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When Did Fitness Become a Luxury Item?
"It is not a coincidence that the fitness industry has boomed as physical education funding has faltered."
Content Warning: If reading about people and exercise of any kind just generally makes you feel like crap no matter the tone or purpose, listen to yourself and opt out! We’ll be back later this week with non-exercise content galore.
I’ve spent a large part of my adult life convincing people that we should think more — a lot more — around things that others dismiss as frivolous, feminized, ridiculous, or “just entertainment.” For me, most of that work was in celebrity and specifically the history of celebrity gossip — a cultural object I loved to consume and loved to analyze just as much, if not more. For historian Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, that thing is fitness.
I won’t go into much more detail because we have a long, winding, deeply fascinating conversation about Natalia’s new book, Fit Nation, below. But I will say that Natalia is doing incredibly valuable public-facing history: in this book (and in detailed interviews like this one!), in her work as a co-producer and host of Welcome to Your Fantasy (all about the Chippendales, and yes, this came out before the show), and as co-host of the Past Present Pod.
Natalia’s work encourages me to look differently at (and interrogate!) practices and understandings that have become part of my every day life, which is basically my #1 hope for any piece of history. If you’re a person who exercises in any fashion, I know this interview (and the book!) will do the same — and if you’re not, it might also give you a better understanding of your disinterest or resistance. Either way, it will make you think more about the world that surrounds you in some way, which, you know, is the whole damn point of this newsletter.
I vividly remember the first time I saw your profile on Twitter, clicked through to your website, and realized: holy shit, a scholar who talks about exercise, and not just exercise, but her OWN exercise praxis! Can you tell us your path — as winding as you’d like to explain — to the work that you do today? (I’m thinking of this part of the Acknowledgements: “As much as American culture at large enshrines exercise as virtuous, academia is one of the last holdouts where the ‘life of the mind’ is often seen as discrete from, and superior to, bodily pursuits. This meant for years, I rarely shared with scholarly colleagues the fact that I taught fitness, or minimized it as ‘something I started doing on the side’ as opposed to a sustaining part of my life.”)
As a kid, I felt totally alienated from the physical activities available to me, which mostly meant team sports, P.E., and dance. That sense of unease in P.E. is actually where the journey to this book began back in 1994, my junior year of high school. All those years of being picked last and struggling on the rope climb and timed mile came to a head, in addition to a new source of mortification: our teacher would often ask us to climb up on the closed wooden bleachers while she gave directions. I just didn’t have the upper body strength to hoist myself up without looking (I thought) like a sweaty, redfaced mess - before class even started!
I remember feeling both like this was the most stressful thing in the world and that it was ridiculous I was wasting emotional energy on something so insignificant when I should be focusing on my studies or the social drama of the moment. So I invoked an arcane rule in the Students Rights and Responsibilities Manual that allowed me to take an independent study in P.E. I marched into the department chair’s office to inquire how to exercise this option, and they decided I could either do personal training or take a “group fitness” class. My parents had heard of personal training (then a new field) as something “for rich people,” so that was out, but our family membership to the Jewish Community Center included group classes, so I could do that. I didn't know what I was getting into but I knew it had to be better than P.E.
(Before I tell you what happened in that class, it is worth noting — per your question about the relationship between academia and fitness culture — that I did not share any of the above with my friends. Rather than say I was mortified in the P.E. classes that most kids seemed to take in stride, I explained I was clearing space to add an extra AP course. I actually did do that, but I now realize now that I felt it was more socially acceptable to pooh-pooh P.E. in relation to an academic option than to admit how intimidated I was.)
Anyway, I suited up in lime-green Umbros and an oversized tee screen-printed with lacrosse-playing Grateful Dead bears, and off I went to 5:30 p.m. Step class at the JCC. The youngest by at least a decade, I hung in the back, marveling at the synchronous movement of the (mostly) women. Before long, I was in the front row looking at a reflection of a version of myself I barely recognized: spinning around the molded-rubber-and-plastic Reebok Step, purple risers stacked ever higher, new muscles visible under the tight bike shorts and sports bra I’d bought at the mall. After class I felt breathless, strong, and ready for anything. I had discovered a form of fitness — not sport—I somehow felt capable of navigating.
