Eugene Sandow

Photograph of Eugen Sandow wearing leopard-skin trunks, taken from Sandow’s Magazine of Physical Culture. Image credit: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Fit Nation: The Gains and Pains of America’s Exercise Obsession (​​University of Chicago Press, 2023) takes readers from late-nineteenth-century bodybuilding performances through today’s glittering gyms, elite studio classes, celebrity instructors, and extreme sports. Its author is Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, an associate professor of history at The New School, journalist, and podcaster, who has a not-so-secret-life as a fitness instructor. She sat down with Claire Potter to talk about an American obsession with fitness and health that seems to put happiness within our grasp—but in reality, fitness is out of reach for many. 

You can listen to this interview here.

Join Professor Natalia Mehlman Petrzela in conversation about her new book this Monday, February 13 at 6:00 pm in the Wolff Conference Room, 6 E 16th Street. The event is part of the Critical History Today lecture series.

Claire Potter: Fit Nation is about the role of exercise and wellness in United States culture, but this book actually begins in Europe at the end of the nineteenth century, when fitness was a performance or a spectacle. Can you tell our listeners about the first American obsession with fitness?

Natalia Mehlman Petrzela: If you really want to go back to the origins of American fitness culture, it doesn’t start in a gym as we know it: it starts in circuses and world’s fairs, where these strong men and women are on stage, flexing their muscles, wearing different costumes. It is a freak show of strength, and these bodybuilders are on stage with the Bearded Lady and the Siamese Twins.

Potter: Who felt the need to become fit in the early twentieth century, and why?

Petrzela: Not very many people at all. Early bodybuilders like Eugen Sandow were enthusiasts about strength and health and training and nutrition, but they were preaching to their own very small choir. They were pretty marginal characters. They were health nuts, seekers, people who were experimenting with different kinds of miracle cures and body work. The dominant idea about exercise was that it was a form of physical labor. That’s what the lower classes did, and if you did it too rigorously, it could be harmful to your health, particularly for women.

People like Sandow disagreed: “I am no mere breaker of stones. My training is about deliberate strength, and this is part of civilization, not evidence of barbarism.” And I realized how closely physical training came to be tied in America to a project of national uplift. 

Potter: A great example of that is Teddy Roosevelt, who is promoting fitness as something that’s going to save the nation. 

Petrzela: And of course, he’s promoting fitness among relatively elite college-going boys and men. There is a dual narrative: “We need to civilize and toughen boys and men, and we need them to be more savage.” But they’re really only talking about white men, middle-class boys and men, who are in the process of engaging in civilizing institutions and therefore in danger of becoming “mollycoddled” and effeminate. At the same time, you’ve got immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe, the emancipation of enslaved people. So there’s a panic about how to strengthen white boys in the right way.

Potter: And the girls of course, who are going to places like Smith and Wellesley and Bryn Mawr, are in the gym swinging Indian clubs around, because you need strong mothers too to save the race. Can you define what you mean by athletics, fitness, and wellness, and then talk about how, over time, they feed on each other to create something else in American culture?

Petrzela: Formal athletics is what we think of as everything from the NBA team that you pay money to go see to the competitive little league team that exists in your kids’ town. Then you have fitness programs, which are usually not competitive. They are inclusive and meant to promote health. The language of wellness doesn’t come into use until the 1970s. I define “wellness” as the idea that mind and body are interconnected. You cannot be a fully healthy being without working on your body, as well as your mind and your heart and your soul. And wellness is more than the absence of illness. It’s about achieving a higher level of health, to take responsibility for your own health. 

So you’re right, athletics, fitness, and wellness are three ideas or institutions that permeate throughout the book. It’s really interesting that a lot of fitness boosters in America, who you think would be sports boosters as well, they’re constantly contrasting their goals to the goals of coaches who are invested in more competitive sports programs.

And why are they doing this? They’re saying, “Well, we’re supporting something that’s recreational and that’s inclusive and that’s for everyone. And sports by definition are exclusive, and we can’t get behind that.” And this is so much the case, that in the 1950s and early 1960s, which is often considered the golden age of federal physical education policy, you have these fitness boosters who are going around and saying that one of the red flags of a town that’s going to have fitness-related problems is [having] a lot of competitive sports teams, because one, they’re going to put all their resources toward that, as opposed to building playgrounds or a community pool; and two, people will suffer from the affliction of spectatoritis. “Spectatoritis” is where people want to just go and watch elite athletes and don’t feel like they can be athletic as well.

On the other hand, in order to sell the idea that there should be these inclusive recreational programs and PE programs, pretty much everybody who’s in charge of the President’s Council on Youth Fitness in the 1960s has to enlist the support of major sports heroes to be like, “Hey, this is really important too.” So early on, Kennedy brings on Bud Wilkinson, a famous college football coach, to say that really everyone should be going out for walks and doing pushups, not just trained competitive athletes.  

