Danielle Friedman on How Women Shaped (And Toned, and Ran) the History of Fitness

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Who’s the first female fitness figure you vividly remember? For me, it’s Mia Hamm. I was 10 years old in 1999, when Mia and the U.S. women won the World Cup in an epic shootout. And yes, that was the one with the Brandi Chastain sports bra moment. 

By the time I was participating in sports, TItle IX had been around for nearly 20 years. The 90s felt like women were really stepping into their athletic power through sports. But long before I was born, women had been quietly – and then loudly- crusading for the physical benefits of exercise, talking about why women both needed and deserved to work out. 

It all starts with a dynamic young woman named Bonnie Prudden. Her report to President Eisenhower on how America’s children were physically unfit led to the formation of the President’s Council on Youth Fitness and yes, that dreaded test you might have taken in elementary school. But before she was shaking hands with the president, Bonnie was an expert rock climber, a mountaineer, and the owner of an old elementary school. She turned that school into the Institute for Physical Fitness, housing three gyms, two dance studios, an obstacle course, and America’s first climbing wall. In many ways, we credit Bonnie as the pioneer in women’s fitness. Before her, women were afraid to exercise because they were told their uterus would fall out if they did. Yes, really.

I’d never heard of Bonnie Prudden, and I’m guessing Bonnie is a stranger to you, too. And I know she wasn’t the only female fitness leader lost to time.  That’s why we’re talking to Danielle Friedman, author of Let’s Get Physical: How Women Discovered Exercise and Reshaped the World. Danielle’s book was inspired by a viral essay she wrote for The Cut about the secret sexual history of barre. When she saw the response to her article, Danielle realized that there was a rich history of women in fitness. 

Decade by decade, Danielle covers the evolution of women in fitness, from barre to running to yoga to strength training. She highlights moments of cultural revolution, like when Jazzercise was a part of the Opening Ceremonies of the 1984 Olympics, and when Jane Fonda found her way into millions of Americans’ homes throughout her insanely popular workout videos. 

Through it all, Danielle carefully analyzes the messaging women heard about their bodies – what the ideal figure was and how they could get it through exercise. Right now, we’re at a time when women are encouraged to exercise to get strong, and to feel empowered. But not so long ago, the messaging was much more reductive, even from the women we now recognize as heroines in fitness history. Anecdotally, I know a lot of women who have struggled with disordered relationships to exercise and body image. It was eye-opening to realize the extent to which these aren’t new issues.

So, here’s what you can look forward to in this interview. Danielle gives me a quick overview of the history of women in fitness. We also get into how women’s clothes evolved to support the moving woman (the sports bra, after all, is a relatively recent invention), and Black women who were instrumental in changing fitness. Finally, we end with what she would add to her book now if she had the opportunity to write a pandemic-specific chapter. 

About Danielle Friedman

Danielle Friedman is an award-winning journalist whose feature writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Cut, Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Glamour, Health, and other publications. She has worked as a senior editor at NBC News Digital and The Daily Beast, and she began her career as a nonfiction book editor at the Penguin imprints Hudson Street Press and Plume. She lives in New York City with her husband and son.      

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About Kristen Geil

A native of Lexington, Kentucky, Kristen moved to Chicago in 2011 and received her MA in Writing, Rhetoric, and Discourse from DePaul while trying to maintain her southern accent. Kristen grew up playing sports, and since moving to Chicago, she’s fallen in love with the lakefront running path and the lively group fitness scene. Now, as a currently retired marathoner and sweat junkie, you can usually find her trying new workouts around the city and meticulously crafting Instagram-friendly smoothie bowls. Kristen came on to A Sweat Life full-time in 2018 as Editor-in-Chief, and she spends her days managing writers, building content strategy, and fighting for the Oxford comma.