About Natalia Mehlman Petrzela
Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, Ph.D. is a historian of contemporary American politics and culture and is currently writing a book on American fitness culture, FIT NATION: How America Embraced Exercise As The Government Abandoned It (under contract with University of Chicago Press). She is the author of Classroom Wars: Language, Sex, and the Making of Modern Political Culture (Oxford 2015), co-host of Past Present Podcast, a frequent media guest expert, speaker at universities and conferences, and contributor to international and domestic news outlets from the BBC to the New York Times to the Atlantic. Natalia is Associate Professor of History at The New School, a co-founder of wellness education program Healthclass 2.0 and a Premiere Leader of intenSati. She is a co-producer and the host of WELCOME TO YOUR FANTASY, a forthcoming podcast from Pineapple Street Studios. She holds a B.A. from Columbia and a master’s and Ph.D. from Stanford and is based in New York City.
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Race, Feminism and Origins of Fitness in America
About This Episode
Natalia is a historian and university professor at the New School in New York; her research focuses on the origins of fitness in North America. In this episode, Natalia reveals how fitness emerged at the turn of the century from “exercise as performance” circuits and how they were tied to white supremacy, eugenics, and racism. She offers a critical look at how physical activity has emerged as a priority within North American culture, and yet there are many socio-economic barriers to accessing fitness.
Hey Everyone. Welcome back. Today we have a really interesting conversation with Dr. Natalia Petrzela. Natalia is a historian. We talk about fitness culture, strength training, exercise culture, and all of that in its historical roots; where these practices came from; who they were designed for; who had access to them in the early days; and what we start to see now from the beginning of gyms to now our gym situation.
Natalia talks about the climate of the gym business these days.
A lot of people have gym memberships and a lot of people don’t go use their gym memberships for whatever reason. Then there’s also super racist roots of the strength training practices that we know and love today. I think it’s really great to go back and just start to look at a little bit more of this history.
Then we talk a little bit about how women’s fitness originated way back when; where it came from and how this was a huge step and also still a little bit problematic. I think that you’re going to really really enjoy this episode. We talked so much about exercise and strength on this podcast but we don’t talk a huge amount about where these practices all came from.
Before we get into the interview, I want to remind everyone about the amazing Mindful Strength Membership, which is our online studio platform. We put up new classes every week. Kyle and I teach two live classes a week plus we do an extra one that is always recorded and a little bit shorter. Our classes range from yoga practice to gentler practices, restorative work, and then all the way up to strength training, weights, and resistance bands. We’re starting to add a little bit of high intensity and cardio work into the mix.
It’s a really nice well-balanced approach to mindful movement and the movement that we’re talking about so much on this podcast. Then we also have a number of guest instructors coming in. Every month we put out a class with a new guest instructor who does something pretty different than what Kyle and I do.
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All right everyone, here is my interview with Dr. Natalia Petrzela.
All right, Natalia. Welcome to the podcast.
Natalia Mehlman Petrzela: Thank you. I’m so happy to be here.
Yes, I’m so excited for this. The listeners obviously know that we talk a lot about strength, fitness, and all these amazing things that we can do with our bodies, but we’ve never really had a historical conversation.
This is going to be very interesting and a little bit different from what we’re used to talking about. Before we get into that, I’m wondering if you would like to take a couple of minutes to tell listeners a little bit about the type of work that you do; and your background, so that they’ll have a little bit of context for our conversation today.
Natalia Mehlman Petrzela: 00:04:07
Yeah absolutely. The short version or medium length version is that I’m a history professor at the New School in New York City. I spend most of my time teaching history and writing history books. The project that I’m working on right now in some ways like brings together so many aspects of my personal and professional interests.
I’m writing this book called Fit Nation: How America Embraced Exercise as the Government Abandoned It. The idea behind that, which I know we’ll get into more in the podcast, is basically asking or trying to answer the question: how did the United States, you might say North America (although I want to make clear my expertise in the US) become so obsessed with exercise as a virtue? Then as that happens, if it’s so important and that’s something most people believe: how is it so unequally available?
It kind of operates on two levels. I should say that before I explain that or our conversation gets to it, the way I got so interested in this is: for a long time now I’ve been studying history very seriously. I got my doctorate. I’m a history professor but my sort of other life was being this major gym rat.
For a long time, I saw those things as two totally separate worlds, but as you know you can’t really turn off your critical thinking capacities. Even when you’re engaging in something that’s just supposed to be quote-unquote “fun”.