I know it sounds breathless and sort of overwrought, but this was a huge deal for me! After a lifetime of avoiding or just tolerating physical activity, I could not believe how alive I felt in these classes. This was mostly a positive development, though the realization that I could work on my body as diligently as I could memorize French conjugations had its downsides. For a time I became a little too obsessed, skipping meals to stack up two or three consecutive classes, impressed at how I could power through hunger pangs once I began moving. Those instructors inspired me, but they also taught me words for body parts I had never considered, much less fixated upon: muffin top, thunder thighs, bat wings. Looking back, I really lament how inextricable this mentality felt from my sense of the power of exercise.
When I went off to college in New York City, I took group fitness classes on and near campus, but quickly realized some of the best instructors in the world were teaching just a few subway stops away. One problem: I couldn’t afford to take them. I remedied that by getting a job working the front desk at a World Gym franchise. I was blown away by these instructors who would breeze in before class, all swathed in sweats and lugging backpacks full of music and clothes, sign out a microphone, and then lead crowds so enraptured it almost seemed they had attended a religious service. I tried to schedule my shifts so I could attend too, and would return to campus sweaty and exhilarated, my dorm mates thinking I was a little weird about this gym thing, especially when I “joked” that “in another life” I aspired to be an aerobics instructor.
I only “joked” about these aspirations because in the mid-’90s, that seemed, at least to me, like an odd, or even inappropriate, goal for a cerebral striver. This was significantly before the figure of the hard-driving professional abandoning it all to become a SoulCycle or yoga instructor was a trope, and — I cringe now to say it — I definitely bought into the far more prevalent archetype of the ditzy gym bunny/meathead. I did this despite the power they possessed as teachers and obvious evidence to the contrary, including my ending up on a subway uptown with a star instructor and realizing she was a Columbia student too, pursuing her MFA. I registered for an instructor certification exam, presumed I didn’t need to study, and failed! I remember opening the score report and my cheeks flushing with embarrassment, not only at failing but at the arrogance of my assumptions.
My fitness instructor dreams were temporarily deferred, but I leaned ever deeper into a fitness culture that I now understand was expanding at breakneck pace outside of my own life as well. During two tumultuous post-college years — the first as an investment banking analyst, the second as a public middle-school teacher — that also included 9/11, a consistent source of sanity was my New York Sports Club membership. I then moved to California for graduate school and discovered that distance running (probably the most intimidating activity I could imagine, given its proximity to sports) wasn’t uniquely the arena of the sinewy cross-country athletes.
Joining a fundraising group called Team in Training, I completed my first marathon. I felt so proud because it’s a big deal to run 26.2 miles, but also because as I was identifying much more as a feminist and a scholar, distance running felt more legitimate than mastering dance-cardio choreography, a mostly female world still checkered with diet talk. This makes me smile now, because the aspect of feminist thought that demands taking women’s spaces and practices seriously is very much the ethos of Fit Nation, but as a baby grad student, I was still sheepishly stuffing my spandex under my Fem Studies 101 notes.
I moved back to NYC to work on my dissertation. I was extremely fortunate to have a topic that still fascinates me, supportive mentors, a fellowship and a well paid side hustle, but I was practically paralyzed with fear that I would never finish, or that what I would produce would be mediocre. I thought I’d engage in some productive procrastination and channel my anxiety into exercise, but I found a class, intenSati, that yes, got me in shape, but also so cleared my mind and invested me with what I can only describe as a sense of tremendous possibility. The class combined spoken affirmations and cardio in a way that sounds corny until you try it.
In 2007, when its charismatic creator, Patricia Moreno, offered to train me as one of her first instructors, I first demurred with an explanation that I was too busy pursuing my Ph.D. at Stanford. “So?,” she answered, “you are in every class. You are a teacher. Why not teach this?” She was right, and my decision to become an intenSati leader was a crucial moment in my letting go of the idea that a “life of the mind” was incompatible with the sweaty, embodied realm of the gym.
Within a few months, I taught ten classes a week at a fancy gym and free community classes whenever possible, and soon after became a lululemon ambassador (for a time). I was on cloud nine, because it was objectively fun but also because it was specifically affirming to triumph in a realm I had always found so intimidating. On the other hand, I lived in perpetual fear that academic hiring committees would google me, find me on a class schedule or in a photo in a sports bra, and banish me from the profession for being unserious. That fear proved mostly unfounded, and in 2009, I was gearing up to begin my Assistant Professor job at The New School (and give birth in September).