At the same time, some pretty radical physical education boosters for women—many of them Black, by the way—are saying, “No girls should play basketball and other competitive sports.” And they’re met with various forms of resistance: “No, it’s too dangerous”; or “We don’t have facilities”; or “We shouldn’t cultivate unladylike sensibilities of competitiveness.” There’s also some anxiety about latent lesbianism that could happen in these all-women’s competitive sports environments.

Potter: Well, and it’s interesting you mentioned those oblique hints of lesbianism in athletics, because one of the things I thought about when I was reading your book, is today’s transphobia in women’s and girls’ sports and really how that’s a continuation of decades of propaganda that women will become masculine if they do athletics, that they won’t be able to bear children, that they’’ll harm their reproductive organs, that they will get muscles that are unattractive. And we even find women saying, “I don’t want to do this, because my calves will get too big or my shoulders will get too big.”

Petrzela:I think there’s definitely that throughline with modern transphobia and fears about the disfiguration of women’s bodies and a corruption of femininity. To this other point that you make about women not wanting to get bulky and all the rest, one of the things I find most fascinating is that the whole women’s fitness industry could not exist without Title IX and the activism of all these feminists who were rejecting all these crazy ideas that sports would turn women into men and that they weren’t strong enough and all the rest.

That lays the foundation for American women to become interested in aerobics and bar workouts and all of that stuff. At the same time, I think a lot of those programs succeed because they market themselves as a way to develop long, lean muscles, gracefulness, etcetera. Yet at the same time, these are rigorous workouts that never would’ve been possible before, but for the labors of these feminist women. There’s this wonderful essay that I quote, by Gloria Steinem—I think it’s from 1982. She writes this characteristically beautiful essay about the experience of being in a women’s locker room after a dance exercise class—she uses the term “instant sisterhood,” because she feels solidarity with all these naked women, completely separated from any kind of male gaze.  

Potter: Let’s talk about your own trajectory as an athlete: you were somebody who rejected sports and then got into fitness through step aerobics. 

Petrzela: I would say though that athletics rejected me more than I rejected athletics. I was a kid in the 1980s and 1990s, and all these girls I grew up with played soccer from the time they were 5 years old. And I didn’t realize what a privilege that was or how historically unique that was. And then there was the dance world, and both of those things felt intimidating and exclusive and just not for me at all.

And basically what happened is that I went to this big public school, and I was sick of being humiliated in the gym. And so, I read the Student Rights and Responsibilities manual and it said, you can do an independent study in physical education, but it has to be supervised, it cannot be a school sport. The PE head was like, “What are you talking about? No one’s ever done this.” And I’m like, “Article two, section three, you got to let me do it.”

And they say, “Okay, you can go to a group fitness class or you can get a personal trainer.” And I asked my parents and they were like, “We read an article about personal trainers. That’s for rich people. You’re not doing that.” On the other hand, we belonged to a Jewish community center where they had, as part of the membership, group fitness classes. So because there was no other option, I walked at age 16 into a step aerobics class, and it was totally weird. I remember everyone seemed 100 years old, meanwhile they were 32, probably. And I just set up my little station there, and I had to go every week because that was the school requirement for me to go. And very quickly I fell completely in love with this world. 

And so, that was my first inkling that there was something different between fitness and sports. And then I went on, I think for historians, a pretty predictable trajectory. I was a history major and I had some other jobs after college, but then I went on to get a PhD. And what was funny is, I always had this double life as a gym rat. And it was funny to my friends, because it felt like the antithesis of this very cerebral path that I was on.

So that is definitely what got me first excited about this project.

Potter: Well, and you’re really a great example of a historian who had all the academic chops, but because you were so involved with this world, you knew a whole range of other things.

Petrzela: I’ve seen it mostly as a boon that I’ve had connections to all sorts of people who can give me access to what I think are really unique oral histories and archival collections, some of them in people’s basements. On the other hand, I tried to be really, really judicious about what the limits of my perspective are. 

A lot of previous work on the fitness industry has fallen into one of two categories. One is purely critical: this is just this arm of the patriarchy, recapitulating oppressive beauty standards; it’s obviously terrible. I’m sympathetic to aspects of that analysis, but I think it’s incomplete and more than a little condescending. The other work is coming out of American studies and is written by scholars who feel like they are analyzing lowbrow pursuits like weight lifting or Jazzercise, so they have to layer on so much academic language and critical theory, as if to say, “I’m a really serious person, even if I’m writing about leotards.”

What I’ve tried to do in this book is to not sacrifice any of the complexity of that argument, but to do so in ways that are clear and accessible and would make somebody who would read Women’s Health magazine pick this up and be like, “Huh, that’s a take I’ve never thought of.”

Potter: And readers are going to see that some of the things they take for granted at the Y or at whatever gym they belong to, like Pilates and yoga and so on, actually have a really long history in the United States. And I wonder if you could talk specifically about Pilates and yoga as practices that really emphasize the spiritual aspects of fitness.

