In Let’s Get Physical: How Women Discovered Exercise and Reshaped the World, Danielle Friedman sets out to do something ambitious. Friedman chronicles the rise of women’s exercise in the 20th century, the pioneers and the programs that rose to prominence and became cultural obsessions, as well as the overall trend towards health and fitness. Friedman argues that women came to exercise for aesthetic rewards, the goal being to look good, but that women stuck with exercise because it made them feel good.
Freidman begins her story in the 1950’s when the first calisthenics style exercises for women became popular. Bonnie Pruden was one of the first to become nationally known for encouraging women to “keep fit”. Her work on fitness for women and children would lead her to be on the team that later created the President’s Physical Fitness Test (yes, you have Bonnie to blame for that rope climb). After Bonnie, Freidman takes us through a tour of fitness trends from barre to jogging, yoga to Jane Fonda. This is the part that Freidman does well. We’re given lots of interesting facts and tidbits about the history of fitness. Before “athleisure” was an everyday word we had the women who invented the sports bra. (One of those women would go on to win several Emmy’s for her work costuming the Muppets on Sesame Street.) It’s fun to see how trends emerged and how fitness influencers like Jane Fonda reflect bigger societal and cultural patterns.
Friedman tries to explain that these fitness fads, and indeed all personal fitness, is largely aimed at middle class women who have the leisure time and money to devote to fitness essentials. However, other than asserting this fact time and time again Friedman doesn’t offer a lot of context or definitive proof. She does feature a few Black influencers and talks to them to uncover their struggles to “make it” in a world where no one looked like them. I would have liked to hear more from these women and other women who don’t fit the traditional mold of what an influencer typically looks like. Freidman also states repeatedly that women often come to exercise for physical transformation, but stick with it because it transforms their mental.
– Review by Jenny, Middletown