strove for buns of steel—“hard bodies” became one of the ideals.

And while these ideals are in some ways a social check on women’s opportunities and power, exercising to lose weight or to shape your body is a very powerful motivator for a lot of women. Many women I interviewed talked about how changing the way they look might have been what got them in the gym door or got them to start running. But once they got started, they stuck around for decades because of how it made them feel and because of the more profound benefits of exercise.

The trouble is that exercising with the goal of changing your body or trying to meet an ideal that’s outside of yourself can create a lot of guilt and shame. And it can be toxic for a lot of women. There are so many amazing mental health benefits of exercising, but when you’re exercising to meet a specific aesthetic ideal that’s always out of reach, that can actually blunt some of these benefits.

Greg: Do you think that pursuit of an unattainable aesthetic ideal has become more of a challenge now with the rise of social media?

Danielle: Yeah, there can be such a toxic element to social media. There are so many fitness influencers whose only credential is the way they look. And I think it’s been well documented how social media can have a negative effect on the way that we see our bodies and ourselves. At the same time—and I write about this a little bit toward the end of my book—social media has created fitness influencers out of people who, in another era, would never have enjoyed the visibility that social media allows them to enjoy now. Social media also helps create communities and a sense of body diversity for both leaders and for people who have struggled with not seeing themselves reflected in mainstream fitness culture. So it’s a mixed bag.

Joan Benoit winning the 1984 Olympic Women's Marathon

Greg: What most surprised you as you were researching and writing this book?

Danielle: A few things. First, how recent this history is. Women weren’t given an Olympic marathon event until the 1984 Olympics because officials still had concerns about what running a marathon could do to a woman’s body, and whether there would even be enough women around the world interested in competing in the race. I also kept coming back to the fact that the sports bra wasn’t invented until 1977 and wasn’t released until 1978, which just blows my mind. It was invented out of demand, and that demand didn’t previously exist before then for all the reasons that we’ve talked about.

Second, I was struck by how dramatically both our thinking about women and exercise and the opportunities for many women have changed within just a couple of generations. Every time I interviewed somebody who grew up before the 1970s, I was really struck by just how different life was and how they felt held back by their gender and how much things have changed since then.

Greg: Is there anything you’d like to add that we didn’t cover?

Danielle: I would just like to add that while there has been tremendous progress, and opportunities today are so much greater than seventy-five years ago, fitness is still—for women in this country and for everybody—a privilege and not a right. There are still many communities that don’t have access to the fitness opportunities or safe spaces and time and resources and all the things that are necessary to take advantage of the shifts that have occurred. So while there has been amazing progress, we still have a very long way to go until fitness is accessible for all women.

For more on the history of women’s fitness culture, enter the giveaway at the top of this page to win a copy of Danielle Friedman’s book Let’s Get Physical. And follow Danielle on Instagram to see more of her work.

For more interviews like this one, check out The KineSophy Library.