<em>Fit Nation</em>: A Conversation with Natalia Mehlman Petrzela

Fit Nation: A Conversation with Natalia Mehlman Petrzela

Lara Freidenfelds

Lara: Natalia, I really enjoyed your new book, Fit Nation: The Gains and Pains of America’s Exercise Obsession. I recognized so much from my own experiences – Jane Fonda and her high-cut leotards that inspired dance fashion during my teen years; dreading the Presidential Fitness test in high school; watching the yoga craze flow through the dance world as a young adult. And I’m familiar with much of the early twentieth-century history as a historian of the body. But your book reframed this history in such a useful and entertaining way.

Cultural critics love to hate the world of fitness and its excesses, and you address the issues head-on. Much of the criticism is warranted. I remember when you publicly withdrew your endorsement of Lululemon, for example.

Natalia: I am so happy you enjoyed it! A real pleasure of this book being out in the world is hearing how it resonates with contemporary readers who lived through many of the phenomena I chronicle. Also, this book introduces historical perspective on things that are increasingly ubiquitous in our culture – that spin studio that opened down the block, the yoga pants that seem like an unofficial uniform in certain neighborhoods, your workplace launching a “wellness initiative.” But these are also things that we too rarely think critically about.

The book cover for Fit Nation featuring a purple background and fading block letters.
Book cover courtesy University of Chicago Press.

At the time I started working on this book, that scholarly silence was breaking. But the prevailing interpretation of fitness culture was that America’s enthusiasm for exercise was proof positive of our uncritical embrace of a cruel capitalist individualism. While I agree with this argument in certain regards, I think that interpreting American fitness culture uniquely through the lens of an ascendant neoliberalism paints with too broad a brush, and risks overlooking fascinating and more complicated stories.

I don’t take for granted that fitness culture is deeply American, because for decades it was seen as distasteful. How that change happened is a chapter in American intellectual, political, and cultural history, though we don’t immediately think of exercise as a way to understand these realms. I am also dissatisfied with the presumption that fitness enthusiasts are just capitalist shills or narcissistic dupes; I analyze policy and politics, but the book is crucially just as packed with stories of individuals and communities where fitness was a powerful form of solidarity and self-determination.

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.

Black and white photograph of four men standing on top of each other's shoulders to form a tower.
Bodybuilders at Muscle Beach, 1958. (Courtesy Wikimedia)

For all this criticism, the remarkable thing is that even the most ardent critics of fitness culture – from the right and the left – have tended to establish their own exercise communities rather than abandon the pursuit entirely.

Lara: The class politics of fitness are super-complicated, too. In the early twentieth century, affluent people were afraid that working out would make them look too much like muscular manual laborers. Today over 80% of jobs are sedentary, and affluent Americans partake of an endless menu of Soul Cycle, Pilates, Crossfit, and on and on, while people with the least resources have the least access to exercise spaces and classes.

Natalia: Indeed. Historically, it’s generally true that in moments when the white-collar service industry expanded, so too did the fitness industry. Essentially, as more people sat at desks, there developed a need to offset the sedentariness of those jobs with deliberate exercise, although the emphasis on the perils of not working out shifted depending on the era. Early twentieth-century clerks and 1950s corporate executives alike were cautioned that their sedentary jobs would make them unattractively paunchy, but the exercise boosters in this early generation specifically warned of the dangers of bodily weakness among white people, when hardier immigrants and formerly enslaved people were reproducing at higher rates. In the 1950s, the fear was of heart attacks. This presented a paradox: white-collar workers were supposedly superior to manual laborers by dint of working with their minds, but all that cerebral exertion was wreaking havoc on their bodies. The solution to this problem was to lean hard into defining a realm of movement that was unquestionably distinct from the labors of “mere breakers of stones,” more inclusive than competitive sports, and might even be considered a respectable leisure activity for a growing middle class. An industry emerged to serve up options that met those criteria and satisfied this new consumer appetite.

That intrinsic urge towards exclusivity, I think, has everything to do with why exercise continues to be a private rather than a public good in this country. I do think we are in an era where those assumptions are being challenged, since so much low-wage work is now sedentary, and there is only more evidence that exercise is integral to good health, not some frivolous leisure activity for the rich.

Lara: You envision a hopeful, healthy, and more just future of fitness. How should we be thinking about getting to that place?

Natalia: Well, I am more optimistic on some days than others. On the one hand, despite our intense polarization on practically every issue, most people agree that exercise is good for you. To me, this is a crucial foundation for establishing the expectation that people should have access to exercise and fitness on their own terms. I bolded the last bit, because even though I am an unapologetic fitness booster, I absolutely do not advocate for a world in which people are compelled to exercise in ways that alienate or even traumatize them – in many ways, this was the experience of people under JFK’s physical fitness policy, which some folks wrongly think of as the “golden age” of physical education policy.

Rather, in the same way that affluent people can now choose to jog, do yoga, or train for a triathlon, all people should have access to such pursuits. This is a matter of expanding affordable options in the industry – which is happening, even as the ritziest end gets the most media attention – but it’s also a matter of public policy. Physical education is the place where most people will first encounter exercise, and right now it is lackluster for so many, for reasons that have little to do with educators themselves and everything to do with how we have devalued what should be a core part of every child’s education.

Furthermore, there are so many aspects of how we live that may seem unrelated to fitness, but which structure our ability to exercise: access to well-lit streets and parks, presence of tree cover that can dramatically change the temperature of a neighborhood, affordable healthful food that boosts energy levels, the ability to live near one’s work and thus not lose hours commuting, control over one’s schedule, affordable childcare and healthcare… the list goes on! While all of these issues are currently polarizing in the policy realm, I am hopeful that today’s current consensus on the importance of exercise to overall health can lead us to a future in which we look back at today’s egregious fitness inequality with collective horror.

Lara: I learned so much from your book, and I appreciate how your broad historical framing helped me to see fitness for all as a matter of social justice. Here’s to a healthier and more inclusive fitness future, as you say, on our own terms!

Featured image caption: Bonnie Prudden, whose report on the unfitness of American children led to the formation of the President’s Council on Youth Fitness, leads an exercise class at her school. (Courtesy Library of Congress)

Lara Freidenfelds is a historian of health, reproduction, and parenting in America. She is the author of The Myth of the Perfect Pregnancy: a History of Miscarriage in America and The Modern Period: Menstruation in Twentieth-Century America. Sign up for her newsletter and find links to her op-eds and blog essays at