New Book Asks if Exercise is a Path to Power for WomenHistorians in the News
tags: feminism, womens history, Fitness, exercise
Of all the cult workout products that have dominated the American imagination over the past few decades, the one I least expected to be rooted in feminist protest was the ThighMaster. Consider this TV spot from 1991: “Great legs,” a male voice opines as a pair of disembodied, high-heeled gams stroll onto the screen. “How’d you get ’em?” The legs are revealed to belong to the TV actor Suzanne Somers, who explains to the camera that after doing aerobics “until I dropped,” she finally found an easier way to “squeeze, squeeze your way to shapely hips and thighs.” Male TV hosts mocked the ThighMaster relentlessly (Jay Leno used one to juice an orange on The Tonight Show); consumers—mostly women—bought millions of them anyway, sold on Somers’s cheerful closing pitch: “We may not have been born with great legs, but now we can look like we were.”
The ThighMaster was one of the defining symbols of the ’90s, and yet it might never have burst onto the national stage if not for wage inequality in Hollywood. In 1980, while negotiating her contract for a fifth season of the ABC sitcom Three’s Company, Somers demanded a salary increase that would have brought her pay up to what her co-star John Ritter was making. ABC refused, shrank her role down to infrequent cameos, and then fired her altogether. After a decade spent in the TV wilderness, the ThighMaster was Somers’s ticket to financial autonomy—a home-fitness empire predicated on the troubling idea that women’s bodies could be bought and built, that “problem areas” could be conquered one workout product at a time, that fat could be squeezed, squeezed, into submission.
The ThighMaster exemplifies the paradox the writer Danielle Friedman explores in her fascinating new book, Let’s Get Physical: How Women Discovered Exercise and Reshaped the World. Power and strength, she argues, are not simply figurative entities; they are physical attributes too, and progress for women means having the ability to exercise both. For most of the 20th century, she writes in her introduction, “men enjoyed a lifetime of practicing how to use and trust their bodies; women did not.” Women were corseted and girdled in ways that restricted movement. They were warned of the dire health consequences of running more than two miles at a time, and told that strenuous exercise might impair their reproductive organs and even cause their uterus to fall out. The fight to be able to exercise—to find freedom and release and power in the use of one’s body—is, Friedman explains, tied up inextricably with other battles, as Somers’s own history demonstrates. “When women first started exercising en masse,” Friedman writes, “they were participating in something subversive: the cultivation of physical strength and autonomy.” Who knew where it might lead?
But exercise, for women, also became inextricable from diet culture and beauty culture and everything else built on the truism that the easiest way to get rich is to help a woman feel bad about herself. Early pioneers in the fitness movement quickly realized that their advocacy would seem less threatening if it was feminized—if exercise was touted less as a practice that could make women strong, and more as one that could keep them young and make them beautiful. The sticky marriage of fitness and desirability is one that still needs to be untangled. Friedman writes about discovering barre workouts a few months before her wedding, when a studio near her home promised to transform her “thirty-five-year-old body into that of a ballerina.” That sounded, she thought, “highly probable and completely perfect.” Friedman’s is a common reaction, but why? To harness the true potential of our bodies, we first have to question everything we’ve been taught about them, felt about them, or wanted to change when we looked in the mirror.
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