Black, Jonathan. Making the American Body: The Remarkable Saga of the Men and Women Whose Feats, Feuds, and Passions Shaped Fitness History. Lincoln: Nebraska University Press, 2013. Pp 264. Introduction, notes, and index. Hardcover: $27.95
Reviewed by Adam Copeland
With the summer coming to a slow, hot close, the ubiquitous obsession with six-pack abs and obtaining the perfect beach body should logically wane. Who needs to have the best beach body when it is hidden under thick wool sweaters and bulky down jackets? However, the likelihood is that, even as the air becomes crisp, and as the leaves catch fire and fall to the earth, many Americans will remain tremendously conscious of their bodies, how much those bodies weigh, what those bodies can do, how those bodies feel, and most importantly how those bodies look.
Awareness of personal anatomical aesthetics, while not a uniquely American phenomenon, is part of the American mode of thought. This can be demonstrated in a myriad of ways, ranging from the growing concern over obesity (which is likely about more than mere disease prevention), the increase in demand for healthy food options in schools and in the marketplace, the confusing yet abundant diet prescriptions available to people dissatisfied with their bodies, and finally, the physical fitness culture that shows up in the form of gyms, yoga studios, spinning studios, Pilates classes, and digital exercise media. Jonathan Black, author of Making the American Body: The Remarkable Saga of the Men and Women Whose Feats, Feuds, and Passions Shapes Fitness History, takes a long look at the history and the culture of health and fitness in the United States beginning at the turn-of-the twentieth century.
Black writes in a style that toes the line between academic and popular, oftentimes falling into a popular mode of writing. A journalist by trade and contributor to the New York Times, GQ, and Forbes, his prose is highly readable, making the 194 pages of the book easy to turn.1 Despite his journalistic background, he cites quite a few well known historians of physical culture rather frequently, including scholars of sport and physical culture Jan Todd and John Fair of the University of Texas at Austin. By including the accounts of established historians of physical culture, Black beefs up the credibility of his work, and at no point does this history of the American body feel “flimsy” or unreliable. Black takes a very broad view of the history of physical culture in a relatively small amount of pages, a daunting task if you consult anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of the area. Ultimately, his argument seems to be that the work of health innovation has already been accomplished, leaving current and future exercisers to figure out how best to use the physical culture tools and practices around them to create healthy lives.
The book is short and dense, as a result of the time frame that Black covers in his account. Before diving into the history, though, Black includes a preface, in which he says of the physical culture pioneers he plans to discuss: “their feats and stories fit no single narrative,” and that, “the end result of this history, it is fair to argue, has failed to fulfill its promise” (p. x). Black sounds defeated before he begins, making the reader question his/her own desire to read a history that the author admits has no ultimate coherence.
The preface is then followed by an introduction that is inserted before the unfolding of a primarily chronological history of physical culture in America. The introduction is a detailed description of an important occasion in the history of physical culture, one that all historians of the topic are likely familiar with, and for good reason. In October 1924, the eccentric physical culturist Bernarr Macfadden put on a massively popular show in Madison Square Garden. Black decides to begin his history with an account of this event, detailing the setting, the popular response, and the behind-the-scenes positioning of Macfadden and his well-developed protégée Charles Atlas. This is a much-discussed moment in the history of physical culture in the United States, but Black does not specifically explain why he chose it as his jumping off point. An explanation would have been useful in initially determining his overall argument.
After the introduction, Black begins the arduous task of parsing out the many movements within the history of physical culture in the United States. Before focusing on physical culture in the United States specifically, he begins with a quick nine-page-first-chapter that covers the most relevant historical events leading up to the turn of the twentieth century. In that chapter he touches on the Greek’s holistic philosophy on physical education, the subsequent Roman division of mind and body, the importance of Greek revivalism on the growth of physical culture in Britain, Germany, France, and finally the major movements and pioneers of physical culture in the United States during the nineteenth century. The treatment of the aforementioned physical culture movements is quick, but nicely orients the book before approaching the chaos of the uniquely American physical culture and the bodies it helped to shape.
There is not enough space in this review to mention all that Black included in his account because it covers so much historical ground, and this in the end, is a strength of Making the American Body. Black mentions all of the key pioneers and the practices that they promoted. The book was published in 2013, which gave Black the space to reflect on a wide array of figures along with the waxing and waning of the fitness trends those figures helped to spread. Most of the founding parents of physical culture, such as Eugen Sandow, Bernarr Macfadden, Jack LaLanne, Bob Hoffman, and Bonnie Pruden, take center stage for Black’s account of the early twentieth century. Most of the book, though, is dedicated to the veritable potpourri of people and practices that emerged in the second half of this era.
Black gives a thorough treatment to the modern influences on the shape of the American body. Characters such as Richard Simmons, Jane Fonda, Tony Horton, and Arnold Schwarzenegger all make an appearance, the significance of their accomplishments clearly and convincingly described. Not only does Black describe the importance of different people, but he also looks into the spread of popular movements like Pilates and Zumba, which seem to be bigger than their respective founders. To compliment his description of the people and practices of American physical culture, Black details the spaces in which physical culture took hold. Making the American Body includes an intertwined history of the gym, the tennis club, and the fitness studio. All told, Black provides an all encompassing, sometimes-confusing history of how the American body was forged through fitness, from the turn-of-the twentieth century up the time of his writing.
It is difficult to say whether the lack of coherence to the history is a reflection of the history itself or of an insufficient effort of the interested historian. What is evident is that Black does not make a serious attempt to tie all of the seemingly inchoate historical threads of American physical culture. In the final chapter titled “Why Exercise?” Black identifies the various motivations for participating in physical culture, ranging from pure enjoyment, to improving longevity, to increasing sex appeal. He merely observes the diversity of American physical culture without attempting a discussion of a possible origin or looking for a common thread. This feels like a mistake, but perhaps we are too close to the beginnings of American physical culture to attempt a satisfactory explanation. The book concludes with a hopeful message that is a response to the modern dilemma of widespread, national obesity. The message feels saccharin and slightly “tacked on”:
There is no simple solution to combating obesity or the threat of inertial America, but singly and together these developments offer hope that a fitter future awaits. If so, we owe a debt to the men and women who came before – the muscle heads and joggers, the nutritional zealots and barbell salesman, the machine inventors and aerobic divas. The day of the great pioneers may have come to a close, but what they worked for so passionately endures. It is the promise that we can all live longer, richer lives if we learn to attend to our bodies (p. 194).
Jonathan Black’s Making the American Body is a slightly useful addition to the more historically rich canon of physical culture tomes like James C. Whorton’s Crusaders for Fitness (1982) and Harvey Green’s Fit for America (1986). It is not as well researched as a book like Shelly McKenzie’s Getting Physical, also published in 2013. Ultimately, Jonathan Black’s Making the American Body is a chronological compilation of relevant facts and figures without an overarching interpretation, which makes it a fantastic starting point for anyone interested in the subject. I recommend it with an understanding of some limitations. If nothing else, reading about the history of American physical culture is always entertaining and often quite shocking.
Adam Copeland is a second-year master’s student in the department of Kinesiology at Penn State University, focusing on the history and philosophy of sports. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1 Information about Jonathan Black’s professional background was found at: https://www.nebraskapress.unl.edu/product/Making-the-American-Body,675761.aspx