The History Of Women’s Obsession With Fitness

Bella Breakdown

From “reducing“ salons to Jazzercise and Jane Fonda, here is how it all started. 60 years ago, it was considered unladylike for a woman to perspire and unsafe for her to physically exert herself. The rise of women’s boutique fitness mirrors the story of women in this country. It’s one of liberation and strength, but also one of ever expanding expectations and demands. In the 1930s, Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein opened salons that sold women on a novel concept: their physical appearance was in their control.
Well to do clients were given instructions on skin care, cosmetics and gentle fitness regimens like stretching, dancing and yoga. In the 1950s, after World War II, women developed a collective obsession with “reducing“ salons. This was a euphemism for losing weight. They hooked themselves up to machines that promised to shake, rule and pound away perceived flaws.

The most successful of these salons was a national chain called Slenderella. In the 1960s, Lottie Berk created what is now the modern barre industry. She combined ballet moves, yoga and rehabilitative exercises to help herself recover from a back injury. In the 1970s, Jazzercise was invented in 1969 by Judy Sheppard Missett. Missett’s classes offered aerobic dancing inspired by traditional jazz moves. By 1984, her company had become the country’s second largest franchise, right behind Domino’s. In the 1980s, Jane Fonda’s Workout Book was released in 1981. She tipped the scales for aerobic exercise, contributing to the rise of women’s fitness culture. In the 1990s, women began to seek out a more personalized fitness experience. Personal trainers became more popular as did yoga studios.

In the 2000s, the rise of luxury gyms like Equinox and DavidBartonGym put a premium on style. Bar Method was founded in 2000 and Pure Barre in 2001. SoulCycle was founded in 2006. Boutique fitness has become core to many women’s routines and identities. Today, a record 18.2 million Americans belong to at least one boutique fitness studio. We are paying more than ever for the privilege of working out in intimate quarters – often $35 for every class. Does the boutique explosion mark a sign of progress in women’s quest for health and happiness? Or are we just spinning our wheels? History will tell.

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