As I made this shift, I kept hearing two distinct messages: one, people at the gym, a world then saturated in the Eat-Pray-Love self-help sensibility, recommended I “follow my bliss” and quit my boring academic career to do what I clearly truly loved: full-time fitness. Two, my parents and the few academic colleagues who knew about my fitness life basically said, “OK, now that you’re done with grad school and becoming a real grownup, isn’t it time to quit your little hobby?”
I knew neither of those paths made sense to me, and in retrospect, it was at this moment that the feeling that I wanted to forge a new path in which I took a scholarly, but engaged, perspective on fitness culture, began to crystallize. My brain didn’t shut off at the gym anymore than it did while reading the news; I was, and am, constantly asking that historian’s question: “how did we get here?” This felt especially salient when seeing rows of people apparently joylessly spending money to pound out miles on treadmills (literally going nowhere!) or engaged in other weird rituals around front-row status or locker-room (im)modesty.
Looking back, I also see how much this decision to integrate my work into the rest of my life was a product of the hustle culture of the 2010s. I didn’t just enjoy the gym, I became an instructor! I didn’t just do that in my spare time, I decided to write a book about it! I am very happy with those decisions, but they feel a little out of step with the cultural mood today, which I think rightfully questions the productivity culture I so enthusiastically embraced.
One of the central arguments of Fit Nation is how exercise became bound up with virtue in our larger culture. At the same time, academia really is one of the last holdouts that clings to this idea that “real work” is cerebral and even at odds with that of physical development. I think that’s why academics are generally less open about their own exercise pursuits than those in business (there are positives to this!), and also why relatively little humanities scholarship on fitness culture exists, and much of what does is narrowly critical or clinical.
I am trying to shed light on these dynamics, including in my own thinking! Even though a core commitment of my work is to take seriously women’s magazines, exercise advice literature, infomercials, etc as historical documents, I realize I feel a special hit of accomplishment every time this particular project is legitimized with a traditional form of scholarly recognition — an accepted conference paper, a peer-reviewed article, or publication with the esteemed University of Chicago Press. A colleague once told me that deep research necessarily generates introspection, and Fit Nation is no exception, in expected and surprising ways.
I underlined this sentence three times AND put little stars next to it:
“Despite of — or because of — greater attention to inequality, fitness has become a socially acceptable form of conspicuous consumption in a society that celebrates the pursuit of health as practically holy, but not quite enough to make it a public good.”
Can you unpack the idea of fitness as “a socially acceptable form of conspicuous consumption” — and go into that larger tension with how that celebrated, acceptable form is also made inaccessible and inequitable? It strikes me that excluding it from the realm of the public good is what allows it to maintain its venerated status.
First it’s important to understand that for most of U.S. history, working out is not a socially acceptable activity or a form of conspicuous consumption at all. Making exercise a priority in terms of time and money actually made you suspicious, so you weren’t about to go flaunting your participation. The gyms that exist are pretty sparse and grubby, with the exception of “reducing spas” for women, which are more like beauty salons. Exercise gets a real image upgrade in the 1950s and 60s, as boosters promote it as a form of military readiness and a technique to offset the physical effects of an increasingly sedentary lifestyle, aka the “good life” of cars, TVs, processed food, etc. This elevation of exercise to a virtuous activity — and thus one people will pay up for — has continued apace ever since.
I argue that fitness really started to become “a socially acceptable form of conspicuous consumption” during the financial crisis of 2007-08. People are losing their jobs and their homes and there’s a whole vibe shift in which the luxurious accouterments of a wealthy lifestyle (fancy cars, houses, or at least flaunting them) is perceived as unseemly. At the same time, social media is exploding, and all of a sudden, there are endless opportunities to chronicle daily life and consumption. It’s no coincidence that the luxury boutique fitness boom originates and takes off then as well. (“Boutique fitness” basically means pay-per-class experiences, usually in a freestanding, branded studio as opposed to in a conventional gym, and at a higher price point than an all-inclusive monthly membership).
