Q&A with Natalia Petrzela on Fitness/Wellness History

By Andrew McGregor

Two weeks into the new year, many of us are trying to stick to our resolutions. Getting in shape, working out more, and focusing on our health are often among the things we resolve to change or improve. As we embark on these challenges in 2017, I caught up with Natalia Mehlman Petrzela to learn more about her current research into the history of fitness and wellness in the postwar era.

Andrew: You’re currently writing a book on fitness and wellness culture in the United States. Tell us a bit about the project. How did you come to the topic? What is your approach? What kind of sources are you using?


To an extent, every research project stems from our personal experiences and passions, but this is really a case where my academic and (once) extracurricular pursuits converge. As a scholar of the postwar United States interested in identity, I have long been fascinated by all aspects of our recent past, especially as the 1980s and 1990s are becoming sites for historical exploration. Very much in keeping with my first book, which dealt with the impact of educational reforms on our broader culture, I am still asking questions about the legacies of the dramatic displacements of the 1960s in American life. But I’d be lying if I said this project was born only out of my scholarly interests! For the past decade or so, I’ve been very actively involved in the wellness scene in NYC, and at first saw it as a kind of guilty distraction from my “real work” even as I was certain my engagement in this world was making me a better scholar, teacher, and yes, human. Once I began really taking wellness seriously as a cultural phenomenon, I certainly couldn’t turn off my historian brain. There was just so much to unpack – the American fascination with wellness really reveals the best and worst of what the modern U.S. has to offer. There has been some scholarship on this phenomenon, but much of it is so harshly critical that I think it misses important stories about new forms of community and identity emerging in places like yoga studios and gyms. My sources are REALLY varied – from oral histories to campus recreation department records to federal policy to the Nike corporate archives to lots of popular media.

Andrew: Have you come across a New Years Resolution origin story in your research? How has the fitness industry capitalized on resolutions?


Absolutely. I wrote about this in some detail here at Refinery29, but essentially New Year’s resolutions have been a tradition since ancient Babylon, and in America since the colonies, when Puritans liked this sober alternative to December revelry.  Very early, general promises around health to be moderate in consumption of food, drink, etc emerge, and in the 1920s “reducing” becomes a popular resolution, but largely through food restriction rather than exercise. The promise to work out more does not become the ubiquitous resolution it currently is until the 1980s, perhaps unsurprisingly, when the fitness boom is really a national fascination. What is interesting is that in people’s accounts of their New Year’s promises in this era, exercise is CLEARLY seen as a painful chore necessary either to avoid early death or the nearly-as-scary fate of being fat. Since the 1990s, when mind-body holism really went mainstream, one is much more likely to hear exercise described as self-care or as me-time rather than as pure torture. This is a result both of this greater focus on holistic wellbeing (moving past “no pain, no gain”) AND of a fitness industry framing (often accurately) the growing range of exercise options as a luxury experience. Deep in American culture is also a celebration of individual bootstrapping – resolving to work hard on yourself via exercise fits right into that tradition, which is amplified all over the place in ads for fitness programs at the beginning of the year. “INVEST IN YOURSELF!” “New Year, New YOU!” are all echoes of this sensibility.

Andrew: How you do reconcile the relationship between New Years fitness resolutions and cultural pressures (that are often sexist) to achieve a certain body aesthetic? Is that where wellness differs from other types of image-obsessed exercise?


In some ways, there isn’t much to reconcile: the frenzy around the New Year’s resolution to exercise more is tightly bound up with social pressures to conform to a certain appearance… they go together. And unlike resolutions to clean your closet or empty your inbox, a newly trim figure or sculpted biceps are way more easily put on display for others to see. In our social media age, that distinction is especially important. Women are especially affected by the pressures to conform to certain beauty standards, but I would argue that in recent years, men are increasingly subject to pressures around physical appearance as well so these imperatives are more widely shared. The intense emphasis on personal choice can exacerbate this: the thin person (whose thinness may have as much to do with metabolism than discipline) is assumed to be hardworking and disciplined, whereas the heavier (or disabled) body is thought to mark laziness. In reality, genetics play a significant role as do socioeconomics: it is expensive to make space in one’s life to exercise (not to mention to consume healthy foods), and that can be forgotten. At the same time, I think that there is much to celebrate in the fact that we have made progress since “health” resolutions were purely about food restriction, and when a muscular female body was seen as something freakish and to be avoided. Plus, while the luxury fitness market certainly contributes to the socially stratified nature of fitness culture, it’s pretty widely accepted by industry experts (but rarely commented by academics eviscerating exercise culture as another example of creeping neoliberalism) that has been accompanied by a wide range of free and affordable fitness offerings, both online and in real life. And the truth remains that most of us COULD move more, and that doing so is likely to contribute to better health, whether it is opting for the stairs or signing up for a fancy gym membership. Lastly, I think that the emphasis on wellness – generally defined as holistic (rather than purely physical) health and preventative rather than reactive approaches – can usefully divert our attention from inches lost or calories burned to overall wellbeing. As advocates of the Health at Every Size Movement say, weight loss might be a positive outcome of adopting a healthier lifestyle, but it should rarely be the primary goal… yet most of our social messaging puts a thin aesthetic front and center.

