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A Startling Account: Unveiling the Past of Women’s Fitness Culture

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  • Post last modified:September 26, 2023

Fitness has transformed women into a societal force to be reckoned with, according to Danielle Friedman, author of Let’s Get Physical: How Women Discovered Exercise and Reshaped the World. It has also revolutionized lives on nearly every level: The physical empowerment it brings can lead to greater joy, confidence, and satisfaction. Here, Friedman discusses harnessing that power. (More: Black Trainers and Fitness Pros to Follow and Support)

Shape: Your book establishes a fact most aren’t aware of — that exercise is a relatively new phenomenon for women. Why did it take so long to catch on?

Friedman: Until fairly recently, women didn’t have the liberty to exercise. We transitioned from a culture where perspiration was unfeminine, women feared developing muscles, and girls grew up believing intensive physical activity would result in uterine prolapse, to the world we live in today, where women’s fitness is pervasive. I wanted to explore how we arrived at this point. What I discovered was that a perfect combination of social and cultural changes contributed to women becoming more active: The emergence of the women’s movement, a growing body of research indicating that exercise is beneficial for everyone, including women, and women entering the workforce in larger numbers than ever before, which, for many, meant they had the means to invest in exercise classes.

Shape: How did gaining physical strength make women feel more empowered?

Friedman: What I repeatedly heard was that as they developed physical strength and confidence in their bodies, women suddenly felt more capable of navigating life’s challenges. For example, fitness icon Kathy Smith shared stories of students who would approach her after aerobics classes and say, “I finally mustered the courage to ask my boss for a salary increase,” or “I told my husband I want to return to work.” And many women reported similar experiences. The benefits of feeling physically strong can also extend to mental and emotional well-being.

(Consider this: In mid-20th century America, men were encouraged from an early age to be physically active and build strength, while women were taught to be wary of their bodies. As this started to change, primarily due to the rise of women’s fitness, the social balance began to shift. The impact of women learning to connect with their bodies has been immense.)

Shape: The women you spoke to mentioned that working out made them feel youthful. Has exercise altered the perception of age?

Friedman: There is significant focus on exercise for longevity from a clinical medical perspective. However, the true secret may lie in how exercise helps women feel completely present and capable of using their bodies to live life on their own terms well into their seventies, eighties, and beyond. There is the notion that 50 is now the new 30, and so on. I believe age now carries a very different meaning because of our level of physical activity. (More: How to Stay Young and Increase Your Longevity)

Type: So then, how can we inspire even more women to embrace physical activity?

Friedman: In our society, fitness has been marketed as a demanding lifestyle that requires expensive clothing and a significant amount of money and time. I personally experienced this—I felt like I didn’t have enough time to go for a run, even though I love running. But now, on days when I don’t have 45 minutes for a run, instead of just sitting at my desk and doing nothing, I take a 30-minute walk. It may not meet the traditional definition of exercise because it’s not intense, but I feel much better afterwards. I believe we need to broaden our perspective on what constitutes fitness. If we focus on engaging in activities that bring us joy and make us feel good, that can encourage more people to get involved.

Type: What was the most unexpected revelation you discovered while writing the book?

Friedman: That the sports bra wasn’t invented until the 1970s. And like many innovations in women’s fitness, it stemmed from necessity. Women were finally participating in physical activities in large numbers, which inspired the creation of the sports bra and made it a staple in wardrobes. Prior to that, some women would wear two bras, while others would go without one. The inventors of the sports bra—three women, as always—were clever in their marketing strategy. Breaking into the lingerie market was notoriously challenging, so they sold the sports bra through sporting goods stores. However, they had to package it in a socially acceptable and discreet way. They came up with the idea of categorizing it as athletic equipment. (More: The 12 Best Sports Bras for Running, According to Customer Reviews)

And then there’s the story of Lycra. It was initially developed for girdles, but as women started abandoning them, it became popular for making leotards. Lycra underwent a complete transformation from being a symbol of restriction to one of liberation. That really amazed me.

Danielle Friedman is an acclaimed journalist whose articles have been featured in prestigious publications like The New York Times and Vogue.

Courtesy of Lindsay May for Classic Kids Photography

Danielle Friedman is an acclaimed journalist whose articles have been featured in prestigious publications like The New York Times and Vogue.

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