Because exercise is considered both a form of labor and leisure, posting a sweaty selfie after a SoulCycle class conveys that you may be spending lavishly (on a $35 class, the $10 post-class smoothie, $100 leggings), but you’re investing in pursuit of health, which our culture sanctifies, especially when you’re visibly working hard to achieve it. It was much more socially acceptable than showing off one’s penchant for fancy cocktails or caviar, for example, because exercise takes effort while fashion or fine dining is understood as pure indulgence. At the same time, it’s expensive, so the participant has clearly “worked for it.”
Boutique brands really fill, and fan, this appetite for performing the pursuit of fitness, decorating their studios in distinct colors, setting up selfie mirrors, and branding apparel that broadcasts one’s membership in these exclusive “tribes.” It also absolutely feeds the broader appetite for “Stars! They’re Just Like Us!” celebrity transparency and the mirror-image reality-tv impulse for regular people to live like those celebrities, even if for an hour at the gym.
When you frame exercise as “at its best” when it’s an elite experience, you’re cementing the idea that only those who can afford expensive exercise have a right to participate. Moreover, the highly visible luxury fitness realm truly does include so much materialistic ridiculousness — scented towels, epic waiting lists, cults of personality — that it becomes easy to dismiss exercise as a silly pastime of the rich rather than fighting for policies that would make universal access to a range of inclusive, effective fitness experiences a right rather than a privilege. It is not a coincidence that the fitness industry has boomed as physical education funding has faltered.
Because I am who I am, I loved the historicization of our current fitness habits — I was familiar with the Sandow narrative, but SANDWINA!!! Can you talk more about who she was, how she had to manage her celebritization, and what that moment tells us about today?
Isn’t Katie Sandwina amazing? She took that last name because in one strength contest, she lifted more weight than Eugen Sandow (300 lbs one-hand overhead; he could only get to his chest) and immediately jumped on that branding opportunity. She was born Katie Brumbach, in Vienna, and her father recognized her remarkable strength when she was a toddler. He quickly (and dubiously?) put her to work performing feats of strength, and it was in a wrestling match at age sixteen where she (as legend has it) locked eyes with a 5’ 6” male combatant she had pinned and fell in love. They got married and traveled around putting on shows in which she would spin him in the air and sit him on her shoulders or even pretend to fire him like a rifle. He’d be in a tux and she would wear these super frilly feminine clothes. Their big break came when P.T. Barnum incorporated them in his circus.
She’s so fascinating for multiple reasons. One, she was very popular; men tended to fawn over her “perfect proportions, just magnified,” (she was about 5’10” and 240 lbs) while women journalists involved in the suffrage movement fantasized about what “a world of Sandwinas” would be like. It was a huge coup for popular depictions of female strength, but what is also remarkable is how much this favorable coverage of a woman who bucked pretty much every norm about delicacy and female frailty centered her whiteness. Many profiles made reference to racial traits such as her “alabaster” skin and northern European “stock,” which stood in stark contrast to the portrayal of poor and nonwhite women, who were either ignored or degraded.
Sandwina herself was very deliberate in her offstage public presentation. In one tragically hilarious interview with a journalist unsuccessfully trying to get a quote that conveyed a shred of feminist solidarity from “Lady Hercules,” Sandwina mostly let her husband do the talking except to say that she found American women insufficiently committed to homemaking. Interestingly, she did take on a leading role in the pro-suffrage organizing among circuswomen, a group energized not only by the justice of the cause but by the fact that upper-class clubwomen prominent in the movement snubbed them as “blithe and bespangled.”
Sandwina is in some ways a relic of a very different time, but the false dichotomy between strength and femininity persisted as one of the big themes of the last century, and even now. I see strong echoes of Sandwina in the cultural reception of Abbye “Pudgy” Stockton, one of the few prominent women at Muscle Beach in the 1940s and 50s, of female athletes like Anna Kournikova and the US women’s soccer team in the 1990s, and even in Crossfit athletes today whose strength is often still assumed to compromise their femininity.
There is just so much happening at once in the ‘80s and ‘90s when it comes to fitness culture — Jazzercise, jogging, the celebritization of Arnold Schwarzenegger, the ‘hard bodies’ of action films, Richard Simmons and Sweatin’ to the Oldies, Jane Fonda, step aerobics, franchise fitness — and you dive into each of them.
