Women's fitness through history

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.

The trend of society encouraging women to focus on their appearance and ‘womanly responsibilities’ rather than their health is one that appears repeatedly in history and is often outright offensive. For instance, in the early 1900s, there was even concern about whether exercise may have had adverse effects on a woman's ability to have children. As modern science has shown, exercise, like most things, when used in moderation will have a positive effect rather than a negative one. But that archaic thinking persists and is extremely harmful to women’s mental and physical well-being.

The flip side of such thinking is that women should conform to an ideal physical appearance, no matter their actual health or ability. There is this perception being put forward by media, as well as diet and fitness companies that ‘thin is perfect.'

The media's approach to women and exercise is often that such activity may make them undesirable or sterile, and yet if they don't possess the 'perfect body' as per the standards of the time, they are even more unattractive. In short, when it comes to women and working out, it's hard to win. Today that can be seen when female athletes have more well-developed muscles, and are then perceived as being 'too butch,' i.e. unattractive. Of course, men are encouraged to make use of all sorts of illegal stimulants in order to become ridiculously muscular, while women should ‘know their limits,’ and stay safely within the bounds of whatever constitutes feminine health at the moment.

Whether this is simply a cycle that will continue repeating throughout human history remains to be seen. An encouraging sign is that awareness of this trend is far more prevalent, and women now have many more opportunities to make choices about the ways in which they pursue physical fitness that are independent from the expectations of media or society.

About the author Kirsten Thompson:
Writer. Editor of Strange Wit, The Bargain. Featured contributor @femsplain. Intersectional feminist. Needs more tea.