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

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

Ava Purkiss

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]

Black women emphasized the enjoyable, sensorial aspects of exercise, whether through dancing, walking, or hiking. Women’s and civil rights activist Mary Church Terrell remarked in her autobiography that despite her mature age, dance was a “healthful and fascinating exercise” that increased her “joy of living.”[4] Some turned to the outdoors for their physical activity, perhaps to capture some of that joy. Elizabeth Johnson, writer for the nineteenth-century Black woman’s magazine The Woman’s Era, encouraged other Black women to organize spring “walking clubs” in which exercisers could breathe fresh air, take in “bright, balmy mornings,” witness “opening [flower] buds,” and listen to birdsong.[5] Similarly, Cora Byrd, a lover of physical culture, wrote of savoring “blue skies” and relishing “soft breezes” on a long-distance hike from New York City to Washington, D.C., in 1928.[6] These women, and others, conceived of exercise as a way to become intimate with nature, aspire toward health, and ward off “tired and nervous dispositions.”[7] Exercise opened their senses to enjoyable smells, sights, sounds, and feelings, attesting that exercise could be a delight and not just a duty.

A middle-aged Black woman sits for a portrait.
Mary Church Terrell asserted, “I believe if a woman could dance or swim a half hour every day, her span of life would be greatly lengthened, her health materially improved and the joy of living decidedly increased.” Often pictured sedentary in portrait photography, we might re-envision Terrell as a swimmer, dancer, and lover of exercise. (Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

Black women reformers promoted group exercise among Black girls not merely because it improved their physical health but also because it provided rejuvenation, amusement, and camaraderie. As I have written, Black girls and women engaged in exercise for various political and civic reasons, such as citizenship training and racial uplift imperatives, but they sometimes exercised simply because it felt good. Of course, each individual did not (and does not) have the same exhilarating experiences with fitness activities. But by placing contemporary exercise science in conversation with Black women’s intimate histories of physical culture, we can imagine that some Black women derived self-gratification and collective bodily pleasure from their fitness pursuits.

“A Figure that Boys [and Girls?] Will Admire”

Exercise also offered Black women opportunities for bodily and sexual expression. Spectator sports and exercise sometimes allowed young women to decide how to publicly comport and fashion their bodies (usually under the watchful eye of cautious Black guardians).[8] In the 1920s and 1930s, some Black women basketball players noted the satisfaction they felt wearing “short trunks and sweaters” in games where the “men [would] see them.”[9] The postwar era saw heightened versions of these kinds of bodily exhibitions through displays of fitness in print modeling, beauty pageants, and collegiate and professional sports. Black beauty expert Elsie Archer explained in her 1959 advice book for “Negro girls” that “All smart girls. . . . are trying for better health, better eating habits and above all better figures. A figure that shapes up to be the envy of all your girl friends [sic]. A figure that boys will admire. Get busy on yours!”[10] Archer suggested four aerobic exercises that would help produce such an enviable figure.

Indeed, for some Black women, exercise and sports became a pathway to male desire and bodily appreciation.[11] These objectives, on their face, were grounded in heteronormative assumptions that should give us some pause. If Black women’s fitness practices (and the bodies shaped by them) could garner pleasing looks and romantic admiration from men, they could also garner the same from other women. Although the sources I cite here do not explicitly indicate queer desire, we might ask if sex-segregated Black YWCAs, basketball teams, walking clubs, and church fitness groups created opportunities for Black women’s queer corporality and attraction. In the absence of clear-cut evidence, we might apply queer analytical pressure to those basketball players who claimed to be seeking interest from men and, at the same time, wore “short trunks,” comported themselves as “tomboys,” and transgressed gender and sexuality norms.[12] We may interrogate why some queer African American women, like Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Angelina Weld Grimké, and Lucy Diggs Slowe, advocated women’s exercise and physical education. Perhaps we could question if group exercise—activities that enabled perspiring, jiggling, and scantily clad bodies to be together—fostered queer curiosity and intrigue. While most women’s exercise records present heteronormative aspirations of attracting men and sustaining marriages, we might plumb those records and imagine that other forms of Black relationality were made possible by exercise’s intimate design. We could intimate the queer possibilities of Black women’s history, as some have already done.[13]

A group of Black women students watch a Black female teacher holding a volleyball.
Physical education enabled young Black women’s closeness and homosociality, as seen with these Bethune-Cookman students. (Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

Physical exercise facilitated various kinds of Black female intimacies—intimacies with the self, with groups of Black women and girls, with the outdoors, and with spectating “admirers” of the female form. These intimacies prompt us to ask not only what exercise allowed Black women to do but also how it made them feel, personally, intersubjectively, and collectively. For Black women, whose lives were marked by multiple forms of violence, racial and gender limitations, and recurrent disappointment, exercise might have provided a route to bodily pleasure, expansive sexuality, and intimate fulfillment.

We have much to gain by turning our attention to these intimate histories of fitness.


