Get in Shape Girl: A Century of Working Out from HomeRoundup
tags: gender, popular culture, health, television, Fitness
Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, PhD is Associate Professor of History at The New School and working on a book about fitness culture in the United States. She is also the host of a forthcoming podcast from Pineapple Street Studios.
But nothing established the normalcy of working out at home as much as TV. Between 1945 and 1959, home television ownership exploded from less than ten thousand sets to over 52 million, but exercise TV was no sure thing. When Jack Lalanne pitched studio executives a fitness program in 1950, they scoffed that no one would tune into a television show about exercise, much less set aside whatever they were doing to follow along in their living room. Undeterred, Lalanne launched his eponymous show out of his own pocket. Trimnastics—“I don’t like to call it exercise,” he would say. Millions of homemakers tuned in for his folksy fitness advice, completed with only a chair as equipment and offered as his dog Happy yapped around him. Lalanne soon received heaps of mail from viewers hungry for his expertise. “You know what happens when you have children,” lamented one mother about her spreading hips in a typical missive. In a tough-love tone that became typical over The Jack Lalanne Show’s 34-year run, he first cheerily assured her that “dumpiness” was in no way a foregone conclusion after 40. Yet he also issued a somber warning: only women’s own neglect of their bodies, or “using children as an excuse,” stood between the homemakers who made up his viewership and “the streamlined figure they want so badly.”
For a generation of women taught that exercise was unladylike and even dangerous, Lalanne’s thirty-minute, black-and-white show made the radical proposition of claiming that women should make time for exercise, for their own sake. Contrary to popular belief, he reassured viewers they would not ruin their figures with exercise. Metamorphosis, however, would not come from sitting on the sidelines at their children’s baseball game, or politely listening to their husbands’ war stories. “There’s only one time to start improving yourself and there’s only one time in your life and you know when it is?... NOW. N-O-W. This can make your life or break it,” Lalanne implored. He looked viewers in the eye and said, “You’re an intelligent person.” Biceps exposed, Lalanne boldly rejected ageism: “you know what age means? ... Age means absolutely nothing.”
But Lalanne also made clear that looking pretty was inseparable from taking control of one’s life through exercise. “Which One Watches the Jack LaLanne Show?” a newspaper advertisement queried. If the side-by-side photos of women’s backsides identical but for their girth weren’t obvious enough, the copy explained: “the woman who follows the Jack LaLanne Show isn’t hard to spot. She usually has a lovelier figure, a more youthful looking face than other women her age.” He had little patience for those who wished for a new body, but failed to work to achieve it: “… you say ‘Dear God, give me the intestinal fortitude to do something about it.’ Then you get your new body. But you have to do it.” Exercise was becoming a required ritual of ladyhood, and thanks to Lalanne, home provided no solace from such reminders.
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