I was marrying a wonderful man, and I had spent my career as a journalist making the case that women should be valued for their inner selves and not their appearance. But weddings have a way of stirring up our most basic desires, and even feminists sometimes fantasise about greeting the world with a flat stomach and firm arms.
I had heard that barre, a workout based on teeny tiny resistance exercises performed at a ballet barre, was deceptively challenging. My local barre studio promised, in loopy letters on a pavement chalkboard, to LTB – lift, tone, burn – my then 35-year-old body into that of a ballerina. It sounded highly improbable and completely perfect.
I slipped into the boutique fitness uniform of moisture-wicking everything, handed over my bank card, and swallowed hard. When the class began, a pony-tailed instructor wearing a head-set microphone ushered me and a dozen other women to a ballet barre, where we moved our thighs up an inch, down an inch until our muscles trembled.
On cue, I squeezed my “seat” (barre-speak for bum) until it spasmed and planked until I thought I might pass out. When I looked around the room, every other woman was stone-faced in her Lululemon clothing. Would one of them catch me if I collapsed mid-squat?
For the last few minutes, we lay on our backs and thrust our pelvises to a stripped-down version of Rihanna’s “Umbrella”. At the end, I didn’t die of embarrassment or exhaustion. I felt fantastic.
So I went back, again and again. The workout made me strong in parts of my body I hadn’t realised were weak. It allowed me, for the first time in my life, to carry my shopping without stopping to rest after three minutes. I didn’t look like a ballerina, but I felt like one – light on my feet, energised, connected with my body in a totally new way.
I came to understand that the other women in class weren’t unfriendly but intensely focused, in the one space where they had to focus only on themselves. I, too, developed a resting barre face.
A few months into my new Pure Barre routine, I became curious: Where did the barre workout, which had become a global phenomenon (and multibillion-pound industry), come from? One internet rabbit hole led to another, and I discovered an origin story far richer than I was expecting. What had once seemed like a familiar rite of passage suddenly took on the feeling of a mystery waiting to be uncovered.
The workout was created in 1959 by Lotte Berk, a free-love revolutionary and former dancer who wanted to help women improve their sex lives. (This explained why many of the exercises in class felt comically erotic, from pelvic tucks to a move called “knee dancing.”)
Almost as radical at the time, Berk encouraged women to use exercise to strengthen their body – to create a “corset of muscle”. Her London studio was one of the first-ever boutique fitness studios, and she attracted a celebrity clientele of actresses, writers, and on one occasion Barbra Streisand, who allegedly never removed her hat.
I wrote about this history in a feature for New York Magazine’s The Cut titled “The secret sexual history of the barre workout”, and the story went viral. Few of the workout’s devotees, including studio owners and instructors, knew about its roots.
Some were scandalised, while others were delighted. For me, researching the piece opened my eyes to more than one workout’s wild origins: it felt like unlocking a portal to a hidden feminist history.
While fitness culture today can feel sleek and sometimes sterile, the story of how women’s exercise developed in the 20th century until now, I discovered, is weird and messy and awkward and glamorous. It’s rich with cinematic characters and forgotten pioneers of what we now call self-care.
But more than that, it’s the story of a paradigm shift in the way women, so long accepted as the “weaker sex”, came to view their bodies. Because when women first began exercising en masse, they were participating in something subversive: the cultivation of physical strength and autonomy.
Today, I exercise for energy, for strength, and for my mental health. I exercise to feel the endorphin high of accomplishment and to manage life’s lows. I exercise to remind myself I can persevere. And I am not alone. Most of the women I know consider regular physical activity essential to their emotional and physical wellbeing. My mum, who is in her early seventies, calls her weekly cardio dance classes a “sure-fire source of joy”.
Before the pandemic, around 184 million people belonged to at least one gym, studio, or health club. The pandemic shook the fitness industry, forcing scores of brick-and-mortar spaces to permanently close. In spring this year, 400 facilities in the UK had shut down and another 2,400 were at risk. As working from home restrictions continue, the fitness industry has been calling for urgent financial packages to help it during January, in which new members would usually increase.
But the pandemic also led to a dramatic rise in home exercise: by mid-2020, more than 80 per cent of fitness consumers had livestreamed workouts, compared with only 7 per cent before the global lockdown began. For many, amid so much unthinkable tragedy, the past 18 months brought a newfound appreciation for what their bodies could do, beyond how their bodies looked.
Women’s desire to test their strength and endurance through exercise is now widely accepted in most Western countries. But until relatively recently, the premise that an average woman would regularly break a sweat in the name of health – or even beauty or weight loss – would have shocked polite society.
Throughout the first half of the 20th century, sweating was considered “unladylike”, and women tried to hide their muscles under sleeves. While women’s beauty guides advised that gentle calisthenics could help correct a woman’s “figure faults”, doctors cautioned against vigorous exercise, warning it would lead to exhaustion or make a woman’s uterus literally “fall out”.
Until the early 1970s, common wisdom held it was dangerous for women to run more than a couple of miles at a time – a justification for banning women from road races. The average woman exercised so little for so long, the sports bra wasn’t invented until 1977. (All hail inventors Lisa Lindahl, Hinda Miller, and Polly Smith.)