I found myself being at the gym teaching fitness, participating in this fitness culture, and wondering: how is it that these people spend all this money to run on a treadmill and go nowhere? I got asking questions like that about this massive fitness culture. I should say fitness culture that’s distinct from sports. Sports are pretty well theorized in the literature and our culture. People think they’re important and worth talking about but fitness is something different.
I am interested in that. That’s in a nutshell kind of how I came to the project I’m working on today, which I’m excited to talk to you about.
What are you including when you say fitness? You mentioned that it’s not a sport. What is fitness?
Natalia Mehlman Petrzela: Yeah. There obviously is some overlap. When I talk about fitness, I am talking about recreational exercise that is not necessarily for participation in any kind of elite competition or really any kind of organized athletic competition, as would traditionally see it.
It’s funny, I get invited to speak to the history of sports classes. I don’t say no but what I try to talk about is: I’m interested in the everyday people who have no aspiration to go to the Olympics or play for the NFL or even try out for their high school soccer team. I’m interested in why those people have increasingly, in the United States, made working out either as a part of their daily life or the goal to work out a part of their daily life.
I think that’s an important distinction. It’s funny when I say I’m writing this book as a historian, usually, the first thing people say to me is: “Oh I’m so bad. I need to start working out” or “I like to do this. I don’t go as much as I should”.
It’s very clear that there is this sense that one should exercise a lot; even if you’re not an athlete or have any aspirations. A lot of people are not doing what they think is the right amount. I’m interested in how that cultural expectation came to be. To me, that is really different than making the varsity football team or having athletic ambitions. Of course, there are overlaps.
Yeah. I completely agree. I’ve been teaching yoga and now strength training and exercise since I was a teenager. It’s the only job I’ve really ever had. I’ve met so many people over the years and taught so many people.
What you’re saying about these ideas the general population has about exercise and how much they should be doing it, and really kind of feeling guilty about when they’re not doing it. They have this internalized shame about not doing it enough or the right way. This is just so interesting. The other thing I think is kind of interesting is: I find that within the general population, regardless of the type of movement or exercise, in teaching them there is this sense of: am I doing it right?
“Can you just watch me and make sure I’m doing it right because I don’t want to hurt myself? I might be doing it wrong”. It seems to me like there are a lot of exercises with this very virtuous thing. Then being able to do it quote-unquote “right” is obviously much better or even more virtuous. At the same time, from my experience at least, I found that most people don’t think they’re doing enough of that and we’re not doing it the quote-unquote “right way”. I’m wondering if you’ve seen something like this as well.
Natalia Mehlman Petrzela: 00:09:05
Yeah I mean there’s so many interesting things in your observation out there. I don’t even know where to start.
Let me start with this last point that you made. I think that you’re right. I too have spent a lot of time training people and around people who are training. There is kind of often, I think also especially with women, although I do want to say it’s only women: there’s often this narrative “but I’m not doing enough”. “I’m not working out hard enough”. “Well, I’m doing best but I’m eating too much” and kind of this self-abnegation process. That really makes me sad, because it accompanies an activity that I actually think can be extremely joyous and affirming.
One of the reasons that my side job has for a long time been teaching fitness is because I see the magical things that can happen in those communities. To me, that’s a whole interesting conversation about how this sort of self-punishment can accompany fitness. I see, having watched many hours of other teachings, some instructors are very good at sort of redirecting the conversation away from that kind of language. Others, unfortunately, perpetuate that conversation in some very self-serving ways. Right?
If you constantly feel like you’re not working out enough, then you’re gonna buy the membership. You’re going to sign up for more sessions. When I first began working out in gyms, I was a teenager. It was in the mid-90s and I walked into a step aerobics class. There it was really interesting.
I fell in love with movement but as I became more of a feminist I kind of felt like it was a guilty pleasure. It was so clear to me that even as I found joy in those spaces, most of the language that was taking place there was anathema to any kind of feminist principles.
It was like “you’re so bad”. “What did you eat last night?” “Shave off those pounds for that bikini body”. I was like: “Oh I see. I feel something really magical happening here, but the framing is so troubling”. It’s against everything that I stand for and perpetuates the guilt that you’re talking about. “God, isn’t there something better?”.
Long story short, the practice that I teach creates a lot of that kind of sweaty wonderful cardio joy without that kind of language. That’s one thing. I think it’s really important what you’re saying.
