Evolving Notions of Beauty: The Tension in Transition from Reduce to Refine

Subtitle: Let's Get Physical, Chapters 4-6

Posted on February 17th, 2022

By Olivia Baker

Over the middle chapters of Let's Get Physical we begin to observe the transition of women's fitness culture from one that encouraged women to exercise for the main purpose of getting smaller to one that empowered women by offering them mental, physical, and social benefits over the course of the 70s and 80s. Through the gateway workout that began with Judi Shepard Missett's Jazzercise and branched off into Jane Fonda's Workout (as well as many similar exercises lumped into the category we now know as aerobics) women began to embrace working out as a fun social activity that boasted benefits beyond the physical. The parallel rise in popularity of strength training, spurred by Lisa Lyon's advocacy after winning the first World Women's Body Building Championship, and subsequent rise of gyms created even more social spaces than ever for women to participate in exercise. As a result, women simultaneously had more reasons to exercise but also observed a narrowing, dare I say "refining", of the standard of beauty that drew many to exercise in the first place. This blog explores an odd stage in the women's fitness movement in which the hearts and minds of women begin to change but the culture is slower to shift.

The popularity and fun in Judi Shepherd Missett's Jazzercise helped women find the joy in exercise and fueled a greater appreciation for women's physicality and strength (pg#109), yet when it came time to sell her fitness guide, her rhetoric fell back in line with the norms of the time promising women a "lovlier, lithe, more enchanting you,"(pg#114). As a result, America's body ideals began to include not just being thin but having a vague sense of athleticism as well.

This notion was further fueled by Lisa Lyon's who used her platform to expand the definition of feminine to include muscle…but not too much muscle. Even Lisa, for all her progressive views still spoke disparagingly about women who got "too big" (pg#186). Nonetheless, as visible muscle eased its way into the definition of beauty, women were pushed to strive not just for thinner physiques, but leaner ones as well.

Then there was Jane Fonda, arguably the most recognizable name from the 70s- and 80s-women's fitness revolution and the most vocal. Jane regularly and publicly lamented the pressure that women and emphasized a desire for women to do her Workout for their own strength. However, in her actions she relentlessly strove to fit the cultural standards of beauty, almost exclusively sought out thin models for her books, and, in a cruel bit of irony, was using the Workout for the main purpose of funding her husband's political endeavors (pg#164). Throughout this period, women found joy, empowerment, and fun in working out while also observing a tightening of the standards of beauty from one that simply encouraged women to "reduce" to one that encouraged women to appear toned and refined as well, an inadvertent roadblock in an otherwise promising movement at the time.

What does the transition from "reduce" to "refine" say about the movement towards a positive women's fitness culture as a whole? That the path to success is not linear. Our leaders are imperfect, even movements with the best intentions have unintended consequences, and norms are hard to change. Nonetheless, progress also isn't always visible. Though the cultural norms of the decades did not always show it and in some ways indicated movement away from the goal of greater inclusivity and body positivity in women's fitness, changes in the hearts and minds of people are immeasurable. As we can see now, this stage of the fitness movement was ultimately a stepping stone towards the women's fitness culture we observe today.

Discussion Questions:

1. What was the gateway sport or exercise that ultimately led you to running, walking, and/or jogging?

2. What shifts do you see occurring in women's fitness culture today that may not have taken hold in popular culture just yet?

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