Culture  /  Q&A

Fit Nation

A conversation about "the gains and pains of America’s exercise obsession."

Lara: Others have noted that the concept of “fitness” came from a specific idea about military readiness and preparing bodies for service to the state.

Natalia: Absolutely. The role of military preparedness has been central to the history of fitness in the United States, but not always in expected ways. Take, for example, the Cold War. On the one hand, it was this era that transformed the idea of regular exercise – outside of sports – into a sign of civic virtue. Basically, in the 1950s, the most unassailable sign of American superiority was supposed to be leisure afforded by affluence. But the forms that this leisure took – suburbs, TV sets, cars, pantries stocked with processed delights – encouraged sedentariness and took a bodily toll, and the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations thus made “getting fit” and slimming down the “soft American” into a national security issue. It wasn’t just a talking point either – it was these administrations that established and expanded the presidential fitness councils that made physical education and military-style strength and flexibility tests a rite of passage for so many American children. Connecting bodily fitness with civic virtue represented a massive sensibility shift from the dominant idea that fitness was silly.

Lara: But reading your book, I was struck by how much cultural criticism came from conservatives, too, because fitness practices largely emerged from marginalized communities and spaces.

Natalia: That’s right! Even during the Cold War, the most vocal critics of Eisenhower and Kennedy’s fitness programming specifically were not radical critics of the military-industrial complex, but other Cold Warrior types who believed that 1) education dollars should be spent on teaching kids science and technology, not sit-ups and stretching and 2) that only totalitarian governments compelled their young citizens into mass displays of bodily performance. In this case, they equated fitness with dangerously un-American groupthink and government overreach, rather than the individualism with which it is so often associated today.

More broadly, over the course of the twentieth century, many critiques of fitness have come from conservative perspectives. Muscle Beach, the southern California spot where bodybuilders and acrobats began to train in the 1930s, enraged Santa Monica traditionalists, who derided these people as “sexual athletes and queers.” The press at the time echoed these attitudes, and even in covering bodybuilding competitions, would editorialize wildly about how these (mostly) men cared more about the size of their pectorals than their economic prospects or education. Investing so much time working out was really seen as evidence that you were not a productive member of society. This particular critique intensified when gay men’s gyms became more culturally visible in the 1970s and 1980s and were often derided as dens of sinful vanity and sexual deviance. This quasi-religious criticism took a different form in the 1990s, when yoga programs multiplying in gyms and especially in public schools were targeted as anti-Christian. And then there is the consistent theme of misogynist men (of all political stripes, actually) deriding women’s fitness pursuits, often in contradictory ways, as silly or dangerous or unfeminine.