Let’s Get Physical by Danielle Friedman
Sorry to be annoying, but I am one of those for whom a recent Listener coverline, “Why we hate to exercise: Expert advice on how to stay motivated”, is baffling and irrelevant. I exercise because it’s fun; it gives me energy and is a guaranteed mood boost. As a woman, I love feeling physically strong; not to be dependent on a man to have to carry or lift things for me.
As a primary school teacher, one of my favourite times of the week is when I lead the Jump Jam sessions (aerobics for kids, devised by Kiwi aerobics champ Brett Fairweather). It’s a thrill seeing 120-odd kids beaming while trying to master the moves, but I especially hope that, when they’re navigating their tricky teens - body shaming, eating disorders and the like - the girls might remember that Mrs Anyan might not have been a Skinny Minnie, but she sure looked like she was having a lot of fun doing those workouts.
So yes, I was clearly biased to enjoy a book on the history of women and exercise. And fortunately for a non-fiction, Let’s Get Physical is highly readable in its own right. The chronological chaptering is smooth; the author’s wry asides are entertaining, and the protagonists - the cast credited with evolving women’s fitness from outlandishly freakish to a cultural norm - are utterly fascinating.
Take Lotte Berk, the founder of dance-based barre classes, who during the sexual revolution of the 60s, playfully whipped her clients and told them, “If you can’t tuck, you can’t fuck.” She dared her teenage daughter Esther to perform oral sex on men, convinced her to become a topless dancer in Paris, and told her to “forget about” being raped by the producer of a show in which Berk was performing. Not exactly a progressive feminist then.
Or how about Jane Fonda: I was vaguely aware the actor had sparked the home workout video-tape phenomenon - the profits of which went straight to her husband’s political ambitions - but I had no idea she was also an anti-Vietnam War activist.
The biggest surprise for me was how the barriers were broken not so very long ago. As late as 1967, women weren’t allowed to run the Boston Marathon. Yes, really. And when one did anyway, the race director was so incensed he tried to tackle her off the track. Yes, really.
The author also does a great job of navigating murky waters, for although women have managed to shed their girdles - as well as the notion that exercise would cause your uterus to “fall out” - the fitness movement can also be said to be responsible for continuing to pedal oppression: that women have to look a certain way in order to be accepted by society or feel good about their bodies. Fittingly, the book ends on the latest fitness trend: body inclusivity.
Throughout the book, the author also points out how women of colour and the LGBQ+ community have been overlooked and neglected in the exercise realm, which has primarily catered to the white middle- and upper-classes. Yet for a book whose tagline proclaims to be about “How women discovered exercise and reshaped the world”, there is little coverage of countries outside the US (aside from the chapter about Lotte Berk’s influence in Sixties London). For starters, I would’ve thought our very own Les Mills International should get a mention. True, the fitness behemoth - which licences its routines to more than 21,000 gyms worldwide and has a million-plus online subscribers - was started by a man, and continued to be developed by Les' son Philip, but Philip’s wife Jackie also played a significant role in that development, as the couple created a world first in 1990 with BodyPump: lifting weights to music in a group fitness class. Now their daughter Diana Archer Mills is also visibly at the helm, alongside a raft of talented women (the likes of Kylie Gates, Rachael Newsham, Lisa Osborne) who have inspired hundreds of thousands of people worldwide to strengthen their bodies in their dynamic group fitness classes.
Women sweating, women building muscle, women seeking to become fit for fitness’ sake - it’s been normalised. Hallelujah!
Reviewer: Stacey Anyan
Allen & Unwin, $36.99