The first thing that you said, I wanted to get back to. Oh yeah. Am I doing it right? This is a tough question. On the one hand, we should push back against, I say we as fitness professionals and good citizens, unreasonable perfectionist expectations that actually limit people from fully participating in exercise; in ways that can be really great.
That’s very real. On the other hand, I know how you feel about it but I’m very troubled at actually the lack of expertise at play. A lot of people who are on social media giving exercise advice or just even in some of these very big classes where you have like multiple circuits happening at the same time. One instructor trying to like manage 40 people doing different stations.
You should not be throwing kettlebells around in that environment without someone show you how to do it right. It prevents injury. I really think it’s important to define what doing it right means and really dig down on the versions that are important for safe exercise. Then to sort of dispense with the ones that are part of our social construction of what a fit person should look like, you know?
Yeah, 100 percent. I am constantly rethinking the am I doing it right? Over the last year, I’ve been in a professional pain science mentorship, which has really changed my ideas about what’s right, wrong, and what causes injury; what is an injury; what is pain; where does pain come from, and all of those different things.
I work with a lot of yoga teachers and people who are doing postural yoga and there is this real fear about doing things wrong and people getting injured. It’s really interesting to me because when I look at these movements that were actually doing on our mats, it’s pretty low risk. It’s really low-speed, low skill, low force load.
There’s usually no music on. It’s relatively mindful in the greater scheme of things not super dangerous when compared to the types of movement where you’re throwing something; where there is a weight, there’s speed, there’s a high level of skill required.
Even though this may seem kind of slow not gentle but very controlled movement practice that we’re doing on our mats, I would say overall it’s pretty safe. That’s a general statement but there seems to be a lot of fear about it.
Natalia Mehlman Petrzela: 00:14:06
Kathryn: Which is interesting.
Natalia Mehlman Petrzela: I think fear among instructors probably comes from the fact, and you know this as well if not better than I, in a litigious environment which we certainly are in in the United States, maybe you could get sued. Right?
Very few instructors have such a financial cushion or a reputation even that they can really weather someone saying: “Hey you’re the reason I dislocated my shoulder”. I think there is a real fear around that.
The second part of it is, and this is vague in some ways a not so great consequence of I think a very good thing in exercise culture: in the early 1980s most of the people who would show up at an exercise class would by some generally accepted measure be considered already fit. Now you have a much wider array of people who are showing up at classes because like fitness, yoga it’s cool, right?
I don’t teach fitness so much anymore, but certainly, even in the last like three to five years, it’s much more likely that you have a class where a whole bunch of people raise their hands: “no, I’ve never done this before”. Here in many US cities, Class Pass has amplified that, which is one of these aggregators. I don’t know if they have that in Canada. I think it’s in Toronto.
Yeah, they do.
Natalia Mehlman Petrzela: Well, you know what that for some of your listeners they don’t know. That’s like you buy basically discounted memberships, so you can take different classes all over a city. It’s a great way to try things out, but it means from the perspective of the instructor in the class, you’re very likely to have people in there who’s never done something before.
I think that you’re right that like some of it’s like “well, why are you so afraid?” But I think there’s the fear of litigiousness by the instructor. Then when you have probably more than ever before, although now with COVID who the heck knows if classes are back or about many new people are going to venture into a gym.
I think that you have also a wider array of older people, you have people who maybe have not moved; you have people who feel they have weight to lose and so they’re not as kind of comfortable in their own body. There’s all of that at play, too. I think that fear is unfortunate but comes from understandable reasons, if not always ones that are totally evidence-based.
OK. On your website, I read that 20 percent of Americans consistently work out and over half of gym members don’t use their memberships. I have ideas about this but I’m wondering what you think.
Natalia Mehlman Petrzela: Oh yeah. I like to track those stats often when I’m talking about why we should care about fitness culture. To me, the gym membership one: wow all these people who don’t have tons of money to throw around are joining gyms and then not using them. There’s something going on there. There’s something going on where people have this idea: “this is a virtuous way to spend my money or an important way to spend my money.
It’s something I’m gonna do. I’m gonna make time for it”. They convince themselves of that so much that they’re willing to spend money that’s effectively wasted if they don’t use it. That to me is very interesting; the disconnect between the cultural place of exercise in our national imaginary, to put it in very academic terms. The actual experience of exercise. Of course, the second statistic, that only 20 percent of Americans get the recommended daily exercise. I think is obviously related.