Andrew: Without giving too much of the project away, what are some of the fitness/wellness trends you have you noticed in your research? How has America’s fitness culture changed?


The big change is that fitness – working out regularly – has gone in the last 70 years or so from being a marginal, highly suspicious subculture focused narrowly on physical performance and appearance to a sprawling cultural movement deeply connected to Americans’ sense of themselves far beyond their bodies. There’s plenty good about this development – expanding notions of beauty, celebration of female athleticism, the destigmatization of black and LGBT bodies – but it’s created some new hierarchies around able-bodiedness and wealth, as well as layered on new aesthetic expectations. My basic take is that fitness culture has become both wonderfully inclusive and at times problematically inescapable. Whereas in other historical moments, there are clear “trends:” jogging, aerobics, etc, I think that right now – really since 9/11 – there is a lot of everything: from restorative to high-intensity to hyper-masculine to super-feminine formats, but what they share is that they position themselves as MORE than the gym, and I dare say that this is not just marketing; Our cultural moment is such that people tend to experience their exercise practices – or their perceived failure to exercise – as more significant than running a few miles or learning a new dance move.

Andrew: How do you (or your sources) envision the relationship between sport and fitness in America? Is it a largely gendered relationship or more about the competitiveness of the activity?


This is a fantastic question, and one of the goals of my research that explores the world of informal, recreational exercise beyond organized sports is to reveal how important – arguably more so on a daily basis – this kind of activity has become to Americans, many of whom were never athletes in the traditional sense. This is a gendered story in some ways – activities like “group dance” that pre-date modern group fitness classes were celebrated by women’s and girls’ physical education champions because they apparently didn’t breed competitiveness or chunky muscles. But there’s a less well known gender story too, I think, which is that Title IX was just one piece in the history of women’s athleticism in this era. And in some ways, the triumph of Title IX was about gaining access to spaces and activities previously defined and legitimized by their male participation. In the fitness world, you actually see many women and gay men especially creating an alternative realm of physical activity that has aspects of traditional sports, but also of dance, theater, yoga, meditation… it’s such a new development in the second half of the 20th century that whole new spaces, the commercial gym and the fitness studio, emerge to house them. I am seeing in my research that these physical spots were very much “third places” and for many I think still are.

Andrew: Based on your Well + Good columns, it is clear that gender and sexuality are a key component of your work. How does your research into fitness/wellness help us better understand the experiences of women in postwar America?


Gender and sexuality are crucial organizing themes in this story. On the most basic analytical level, I was drawn to this topic in part because much of my reluctance to “own” the fitness part of my life stemmed from what I thought were profound contradictions with my feminism. Wasn’t I upholding the patriarchy by participating in a world that was constantly proclaiming the value of the “bikini body” etc? In some ways, yes, and the the pervasiveness of misogyny and sexism is a major part of my story. That’s not a particularly new perspective – most feminist treatments of fitness culture emphasize the oppressive parts of this realm and I think there is even more to uncover both from a labor perspective (fitness instructors are quintessentially pink-collar) and a discursive one; lately loud celebrations of weight-loss are falling out of fashion, but it’s debatable that the “girl power” messaging that has replaced it just masks the same old mandates to make oneself as tiny as possible. That said, I think this criticism can overreach, and in my interviews and other research, and for what it’s worth my own two decades of hanging out in locker rooms and studios, I have found that there is a vast informal world of collective women’s empowerment – in the most genuine sense – that happens through these embodied experiences. On the one hand, many were women’s-only, and even if this was a function of old ideas about not mixing the genders, an unintended consequence was that women found time together away from their familial and other responsibilities. On the other hand, many women whom I have interviewed reflected that whether or not they did her workouts, Jane Fonda “made it acceptable to exercise in public.” This seems like nothing in the age of the celebrity SoulCycle selfie, but it really is significant that exerting oneself to sweat became acceptable, even sexy. And to be clear, this wasn’t just happening in places that sold “holistic” experiences: some of the most inspired, breathless accounts of experiencing exercise as a means to broader self-actualization come from students of Jazzercise, which does not intuitively fit in that category!

Natalia Mehlman Petrzela teaches history at the New School for Social Research in New York and Co-Hosts the Past Present Podcast. Her first book Classroom Wars: Language, Sex, and the Making of Modern Political Culture explores debates surrounding sex education and bilingual instruction in California public schools during the 1960s and ’70s, offering a window in postwar political culture. You can find her on Twitter at @nataliapetrzela and check out her website at www.nataliapetrzela.com.

Andrew McGregor is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at Purdue University, where he teaches courses in history and African American studies. He is also the founder and co-editor of this blog. You can reach him via email at amcgrego@purdue.edu or on Twitter: @admcgregor85.

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