When did women get fit?

When did women get fit?

Female fitness has undergone a huge transition over recent years.

A revolution in female fitness has been mounting over the past half-century – one that has played an important role in the development of feminism as we know it today. This fitness revolution has encouraged women to take pride in, and ownership of, their bodies. It has also helped break down a ‘separate spheres’ mentality which still lingered in the mid twentieth century, confining women to the domestic sphere as the so-called delicate, childbearing sex. By tracing the history of women’s exercise from the 1950s to the present day, we can see how it has contributed to female empowerment.

In the 1950s, the ‘weaker sex’ were con ned to the home, where their main source of exercise was doing household chores. In a world before labour-saving devices such as the dishwasher, it is possible that such a workout was quite strenuous – a patriarchal HIIT class if you like. Whilst Marilyn Monroe certainly wasn’t a domestic goddess, she was the sex icon of the decade, and in 1952 gave a health and exercise exclusive to Pageant magazine, where she spoke about the ten minute bust-firming routine that she carried out next to her bed in the morning. She also stressed her dislike for outdoor sports, which she thought should be left to men.

In the 1960s, the Debbie Drake Show was the first exercise show led by a woman. But the ideals propagated by the show were still geared towards pleasing men rather than improving individual fitness, as illustrated by Debbie’s album How to Keep Your Husband Happy: Look Slim! Keep Trim. The explosion of aerobics in the 1980s saw women meeting together outside the home for energetic aerobics classes.This emphasis on fun, female fitness was certainly empowering, and in 1982, aerobics queen Jane Fonda sold 17 million copies of her first fitness video.

Although aerobics encouraged a healthy, liberated lifestyle, it also prioritised achieving an ideal body image over getting fit. It promoted the perfect 36-24-36 hourglass figure, ‘buns of steel’, and sexy instructors in skimpy leotards and neon leg warmers. Furthermore, aerobics was still a female-only exercise class, and was not an activity by which women could prove their physical prowess compared to men.

In the past thirty years, much has changed. A culture orientated around fitness has become the norm, where women exercise alongside men in gyms, parks, and studio classes. In 2018, over 40,000 people ran the London Marathon, and 45% of these runners were women. However, the fact that women can physically exert themselves in public should not be taken for granted. Instead, this should be seen as a product of a long, hard fight for equality. Today, women who run marathons are not constrained, as their predecessors were, by ideals of femininity and delicacy, or by an ideology that suggests that they should be con ned to the domestic sphere. Women have proved themselves strong, both physically and intellectually, and more than capable of competing and succeeding in the public arena.

The accessibility of exercise to women has also been an important recent development. In the 1990s, Princess Diana symbolised the start of a new gym culture, when she famously worked out at the exclusive Harbour Club in Chelsea. Nowadays, however, fitness is not just reserved for those with the money and time, but the rise of low cost gyms and of flexible membership makes it easier for more women to work out whenever they want, fitting exercise around careers and childcare.

The turn of the century saw another important transition in female fitness, which was a new emphasis on strength rather than beauty, on athletics rather than aesthetics. Madonna’s muscular ashtanga arms were widely praised in 1998, the year she made yoga hot in the western world. Later, in her 2015 photoshoot for New York, Serena Williams posed as a paragon of female strength – a far cry from Marilyn Monroe languishing in her bikini with a couple of dumbbells.

The approach taken by many sports brands in promoting their clothes also illustrates an increasing appreciation of the strong female body in all its forms, rather than advocating one particular beauty ideal. The Instagram account nike women features powerful women of all builds, whilst Beyoncé’s Ivy Park line was created to “support and inspire women”. Moreover, Sweaty Betty encourages a balanced, active lifestyle that includes “having that piece of cake”. Why have these athleisure brands put strength and sisterhood at the top of their advertising agendas? Because that’s what modern day women want. It is strength, not dress size, that is selling in the sports industry, reflecting a current trend of female empowerment through sport.

The exercise industry is booming, and it reflects huge strides in feminism since the 1950s. When female UCL students go to a gym class, or on a run, or even put on some comfortable sports leggings with no intention of doing either, they are enjoying the spoils of a battle for equality and empowerment.

This article was originally published in Issue 723 of Pi Magazine. 

Photography by Isabella Tjalve