In some ways, it’s making the same point, but I also think it’s really important. When you really drill down into those numbers and look at who is exercising regularly, it tends to break down by socioeconomics. It tends to be people who are more affluent. There are a range of reasons that this is the case. We can unpack those. To me, as someone who cares a lot about inequality and access, one thing that is very important is: as a culture we’ve decided that exercise is a positive thing, but 80 percent of people are not doing it regularly.
There is much more going on there than some individualist explanations like “Oh people are lazy” or “poor people don’t care about health”. All of these kinds of very damaging biases that people have; actually, no, if you actually look at what it takes to regularly exercise. Here in the US, we don’t have a robustly funded public free and accessible community recreation system.
You need money usually to join a commercial gym. You need often a regular work schedule where you know when you’re working and when you’re not working. Yet by the way you need gyms close to where you live or where you work. In the US, a lot of times there’s been more than one article that connects the presence of fitness businesses with gentrification.
Even though there certainly are gyms that are not expensive fancy ones, there is a connection between access to even these commercial spaces and the affluence of a neighborhood. All of those things come together to present a really troubling picture of society; one that values exercise as something important and good but has pathetically poorly invested in actually making that accessible to most of its people.
Yeah. I also feel like there’s such a representation piece here as well which we certainly see in the kind of modern yoga world, but definitely fitness.
If a person at home punched into Google “five exercises for my hips”, you’re going to come up with all of these images of mostly white people in smaller bodies quote-unquote “fit-looking people”; flexible people; cisgender, and all of the things. Right?
How can then all of the people of America feel like those spaces are actually for them and this is something that’s been designed for your body as well? A quote-unquote “safe space” for you to come join as well. There just seems like there are so many problems there.
Natalia Mehlman Petrzela: 00:20:26
Oh yeah. I think you’re totally right. I mean that’s something I do think is changing. You know, haltingly, and maybe when you’re in a big city like New York or L.A. you’re hot or you hang out on certain neighborhoods of Instagram, you have like a more rosy picture of how much that’s changing.
I do think the kind of body positivity body neutrality self-care as a political act crowd is doing really good stuff. They’re changing that representation and actually pushing conventional media. When they have, for example, I think the first step was like you’d see a shape magazine or a fitness magazine and they would have an article about yoga in larger bodies. They’d have a picture of someone who would not be conventionally considered thin or fit as the picture.
That was like step one, showing people and not making them invisible; not judging them negatively. Now you start to see the next level which is that it’s just an article like you say about like hip opening exercises and some of the illustrations are people who don’t have those slim white says had bodies and it’s not an article about not having a slim basis and maybe it’s just another body doing that.
That’s a big shift.
I’m almost embarrassed to say that when I first noticed I’m was like: “Oh my God! That’s crazy” because you have this normative idea of what that imagery should be. I should say, there’s a very practical obstacle to actually making that happen, which is that a lot of publications even decently funded ones have use stock photography. When you go in those stock photography databases to find fitness workouts you tend to get those very conventional images.
There was a little bit of drama when I wrote a piece about the enduring nature of the bikini body ideal for the Washington Post. The Washington Post is not like a poor publication. The picture that they put with it was of this very thin blonde woman. I think in a red bikini lying on the beach.
A lot of people rightly were like “Um, Ironic. You’re like critiquing this but here it goes”. I didn’t choose the picture. I don’t want to throw the editor under the bus, but I understood the point. The editor told me: I spent hours going through the stock photography that we have access to try and find something that would be appropriate for your topic. I couldn’t find anything”.
There’s so much work to be done. I hope you have some listener who’s an editor for stock archives; they can start switching that up because I think that’s something that’s sort of like insider baseball. People don’t really think about but it actually matters.
Yeah. Oh my goodness. Hundred percent. I listened to this incredible podcast called Food Psych, which is Christy Harrison who also lives in New York. She’s also been on this podcast. I’m like a gigantic fan of her work.
I have listened to all of her podcasts. A couple of times, I’m pretty sure it was on her podcasts, where they were promoting a speaker who was also a photographer; they had put together some database of more diverse images of bodies doing things. I was like “Oh that’s so cool. Interesting but also it’s still so niche.
Natalia Mehlman Petrzela: I know, I know.
Kathryn: You have to be listening to this podcast already to know the stuff; it’s not out there in the world yet.
Natalia Mehlman Petrzela: 00:24:42
I want to help get that out there in the world. If you send me that link, I feel like those are the kind of people that follow me that would want to know about that. Definitely send that to me or even the link to her podcast, because I love to promote stuff like that. I mean that’s the way it happens. That’s the positive side of social media, right? You can diffuse these ideas to the networks that you’ve attracted that like you know agree with that stuff.
