When aerobic dancing took off in the 1970s, it marked the first time many women had really moved in their adult lives. Growing up in the post-World War II era of rigid gender roles, many of these women had internalized the widespread beliefs that vigorous exercise would, as the running pioneer Kathrine Switzer recalled being told, turn them into a man — that is, they would grow hair in unwanted places or develop bulky muscles (God forbid). Doctors cautioned that exercise might even make their uterus “fall out,” as women recalled being told in interviews for my forthcoming book, “Let’s Get Physical: How Women Discovered Exercise and Reshaped the World.”
Patriarchal myths like these reinforced the idea that women were the weaker sex. Men enjoyed a lifetime of practicing how to use and trust their bodies — from childhood sports to military service to physically demanding careers and heavy lifting at home. Women did not. This led to a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, ensuring women were physically inferior to men.
But a confluence of social shifts changed public opinion. The women’s movement encouraged my mother and others to cultivate literal and figurative strength. And the dawning realization that exercise was healthy for women, too, was soon backed up by science, when in 1968 Dr. Kenneth Cooper published the book “Aerobics,” which presented research suggesting both men and women should condition their heart and lungs.
Aerobic dancing boogied onto the cultural landscape at this exact moment, as a handful of charismatic fitness trailblazers across the country built mini-empires by offering high-energy dance classes for nondancers — and women discovered that the classes made them feel great. “When that music came on, man, it was like the floodgates were opened,” the aerobics pioneer Debbie Rosas told me. “All that pent-up power and desire to express oneself and be heard and be seen.”
By the early 1980s, aerobic dancing — by then referred to as simply “aerobics” — had changed the rhythm of many women’s days. It changed the way women like my mom saw themselves, and the way their families saw them. It’s hard today to conceive of how groundbreaking it felt for women to participate in a group physical activity outside of high school and college sports.
Of course, early aerobics studios did not empower every woman who walked through their doors. Aerobics, like other fitness movements, idolized smaller bodies over bigger ones. Many women flocked to classes because they wanted to look like dancers — long and lean and free from dreaded flab. (“Physical,” the TV show, nods at this part of aerobics’ history, too: The protagonist was loosely inspired by Jane Fonda and the show’s creator, Annie Weisman, both of whom have discussed the pressures they felt to be thin.)
Yes, the language of aerobics also urged self-esteem — but if body-transformation and body-acceptance were at battle within the movement, there was eventually a clear winner: Women found that aerobics did transform the way they looked, and fitness entrepreneurs knew the promise of beauty was more marketable than self-love. As Debbie Rosas puts it, “There was no value in feeling good.”