Review of Let’s Get Physical

Friedman, Danielle. Let’s Get Physical: How Women Discovered Exercise and Reshaped the World. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons. 270 pp. $27.00 Hardcover.

Reviewed by Richard Ravalli

Danielle Friedman provides a personalized, feminist look at women’s fitness history since the middle of the twentieth century in Let’s Get Physical: How Women Discovered Exercise and Reshaped the World. Intended for general readers, the book nevertheless makes worthwhile contributions to the recent spate of studies of Western fitness and physical culture history, even as Friedman’s casual method sometimes detracts from this effort.

G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2022.

A journalist and editor, Friedman begins her journey through the records of the recent past with an examination of Bonnie Prudden, the Cold War-era guru who promoted exercise for American schoolkids and housewives. Complementing Friedman’s reliance on a collection of accessible primary and secondary sources is her interview with Prudden’s long-time assistant Enid Whittaker. She also had access to Prudden’s personal papers, which are still under Whittaker’s care. That Friedman did not undertake a deep archival dive is forgiven, given her generalized purpose. Yet, readers familiar with certain aspects of American fitness history may be left with more questions than answers following her overview of Prudden. For instance, how did Prudden’s later exercise career, mentioned briefly in closing, fit into the burgeoning late-century fitness culture for which she helped pave the way? In what ways did her midcentury popularity relate to television personalities like Debbie Drake, who is unmentioned?

Friedman’s relaxed style and informal quips help casual readers along, but issues with context and chronology may lessen the power of her volume as a popular history and feminist tool. Some might find the book’s divergences into glamour and fashion history distracting, as more care could have been taken to foreground these narratives. Still, connecting icons such as Mary Quant and Vidal Sassoon to barre exercise developer Lieselotte “Lotte” Berk offers intriguing historical relationships between physical and beauty culture that run throughout the story of women’s fitness. For example, Friedman capably links the career of running pioneer Katherine Switzer to the development of the sports bra and Avon’s sponsorship of a women’s marathon in 1977. Making the importance of fashion in women’s fitness history explicit in the book’s introduction would have given it greater conceptual grounding, even if this may run counter to its later, more forceful criticisms of beauty culture.

A runner herself, Friedman hits her stride around the midway point in Let’s Get Physical, offering a breezy, engaging narrative of Jazzercise and fitness entrepreneur Judi Sheppard Missett, buttressed by ample oral and written sources. A requisite chapter on Jane Fonda provides an extensive overview of her career as a workout icon, as well as how it was shaped by those around her. Female bodybuilder Lisa Lyon receives due credit as the sport’s first celebrity, even though the chapter quickly decentralizes her story for a litany of vignettes on 1980s gym and fitness culture, and at least one historical slip suggests that Black bodybuilding champion Carla Dunlap was never featured on the cover of a Weider magazine. (In full disclosure, I shared an essay of mine on Lyon with Friedman for the book.) Friedman touches lightly, but capably, on the darker side of an increasingly sexualized fitness culture for American women by the end of the twentieth century, exhibiting more negative, less celebratory tones than are expressed earlier in the book.

Pausing in the early 1990s, during a slump in American interest in health club memberships and vigorous exercise, Friedman moves backward to discuss Indra Devi and the early history of yoga in the United States. She later attributes the practice’s burgeoning popularity at the turn of the millennium in context with the “bitchification” of women in popular culture during the 1990s, from which yoga, in her estimation, provided an escape. However, her thin context and jarring chronology throw her narrative off course. It also is likely that post-Cold War values and shifts in feminism provide much of the historical explanation that Friedman seeks.

Nevertheless, like a marathon spectator, you cheer for Friedman to finish strong in the inviting, easy-to-read chronicle that Let’s Get Physical for the most part delivers. And she does. The final chapter offers a millennial’s retrospective on the recent rise of fitness boutiques and the socioeconomic limitations and opportunities of contemporary fitness culture. According to Friedman, whereas earlier female pioneers “succeeded by pushing social boundaries while still playing by conventional rules,” twenty first century advocates are bravely promoting body diversity and moving away from emphasizing conventional standards of beauty. Whether Instagram allows a “woke” understanding of female fitness culture is left to future historians. Friedman’s popular feminist history is a useful first draft of topics that deserve closer inspection from scholars.

Richard Ravalli is Associate Professor of History at William Jessup University. His article on California “glamazons” and female bodybuilding in the late twentieth century was published last year in Journal of the West.

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