OK. I originally heard you speak on the conspiratorially podcast and Matthew has been on this podcast as well a few times. One thing that I heard you talking about was kind of like these racist roots of strength training. That was really interesting for me because I’ve never heard anybody speak about that.
One little bit that I pulled from that interview that I want to read out and then you can comment on is this idea of strong man, people like Eugene Sandow, who were the first really popular strongman people: “explicitly encouraged strength training as opposed to manual labor as a way for white people to distinguish themselves and exert power over people of colour”.
Natalia Mehlman Petrzela: Yes, that sounds really eloquent. Did I say that?
Kathryn: You said that.
Natalia Mehlman Petrzela: 00:26:02
I mean not cool it’s an incredibly disturbing history but it’s always funny to hear your own words read back to you. Yeah, to get into this, first, not everybody knows what strong man culture was.
I think one thing to really emphasize there that someone like Eugen Sandow and he had lots of other peers people like Bernard McFadden. You might have heard of these were men, although there were some women, Katie Sandwina and some others who trained with weights; and who were mostly known because they would perform feats of strength on stage.
Any of you who’ve dabbled in like vintage-like weightlifting culture have seen things like this. These are guys who would dress in classical Greek and Roman attire with a loincloth and gladiator sandals; they’d bend iron bars over their waist or have a horse run over their chest or have a horse run over there body. They were really performing strength. I highlight that, and this was at the turn of the 20th century, so the 1890s to 1910s, 1920s, and people would come and see them and pack the house to watch this.
What’s really interesting to me about that is that that was a sort of important early chapter in fitness culture because it was fitness culture as performance. It wasn’t “hey I want to be ripped like that guy. How do I do it?” It was almost like it was positive but it was a little like “look at that freak of nature”. Not I want to look like that.
I think that’s very important because we are in quite a different phase right now; except if you think about those bodybuilding competitions, which are still a little bit like that anyway. Sandown and some others though were very invested. Sandown did so most explicitly in explaining what they did in strength training as being different from being what he called a mirror breaker of stones.
This was not being some oafish giant who could just lift heavy stuff; that’s brute force; that’s what “savages” do. He was really deliberate and he wrote at length about how what he did was deliberate strength training, which was a process of civilization and self-mastery.
If you read anything in the history of eugenics or whiteness studies, the idea of white people being uniquely self-disciplined and having mastery over their impulses or their urges, as opposed to savage people of color, is a very important theme. This is one that these strength trainers amplified loud and clear.
To a broader public, who was not used to thinking about lifting weights or being physically strong as anything but kind of animalistic or savage, they very strongly had to make that distinction. Sandow, who is the one I talked about mostly on Matthew’s podcast, he wrote a lot. He both has all of these personal anecdotes that make the case about how classy he is: “Prince’s come to see and shower me with jewels.
The interesting thing to me on this issue of race, it’s also very interesting how he presents himself in contrast to people that he thinks are racially inferior. There is one very, very vivid example. I can’t remember if I talked about it on that podcast but it’s in the first chapter of this book. I hope to finish sometime soon.
He talks about first coming to New York. He’s Prussian by birth and had lived in London. He comes to New York, he goes gets his first taxi cab, and he goes to this hotel. There is what he calls a “Negro bellboy” waiting for him there and he’s at first sort of nervous to be in an elevator. It may be the first black person he’s ever seen. That’s unclear. When he gets upstairs to his quarters, this guy is in the room with him was a black bellboy; he starts talking about how he tells him like “shine my shoes” and he won’t shine his shoes.
He actually sits down. He’s carried his bags for him. The bellboy lies down on the couch and kind of smiles at him in a way that he saw as a challenge to his authority. What he does is gets up in his face, he’s on the 16th floor, and picks him up by the lapels.
This guy who’s much bigger than him dangles him over the staircase sixteen floors, like the stairwell, and says to him essentially I’m paraphrasing now but like: “your impudence is too much for white flesh to bear. Don’t ever do it again”. Then he picks him back up and sets him down. A crowd had gathered to watch it now. That’s like pretty explicitly him asserting racial authority him, right?
What’s important, though, I think even more is: he makes a big point of saying “I wasn’t gonna drop him. I knew his lapels would hold. I just wanted to show him who was in charge”.