But as you point out: all of these are private, profit-minded industries. There’s this great sub-title in the middle of all the chapters on those trends that’s just “Who Needs PE When Exercise is Everywhere?” How do we think of (private) fitness as part of the larger neoliberal project, and what do you see as the contemporary consequences? And how were those consequences even more visible during the pandemic? [Also, because we’re talking to larger audiences, can you define neoliberalism as you understand it when you answer?]
So first, neoliberalism: I recommend reading David Harvey for a more rigorous definition, but I use it to describe an ideology that celebrates the free market and individual initiative as the most vital forces in a good society. In some ways, this philosophy is as old as capitalism, but in the United States, it has taken particular hold since the 1970s and its biggest policy impact has been cutting social programs, while its most significant cultural impact has been amplifying individualistic self-help mythologies.
The boom in fitness culture in this era is very much part of this trend: the private industry expands as the public provision of physical education contracts. The *specificity* of fitness is also important, because the dominant sensibility promoted almost everywhere exercise is sold is deeply individualistic, dovetailing with the ethos of the era: no pain, no gain… all that stands between you and your “best” body is your willpower (or lack thereof).
In this sense, it computes that the private industry would thrive as the public physical education field struggles for funding and professional respect. It did not have to go this way, however, and there’s significant — and now rather heartbreaking — evidence in the professional journals that plenty of physical educators felt like the fitness boom of the 1980s would finally be their profession’s moment to shine. They were, after all, the most expert in this field! But that’s not what happened. I cite multiple universities in the late 1970s and ‘80s that were marketing programs preparing students for careers in fitness that were distinctly not in P.E. Several of the people I interviewed who had built successful careers in this era kept comparing their illustrious lives with what they saw as a dull alternative that would have been their fate at any previous moment in history: “ending up a P.E. teacher.” The contrast in glamor — and, for those at the top of the field, income — made sense.
Something that surprised me in these interviews was that every one of these individuals understood the private market as being significantly more inclusive than P.E. In their experience, kids who were athletically inclined participated in P.E. and excelled, and those who were less so found every excuse to sit out and ended up either uninspired — or worse, traumatized — by the experience. In new classes like barre and aerobics, I learned, people who had not felt included in conventional forms of physical activity like P.E. or organized athletics (predominantly women and gay men) encountered different movement communities.
This discovery was revelatory, and not just because it anticipated my own in the 1990s: yes, the rise of the fitness industry reflected broader austerity politics, but while it made exercise less accessible in some ways, it opened doors in others. This insight is so important in resisting generalizations about neoliberalism, and also about any “golden age” of physical education, a label sometimes placed on the Eisenhower-JFK years, and which I strenuously resist!
I think we’re at a pretty interesting moment in fitness, where there’s more and more of an understanding that movement does not have to be tethered to weight loss, that fat bodies can be fit bodies….there is ongoing work to undo gender essentialism, and increased visibility and inclusion of disabled bodies, and rejection of diet culture…but whew, it still really feels like the very first steps in undoing ideologies that have perpetuated a whole lot of harm and hurt and exclusion.
Where do you see yourself in this larger dismantling process, where do you see contemporary fitness culture, and what role are you hoping that your book plays? What do you see out in the world right now that strikes you as a sign of regression — and what strikes you as a sign of actual change?
Fitness was relatively early in meaningfully eroding some hierarchies — especially around gender, sexuality, and age — and feels so tragically late in dismantling others it still perpetuates, especially around size, ability, and to an extent, race.
People ask me all the time if things are getting better or worse in fitness culture, and my answer is an unsatisfying but accurate “both.” We live in a world in which fitness is everywhere, but that omnipresence can feel more like oppression than inclusiveness, especially when ubiquitousness does not equal accessibility. Fit Nation is very much the story of the push-and-pull processes by which this world took shape over more than a century, as well as a call to action to do better in the future. That begins, I think, with acknowledging that the way we exercise (or don’t) is a result of social and political processes, and that understanding these dynamics and their histories is worthwhile. Hopefully Fit Nation makes this a more feasible and exciting endeavor than it was before its publication.