Petrzela: Joseph Pilates came to the United States in the 1920s after he had developed this strength-training program in an English POW camp during the Flu Pandemic. The people who trained with him were said to be so strong of body and mind that they did not succumb to the disease. It’s debatable whether that’s true, but it’s one of those stories that took on a life of its own. 

Anyway, Pilates comes to New York City and sets up a studio on 8th Avenue, and it very quickly becomes a place where professional dancers and performers come to do rehabilitative and strength work. And one of the things that is really interesting about his program, which soon expanded to people who just wanted to look like a dancer, is that he was one of the first people talking about the connection between mind and body, about controlling the breath, about cultivating strength from the inside out, about exercise as injury prevention. 

Yoga, I think, is even more important to the expansiveness of how fitness goes from being a bodily pursuit to being about self-actualization. Yoga had really been in the United States since the nineteenth century, but for much of that time, it wasn’t even associated primarily with physical movement. A lot of the time you’d go to watch somebody do yoga or to talk about the philosophy. That begins to change in the 1950s and 1960s. Suddenly, you have something which melds physical practice with spiritual teachings, being marketed more to an exercise-minded audience.

And it expands in the 1970s, both through this fitness-minded public, but then also, as the counterculture takes hold, there is a sense that yoga is one of these experimental embodied practices that reject Western medicine, rejects Western Christianity, and it’s all part of that. The 1990s is when yoga really takes off in the United States: a key moment in fitness becoming about more than just the body. One thing that happens is that all of these 1980s aerobics devotees are getting terrible injuries: shin splints, knee problems. So they need something a little gentler. Jane Fonda releases a yoga videotape in the early 1990s.

A lot of people have written about this, and almost always the emphasis is, well, yoga and fitness fused, and this corrupted this spiritual practice. The story that I tell is, “Let’s look at what happened to the gym when yoga came to the gym.” This is not just about the corruption of the spiritual practice, this is about the expansion of a purely physical practice when it co-opted or was affected by a lot of the language in particular and the modalities of yoga. 

So you see these gyms that went from high-impact aerobics to power yoga and boot camp yoga. Fitness instructors become gurus. People talk about not just the sweat or the calorie burn, but about enlightenment, about finding transcendence. 

Potter: You mentioned Jane Fonda, who is a huge figure in the history of fitness.

Petrzela: Jane Fonda is unique for lots of reasons, but in this realm, she’s unique because she became the face of a fitness brand. She opened a workout studio. She wouldn’t teach all that often, but her life had been changed through aerobic practice. She hired a woman, Leni Cazden, away from another studio, Gilda Marx, and made her the centerpiece of her own workout studio. Fonda touched off a new chapter in the fitness movement in which celebrities, whether they did aerobics or not, all started releasing their own videos. It was a way to capitalize on their celebrity. But for the most part, the actual trainers these folks worked with, including Fonda, were behind the scenes. 

That starts to change in the early 1990s, and you start to have people like Kathy Smith and Denise Austin—a lot of women by the way—who are fronting their own shows.

Potter: Natalia, your first book was about sex education and bilingual education in California, but I think this book is a natural extension of that work. 

Petrzela: Well, it is all about education, because it’s about a process of learning and self-improvement and transformation. A lot of the people that I’m focusing on here are educators, even if they’re at the gym or training people on YouTube. 

Potter: A point that you make periodically throughout the book is that as fitness and wellness become more popular, there’s a simultaneous distancing from people who are poor, who are then seen as unwell because they’re poor and not accessing these practices that will make them better.

Petrzela: Yes, this history is very much about how fitness went from a strange subculture to a social imperative. It’s invested with virtue: “Oh, well, I am so fit, and that is because I am disciplined and I have willpower.” And by extension, someone else who doesn’t get out of bed to run 10 miles in the morning and doesn’t look as cute in their pants, has failed. They don’t want it badly enough. They’re not working hard enough. 

And the fitness pop culture sphere is still filled with little aphorisms that uphold that perspective. And that is bullshit. It’s true that it takes individual motivation to engage in any exercise program and to follow through successfully, but there are so many structures which calibrate and stratify the opportunities that people can access.

Part of that is about the defunding of PE in K-12 education, but it’s also about fitness brands that are socioeconomically exclusive. Gyms are one of the best signifiers of gentrification in a neighborhood. And that’s too bad, because the gym has also been a force for greater inclusiveness of women, queer people, and older people.

Natalia Mehlman Petrzela is Associate Professor of History at Eugene Lang College The New School for Liberal Arts. Her latest book is Fit Nation: The Gains and Pains of America’s Exercise Obsession (​​University of Chicago Press, 2023).

Claire Bond Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Her most recent book is Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020). 

A podcast recording of this interview first appeared on Claire Potter’s Substack, Political Junkie, on December 17, 2022.