That is such an interesting example where here’s this guy, this bellboy whose whole job is like picking up suitcases and carrying them around; there’s Sandow who needs to make the point that he’s both stronger than him but more in control of his emotions, right? “I knew that I wasn’t gonna drop him. I knew his lapel would hold. I was just teaching him a lesson and asserting the racial order here”.
Taking a long time of your podcast to explain that story but you see versions of that playing out again and again; the press that writes about these strong men and women, many of whom are of German extraction, tend to write about them in a way that really represents the eugenesis thinking at the time; even about the women. This woman Katie Brumbach, who changed her name to Katie Sandwina when she beat Sandow in a contest. They would say “her fine Bavarian stock makes her a unique woman just in magnificent proportions”.
We talk about how she’s beautifully proportioned but her white skin and her Bavarian stock are really what makes her beautiful. You see this kind of playing out again and again and again. think that that whiteness and that notion of self-mastery is really really important in realizing the origins of deliberate strength training in this country.
Yeah. Oh my goodness. There’s so much, right? Where did it go from here? We had these kinds of shows where you could go watch this person lift this heavy thing; this kind of like as a feat of strength as entertainment.
He obviously has some very racist beliefs. Where does it go from there? What’s the next step? How do we get gyms and equipment and who starts to go to those?
Natalia Mehlman Petrzela: 00:32:51
Yes. Great question. There is like a long story but let’s give you some highlights here. Some of these strong men who are primarily performing, many of them actually become entrepreneurs of some of the first gym equipment out there. People like Sandow or McFadden, they’re publishing magazines, they’re selling devices. Charles Atlas is another one people might have heard of.
He wins like you know the most perfectly developed man contest in 1922 and they actually stop the contests because they’re like no one could be more perfectly developed than Charles Atlas. Then he really comes to fame, though, selling these programs; this thing called dynamic tension, which was about like using different kinds of really isometric strength to build your muscles.
What you see are these strong bodies, and devices to achieve them, being marketed. Since we’re on the topic of race, that is definitely helped in the early 20th century by a very powerful racial anxiety in the United States. This is connected to the influx of all kinds of southern and eastern Europeans into the United States and also not so long before the Emancipation of enslaved people in 1865 who are entering northern cities in great numbers.
You have not just these entrepreneurs but people like Teddy Roosevelt, the president of the United States, talking about the cultivation of a strong body. He calls it the strenuous life as really being kind of noble and American. That whole discourse is very powerful in planting the idea that exercise is a virtuous thing that one should do. They’re not connecting it so much to be a good citizen yet but to be like appropriately like the master of yourself.
This is connected also to the fact that in this period you have the rise of a kind of service economy. A lot of better-educated folks are working; married men really are working at desks and so with that, there is this anxiety that all these men who are an example of modernity and progress, they’re not breaking stones all day. They are clerks; they’re working in offices.
There’s this fear of desk diseases and you should read these texts they’re like: “their are sunken chests” “their sloping shoulders”. Some of the stuff that gets marketed is in order to encourage these men, who are supposed to be the best men, who are supposed to save the country from race suicide by perpetuating the race; they need to actually deliberately exercise to become stronger and to perpetuate the race.
That discourse absolutely plays into the promotion of exercise for men in that period. I’ve been talking mostly about men but for women, too, just to stay in this early 1910s 1920s the United States.
We were talking about pain before. One of the very dominant ideas that prevented women from being able to participate in fitness culture in any meaningful way was: the idea that doing rigorous exercise would thwart their femininity in various ways. It would make them infertile. It would make them look muscular which was masculine; it would probably cultivate a competitive spirit which was very unladylike.
All of those things have actually long conspired to sort of limit women’s participation in some of these endeavors. In the early 20th century, I found this fascinating, you’ve got McFadden, in particular, talking about the way women need to exercise: “they need to train more deliberately, white women”. He goes on this rant against corsets. He says fashion is murder and he particularly hates the corsets.
You’re kind of reading this from a 2020 feminist perspective and you’re like “great. I agree”. You know “go Bernard McFadden. So woke for his time”, but then you read on and the reason that he hates corsets, which are primarily popular among relatively affluent white women, is because in crushing their insides: “who cares if it causes women pain”. What it does is that it crushes their uterus and makes them weak and unable to make more white babies.
He connects like women gaining power through strength training specifically they’re perpetuating the white race, which I think is so overlooked and really important.
OK, you’re with me, right?
Yeah. Hundred percent.
