Science  /  Retrieval

The Intimacy of Exercise: Sensuality and Sexuality in Black Women’s Fitness History

How did the sensuality, sexuality, and homosociality of exercise create intimate possibilities for Black women in postwar America?

Exercise is an intimate act. It requires us to be well acquainted with our bodies—how far they can stretch, how fast they can run, and how much weight they can bear. Physical exercise compels us to notice our hearts racing, feel our lungs gasping for air, and listen to the involuntary grunts and moans we make when we push our bodies past perceived limits. In group settings, exercise calls our sweaty, heavily breathing bodies to commune with one another in joint pursuits of fitness, training, and recreation. It induces us to imagine our most personal, corporal possibilities—to envision what our bodies can do and look like in the future.

This line of inquiry is one I wish I could have explored more in my book, Fit Citizens: A History of Black Women’s Exercise from Post-Reconstruction to Postwar America. Focusing instead on the civic implications of exercise, I examined how Black women used various physical activities, like calisthenics, gymnastics, and walking, to demonstrate their literal and figurative “fitness” for citizenship. While my research called for a social history of fitness, I often wondered about more personal and private domains, and questioned how the sensuality, sexuality, and homosociality of exercise created intimate possibilities for Black women. Methodologically, this is a tall order, as scholars have noted the difficulty of accessing histories of Black interiority and intimacy.[1] Likewise, much of this essay employs my own historical imagination and offers more questions than conclusions about Black women’s affective, corporal, and queer histories of fitness.

“A Pleasurable End in View”

My curiosity concerning intimacy led me to reflect on pleasure. I contemplated what new interpretations would emerge if I perceived historical exercise as not only a disciplining practice but also as a praxis of pleasure and a path to internal well-being. Modern-day exercise scientists have found that aerobic exercise releases endorphins that can produce feelings of euphoria, increase one’s capacity to handle stress and reduce depression.[2] While terms like “endorphins” did not circulate until the late twentieth century, we can reason that cardiovascular exercise could have positive physiological and psychological effects in previous eras as it does today. In the parlance of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Black people proclaimed that daily exercise combatted “nervous irritability,” “injurious brooding,” and had a “pleasurable end in view.”[3]