By: Kirsten Thompson
Today, physical beauty and fitness are often valued above most other qualities, including intelligence. The media bombards people, but women in particular, with images of airbrushed models and actresses who have dietitians, personal trainers, as well as a graphic designer who erases cellulite and softens wrinkles until the women smiling up from the magazine are so unrealistic that aspiring to look like them is a Sisyphean task that makes cleaning out a giant stable look more pleasant. This was not always the case, indeed the definition of what is considered 'fit and healthy' has evolved dramatically throughout history.
Pre-10,000 B.C. to approximately 8,000 B.C., before people settled in cities and ceased spending much of their days in farming and agriculture activities, there was less concern about maintaining one's personal fitness because people were working so hard they kept themselves in good shape. However, beginning in the 1860s, with the Industrial Revolution, as technological advances brought people into a more sedentary lifestyle, and they became increasingly concerned with entertainment and wealth, their level of fitness dropped. (Lance C. Dalleck and Len Kravitz, 2011).
It was at this time that there was a rising interest in cleanliness as scientific advances made the public more aware of disease. At the same time a woman’s job was primarily managing a household, and not laboring in any way that might roughen her hands, dirty her white linens, or otherwise work up an unseemly sweat. Factories became commonplace and the onus for fabricating goods fell on the lower class. They had no time to stop to think about fitness, as survival was the priority, while upper class women were expected to socialize rather than exercise. However, the rise of a middle class meant that not everyone was either extremely poor or fantastically rich. The middle class worker might be in much better physical shape than the very wealthy, as they often spent much of their day engaged in some manner of activity, and might also have to walk long distances to work. All these advantages were unfortunately negated by the growing import and availability of sugar, white flour, and processed foods, which resulted in a decline of public health.
When the government began to focus more on physical fitness, the Victorian interest in inventions and the intersection of technology and health created a wide array of fitness equipment, however women were still expected to behave and dress in ways that often inhibited their ability to take advantage of the full scope of these devices. The exception to this was the bicycle, which not only provided physical activity, but was also a means through which women found great personal freedom.