Natalia Petrzela: Yeah. OK. I get very excited about all this and talk quickly. Ok, that’s an important context. You still don’t have a lot of commercial gyms. I think particularly for a man there is a very negative connotation with commercial gyms.
There’s the idea “what kind of man would want to hang out together, scantily clad and working on their body”. There’s ironically this sense that a man who is too caught up with the care of the body is not normative masculine; he must be, they didn’t use the term gay back then, but they would say he must be a pervert.
There was this attitude that to exercise regularly for a man was to actually be feminine. It was so connected to caring about your appearance and your body, which was mostly the realm of women. Promoters of exercise for men really had to contend against that.
You see that’s like well into the 50s, 60s, 70s where exercise programs marketing to men were over the top in a starting “this will make you a man’s man”. “The chicks will love you” and distinguishing the body technology from making a more slender like womanly body. “You want to be a man, you should go to the health club”. A lot of kind of haters would say no a real man doesn’t go to a health club; he has more important things to worry about.
That is, I think, a really important foundation for fitness culture in the United States. This evolves in various ways throughout the mid-century. I would say the next major chapter would be after World War Two when you have this sense that in order to be a fully actualized moral citizen you have to be strong of body, of mind; being strong of body is to be physically fit.
Again this arises from some real anxiety. The thing that made America so great in the postwar period was supposed to be its prosperity. With that prosperity came leisure. This is the age of largely white suburbanization of the creation of labor-saving devices like dishwashers and cars and strollers and cake mix. Many things that removed a lot of the physical labor of everyday life that was supposed to be what made America great. But it was also making America unfit.
You had this big national promotional campaign saying like “a soft American”, that was John F. Kennedy’s words, is “not a good American”. “If you’re too soft you better do something about it”. That gives again this new boost to the virtue of exercise.
It’s important to distinguish the fact promotional boost from actual policies created more recreational fitness opportunities because it didn’t come with a lot of money for infrastructure for action. In terms of gyms, what you asked about that gives a huge boost to the private gym industry which can now present itself as like helping you do your part in being a good American.
You see there’s this guy Vic Tanny who comes out of Muscle Beach which is a place we can talk about in the 40s and 50s; he promotes the idea that strong bodies are desirable and connected to this California lifestyle. Tanny becomes one of the early and big gym entrepreneurs in the United States.
He’s also a huge Cold Warrior and he talks about how in “every one of his 10 health clubs like you know Americans are strengthening themselves to kick Russia’s butt”. You have that kind of connection. Well at the same time it is also an extension of that leisured world that it was ironically created to remedy.
The ads for these clubs are just wild. They call it “broadloom carpeting” you know “chrome exercise machines, tropical fish tanks”. There were supposed to be luxurious spaces so they allow you to still be living that leisure life that showed you were economically successful. You’re supposed to be doing this work in order to show that you are a fit American. That’s an important chapter too.
It’s so interesting to look back at these historical little bits of information and this is like a serious overview but we’re hitting the highlights here. To see so much of these ideas are kind of still perpetuated to this day. You mentioned women don’t want to have big muscles because that’s seen as masculine; men should work out in this kind of way and then like everyone’s worried about being soft. All of this we still see happening today.
When I learn more about these historical roots it’s like “Oh. Yes, OK. I can start to see where like this is coming from”.
Natalia Mehlman Petrzela: 00:42:29
Yeah, we’ve come very far. But you know we have not completely shared some of the most troubling parts of our history. You know since you mentioned women and worrying about looking strong or soft etc.
There are such interesting forces that have shaped the popularity of women’s fitness today. One thing I didn’t mention was is in that sort of mid-century period, whereas men were largely thought to be sort of strange for going to work on their bodies, women might not be encouraged to be athletes. You better believe women were taught that caring for their body is in order to look pretty was actually a totally socially approved activity.
I would say that the kind of early precursor to that kind of realm of women’s fitness, some of which is quite feminist today; the early spaces that kind of began to introduce the idea and instill the idea that women coming together to do bodywork is like a normal thing. It’s something worth spending your money on. Those are really adjacent to beauty salons.
You have this whole industry of something that was called Slenderising Salons or Reducing Spa, which were places that were all for women. They were often connected to beauty salons. They marketed themselves as literally like “you don’t have to do any work. You lie there in luxurious comfort” as you have these circulation belts that I suppose light heavyweight circulation get rid of cellulite et cetera.