  1. Ashley D. Farmer, “In Search of the Black Women’s History Archive,” Modern American History 1, no. 2 (2018): 289–93; Marisa J. Fuentes, Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016); Evelynn M. Hammonds, “Toward a Genealogy of Black Female Sexuality: The Problematic of Silence,” in Feminist Theory and the Body: A Reader, eds. Janet Price and Margrit Shildrick (New York: Routledge, 2010), 93–104; Darlene Clark Hine, “Rape and the Inner Lives of Black Women in the Middle West,” Signs 14, no. 4 (1989): 912–20; Michele Mitchell, “Silences Broken, Silences Kept: Gender and Sexuality in African-American History,” Gender & History 11, no. 3 (1999): 433–44; ; LaKisha Michelle Simmons, “‘To Lay Aside All Morals’: Respectability, Sexuality and Black College Students in the United States in the 1930s,” Gender & History 24, no. 2 (2012): 431–55.
  2. Ross Balchin et al., “Sweating Away Depression? The Impact of Intensive Exercise on Depression,” Journal of Affective Disorders 200 (2016): 218–21; Kennon T. Francis, “The Role of Endorphins in Exercise: A Review of Current Knowledge,” Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy 4, no. 3 (1983): 169–73; Deirdre Scully et al., “Physical Exercise and Psychological Well Being: A Critical Review,” British Journal of Sports Medicine 32, no. 2 (1998): 111–20; Peter Thorén et al., “Endorphins and Exercise: Physiological Mechanisms and Clinical Implications,” Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 22, no. 4 (1990): 417–28. Research on women’s “exercise-induced orgasm” and the relationship between exercise and sexual wellbeing makes explicit links between exercise and pleasure: Debby Herbenick and J. Dennis Fortenberry, “Exercise-Induced Orgasm and Pleasure among Women,” Sexual and Relationship Therapy 26, no. 4 (2011): 373–88; Amelia M. Stanton, Ariel B. Handy, and Cindy M. Meston, “The Effects of Exercise on Sexual Function in Women,” Sexual Medicine Reviews 6, no. 4 (2018): 548–57.
  3. In order of quoted material: Mary P. Evans, “Health and Beauty from Exercise Paper No. 1” The Woman’s Era, May 1894; Mary P. Evans, “Health and Beauty from Exercise Paper No. 3” The Woman’s Era, May 1894; Dr. J.W. Pierce, “Health Talks: Preventive and Remedial Measures for the Conservation of Health,” Norfolk New Journal and Guide, April 28, 1917, 4.
  4. Mary Church Terrell, A Colored Woman in a White World (Washington, D.C.: Ransdell Inc. Printers and Publishers, 1940), 407. Terrell also bragged that, “I can walk faster and farther than either one of my daughters without feeling it. And I have greater power of endurance than either one of them has.” Alison M. Parker importantly notes, however, that Terrell experienced several health maladies that she attempted to conceal. See Parker, ‘“The Picture of Health’: The Public Life and Private Ailments of Mary Church Terrell,” Journal of Historical Biography 13 (2013): 164-207.
  5. Elizabeth Johnson, “Women at Home,” The Woman’s Era, March 1894, 11.
  6. Cora L. Byrd, “Girl Walker Tells of Trip . . . Says She Believes in Physical Culture and was Benefitted,” New York Amsterdam News, February 29, 1928, 10. Byrd hitch-hiked for part of her journey.
  7. Johnson, “Women at Home.”
  8. Women’s sports and physical education have been especially fraught terrains for debates about gender expression and sexuality. See for instance, Susan K. Cahn, Coming on Strong: Gender and Sexuality in Twentieth-Century Women’s Sports (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998); Martha H. Verbrugge, Active Bodies: A History of Women’s Physical Education in Twentieth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).
  9. “Athletics,” Lincoln School for Nurses Collection, 1931 Yearbook, pp. 59-60, MG 248, box 4, folder 1, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York, NY.
  10. Elsie Archer, Let’s Face It: A Guide to Good Grooming for Negro Girls (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1959), 51.
  11. An important caveat here is that Black women and girls had to assess the personal, social, and political costs of wearing “revealing” exercise clothing and withstanding unwanted, sexualized gazes of their moving bodies. The threat of sexual assault, the fear of confirming stereotypes of unrestrained sexual desire, and concerns about compromising the advancement of the race likely prevented some African American women from fully exploring the intimate possibilities of exercise.
  12. For a detailed discussion of Black tomboys, see Samantha White, ‘“The Right Sort of Girl is a Tomboy’: Representations of Black Athletic Girlhood in the Early Twentieth-Century Black Press,” Journal of Sport History 50, no. 1 (2023): 1-16. Also, see Ashley Brown’s discussion of athletic queer comportment in Serving Herself: The Life and Times of Althea Gibson (New York: Oxford University Press, 2023).
  13. Angela Y. Davis, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday (New York: Vintage, 1999); Karen V. Hansen, “‘No Kisses Is Like Youres’: An Erotic Friendship between Two African-American Women during the Mid-Nineteenth Century,” Gender and History (1995):153-82; Cheryl D. Hicks, ‘“Bright and Good Looking Colored Girl’: Black Women’s Sexuality and ‘Harmful Intimacy’ in Early-Twentieth-Century New York,” Journal of the History of Sexuality (2009): 418-56; Jennifer Dominique Jones, “Finding Home: Black Queer Historical Scholarship in the United States,” Part II, History Compass (2019): 1-9; Cookie Woolner, The Famous Lady Lovers: Black Women and Queer Desire before Stonewall (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2023).

Featured image caption: Sex-segregated exercise and sports necessitated Black women’s athletic intimacy and bodily touching, as displayed in this swim team’s physical closeness. (“Howard University, Women’s Swim Team, 1936–1937.” Kenneth Space Photographs of the Activities of Southern Black Americans, 1936–1937, Harmon Foundation Collection, 1922–1967, National Archives, photo no. 26174876.)

Ava Purkiss is a historian and assistant professor of American Culture and Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Michigan, and holds a courtesy appointment in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Michigan Medicine. She is the author of Fit Citizens: A History of Black Women’s Exercise from Post-Reconstruction to Postwar America (UNC Press, 2023). Her research and teaching interests lie at the intersection of race, gender, health, and the body and she specializes in Black Women’s History.

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