Beyond spreading that historical awareness, I hope this book inspires readers to work towards what I consider the best possible version of a “fit nation”: one in which all people have the ability to exercise on their own terms. That framing is extremely important, because so much of our current exercise culture involves coercion of one sort or another, whether it is a misguided one-size-fits-all approach to physical education, the environment when most Americans will first encounter exercise, or the perpetual social pressures to attain a “fit” body, whether that means bulging biceps, a thigh gap, a snatched waist, or whatever the current fixation is.
An understandable (but, I think, similarly lamentable reaction) is to condemn fitness culture categorically. What would it look like if people of all backgrounds and identities had access to safe and fun recreational exercise experiences and the time, space, and health to enjoy them? That’s what I’m fighting for. Achieving this vision involves reform in realms far beyond exercise, and I hope Fit Nation shows how fitness inequality is intertwined with disparities in housing, work, healthcare, food security, and so on.
We can all take action in individual and structural ways. This involves taking a critical look at what constitutes our own fitness experiences — from who is in the room to how businesses treat their employees to the cues used in class — and choosing to support those who advance this work at its best.
The structural piece is more complex, since so little existing policy even imagines a world like the one I describe! I was very much in support of the bipartisan GYMS Act, for example, which would have allocated support to redress the shattering economic effects of the pandemic on the fitness industry, but even that landmark measure (which didn’t pass) didn’t engage the public sector. Fighting for physical education allocations, more parks and recreation in under-resourced areas, better community safety, and universal health care are all crucial policy interventions, as well as supporting the nonprofits that are filling this gap with often life-changing programming. Most of all, it’s paramount that we keep alive in our imaginations the vision of a more accessible and genuinely empowering future in which fitness is a right rather than a privilege.
Finally, I’d love for you to share your favorite YouTube video of a classic workout (preferably one that you, yourself, kind of know by heart). I’ll share mine, just to get us started. It rules.
Jane Fonda Step is such a classic! I love how she evolved with fitness culture, even if she was less central to directing it after the early 1980s. Little-known fact: she had a yoga video in the 1990s… which I explore in Fit Nation.
Can I have two?! Neither is analyzed in the book specifically, but both are such rich texts in exemplifying some of its key themes. First, Angela Lansbury’s 1988 video “Positive Moves”.
Lansbury is in her mid-60s when she releases this calming stretching program (a book followed) that she credits with helping her achieve the “health and beauty” her mother taught her was so important to staying “active at any age.” I can’t say I know it by heart, but I love it because it simultaneously offers a wildly different, gentler alternative to the hard-driving high-impact (and as I learned, sometimes cocaine-fueled) aerobics most associated with the era and is proof positive of the hard truth that by the late 1980s no one, even sexagenerians, is spared from the expectation of regular exercise. Lastly, this was a time when it felt like every celebrity, no matter how unlikely they seemed as a fitness influencer, was jumping on the workout VHS juggernaut. So many celebrities, from Lansbury to Heather Locklear to Traci Lords (in greater numbers than the “celebrity trainers” who would become more prominent in the 90s and beyond!) released their own VHS tapes.
Second is The Grind Workout with Eric Nies and Akiba Tripp. One, I love a fun dance workout (and I used to take class from Akiba during that stint in college when I worked the front desk, and I remember her being kind of a celebrity because of this video). Two, this one is also just such a 1990s artifact: it stars Eric Nies (now a “modern shaman,” a trajectory very much in keeping with the broader fitness-to-spiritual-wellness pipeline), who rose to fame as a star on the first season of MTV’s The Real World, arguably the first reality show that set the stage for the zillions to come. It’s also set up like a dance club and clearly meant to be a party… a real shift away from the exercise-is-torture mentality that was ascendant for so long.
Then there’s the fact that it’s a hip-hop workout featuring multiple Black dancers. That would have been unheard of just a few years earlier, and really sets the stage for the way that a broader, commodified multiculturalism filters into fitness culture with particular impact in the nineties, from yoga to Tae Bo. There are so many of these classic workout videos now on YouTube and other sites, but I worry about how ephemeral they are. I should mention that in my utopian fit nation vision, I also work with a team of well-paid researchers to archive such sources much more permanently.