You know, it’s hard to think about that as fitness today but I think those are an important precursor to those very women-only dance-inspired classes that come with like Laddy Burke, for example. If anyone has seen the show the marvelous Mrs. Maisel, there’s a great scene where I believe they’re supposed to be in Helena Rubenstein spa. There are all these very well quaffed women who look like they’ve just gotten their hair done and now they’re doing little leg lifts together.
You see that kind of evolve. I think one of the really interesting brands was a huge deal in the United States and globally that to me challenged that but also you still see the remnants is Jazzercise. You know what Jazzercise is right?
I wrote this article about it for the Atlantic. It’s so interesting because Jazzercise was started by this woman Juddi Sheppard Misset in 1969. She was a dancer she was a beauty queen and did not think of herself as a feminist at that point in any by any stretch of the imagination. She would teach these dance classes at a dance studio to little girls and she’d see their mothers sit by the side and: “Oh I couldn’t do that or that’s not for me or that’s not right”. She was like “what if I did something for that?”.
She eventually creates a very kind of simple fun unrestrained dance class in which, this is important, there’s never a mirror. You turn away from the mirror the mirrors are covered. The idea there was these women who were “oh exercise and dance isn’t for me. I’m like too old for that” for them to be able to let go and have joy and be together and participate.
I think there’s something enormously feminist about it including in the business model which we can talk about; also just in the whole sensibility, right? Where women haven’t had these spaces to come together; that wasn’t considered a legitimate way for them to spend their money.
It’s rejecting a lot of this sort of restrained like beauty salon vibe of the ones that had come before. At the same time I think some, I mean much of the reason that it becomes so popular is that it didn’t challenge a lot of those underlying ideas about what was beautiful all that strenuously.
Misset, I’ve talked to her about this in our interviews, she’s a slim white blonde beauty queen. A lot of the marketing particularly from those early days is of women who look just like that. It is very much I think it was kind of revolutionary practice; one that didn’t challenge some of the outcomes that were very attractive to women who were like: “I don’t want to be a jock. I don’t want to be muscular.” It’s no coincidence this became so popular during the 1970s and 80s.
This is after Title 9 for gender equality and women’s sports happens. There’s more kind of women’s athletic activity that’s in the public eye; the feminist revolution is underway. There are a lot of women who I think are inspired by that but I also like “I am not a radical”. You know “I don’t want to be too muscular. I’m not a jock but this thing I could get into” In some ways, it was rather conventionally non-feminine.
It’s so interesting. We need to wrap this up. I feel like I could just keep asking your questions forever. Even as you were saying all of those things about from the beauty salons to dance aerobics and the feminist part of that, which is cool; empowering women to do things and do things with their bodies and it’s not just about looking in the mirror. Also maybe still some other problematic things about that.
I do this thing called the Class. Sometimes like a couple of days a week. This is a new thing since the pandemic started. It’s so interesting because in that form of exercise it’s like I hear I see so much of what you’re talking about.
Natalia Mehlman Petrzela: 00:47:44
On the one hand, like I love it and it’s fun and it’s like getting something different out of me. And on the other hand, I definitely still see where the kind of problems lie. But yeah it’s just so interesting.
Yeah. No absolutely, so many of those strands are so alive and well in women’s fitness today and fitness more broadly. But yeah when you start to see the history you’re like “oh that’s not just the distant past. I could really see the way it shaped you know the world that we’re living in right now”. Hopefully, this work is not just like cool stories from the fitness dustbin of history but rather informs the way we look at the practices we engage in today.
Yeah absolutely. OK. So do you have any idea when your book is gonna be out?
Natalia Mehlman Petrzela: 00:48:29
Oh, Kathryn, it’s been so hard. I was supposed to turn it in during the pandemic and I have two children and it’s just been so hard to get this writing time. The goal is for next year. Interviews like this make me so inspired to just go bang out those words. I have a few chapters left to finish. It shouldn’t be too long.
But for anyone interested: on my website under Popular Writing and Scholarly Writing I’ve published a lot on these topics so you can read more about them.
Amazing and we’ll have links to your website. When everything comes out people can join your newsletter I’m sure and get all the updates. Well, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us all.
Natalia Mehlman Petrzela: 00:49:10
Thank you. This was lovely. I can’t wait to hear the episode and listen to your others.
Kathryn: So that’s our show. Thank you everyone so much for listening. If you are listening on Apple Podcasts and you are loving Mindful Strength Podcast, please consider leaving us a review. All of the reviews really really help.
If you want to learn more about my work, my membership, my teachers’ course, or my new free course called Mindful Strength Foundations. You can head over to mindfulstrength.ca