But while much has been written about how the rise of women’s sports has empowered women, the role of women’s fitness in shaping our collective pursuit of strength has largely slipped under the historical radar. This, despite the fact that most women stop playing organised sports when they leave school or university, whereas many exercise for a lifetime.
When popular media have explored the historical significance of women’s fitness culture, they have mostly treated it as a collection of disparate fads with little impact on women’s lives or society at large. It is often covered as kitsch – reminders of a past that women would just as soon forget, from vibrating belts that promised to eviscerate fat to neon leg warmers.
We can always find reasons to laugh at the choices made by our younger, less wise selves or forebears – thong leotards? really? – but this popular treatment also surely stems from the fact that we live in a culture that diminishes women’s interests as silly and trivial.
Dismissing the things women say they love as inconsequential allows our culture to stealthily ensure women remain subordinate to men.
Women’s fitness history is more than a series of misguided “crazes”. It’s the story of how women have chosen to spend collectively billions of pounds and hours in pursuit of health and happiness. In many ways, it’s the story of what it has meant to be a woman over the past seven decades.
For much of the 20th century, most women didn’t move very much. They grew up being told they were physically limited. “For centuries women have been shackled to a perception of themselves as weak and ineffectual,” Colette Dowling writes in her book The Frailty Myth.
“This perception has been nothing less than the emotional and cognitive equivalent of having our whole bodies bound.”
Fitness and health
- Regular physical activity can help prevent the diseases that are the major causes of death and disability in women, according to the World Health Organisation.
- Staying fit can reduce women’s chances of getting cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and breast cancer.
- Certain exercises also help to build bone strength and help prevent osteoporosis, which causes fragile bones and is most common in post-menopausal women.
- A new Swedish study shows exercise can also help treat severe anxiety. Patients who were prescribed a 12-week supervised exercise programme all experienced a reduction in symptoms, with the best results in those doing high-intensity workouts. Researchers said the programme worked by reducing muscle tensions and boosting endorphins.
By the late 60s, however, women began to question whether they really were defined by their biology. A new wave of feminists wondered: what if women weren’t born physically weak, but became weak in a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy? After all, little boys were encouraged to climb trees and throw balls, while little girls were rewarded for displaying poise and grace. Boys were encouraged to get dirty; girls, to keep their clothes pristine.
Even clothes themselves discouraged movement: the restrictive dresses, girdles, and high heels of mid-century women’s wardrobes made it difficult for them to bend, stretch, run, and sometimes even breathe. Men enjoyed a lifetime of practising how to use and trust their bodies; women did not.
In the early 70s, the authors of the seminal women’s health guide Our Bodies, Ourselves wrote: “Our bodies are the physical bases from which we move out into the world,” but “ignorance, uncertainty – even, at worst, shame – about our physical selves create in us an alienation from ourselves that keeps us from being the whole people that we could be. Picture a woman trying to do work and to enter into equal and satisfying relationships with other people … when she feels physically weak because she has never tried to be strong.” The rise of women’s fitness offered a path to this strength.
For most of her life, the feminist icon Gloria Steinem actively avoided exercise, feeling more comfortable living in her head. “I come from a generation who didn’t do sports. Being a cheerleader or drum majorette was as far as our imaginations or role models could take us,” she wrote in her book Moving Beyond Words.
“That’s one of many reasons why I and other women of my generation grew up believing – as many girls still do – that the most important thing about a female body is not what it does but how it looks. The power lies not within us but in the gaze of the observer.”
As she watched friends begin to exercise in the 70s and 80s, her perspective shifted. “For women to enjoy physical strength is a collective revolution,” Steinem later wrote. “I’ve gradually come to believe that society’s acceptance of muscular women may be one of the most intimate, visceral measures of change,” she also observed.
“Yes, we need progress everywhere, but an increase in our physical strength could have more impact on the everyday lives of most women than the occasional role model in the boardroom or in the White House.” Steinem herself began practising yoga and lifting weights in her fifties.
Of course, women’s fitness culture is far from universally empowering. It is deeply intertwined with beauty culture, which sells the idea that women must change to be lovable – or even acceptable. Over the decades, fitness purveyors promising to lift women up have instead held them back and held them down by exploiting their insecurities. And the fitness industry at large is a formidable capitalist force that has long tried to commodify women’s empowerment for its own gain.
But to dismiss the rise of women’s fitness culture as only harmful is to deny the experiences of millions who consider exercise vital to their wellbeing. Put simply: it’s a lot more nuanced than good or bad.
As with my experience with Pure Barre, many women start exercising to change their appearance, but they stick with it after discovering more meaningful rewards.
For some, becoming strong helps them overcome the desire to shape their body for anyone else’s pleasure. As journalist Haley Shapley writes in Strong Like Her, “strength begets strength”, and not just of the muscular variety.
By understanding women’s fitness history – the good and the bad, the silly and the serious – we can better understand ourselves. And we can better harness exercise in ways that truly liberate all women.
‘Let’s Get Physical: How Women Discovered Exercise and Reshaped the World’ (Icon books, £16.99) is published on Thursday 6 January