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Review of Let’s Get Physical


Friedman, Danielle. Let’s Get Physical: How Women Discovered Exercise and Reshaped the World. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons. 270 pp. $27.00 Hardcover.

Reviewed by Richard Ravalli

Danielle Friedman offers a personalised, feminist have a look at girls’s health historical past because the center of the 20 th century in Let’s Get Physical: How Women Discovered Exercise and Reshaped the World. Intended for normal readers, the e book nonetheless makes worthwhile contributions to the latest spate of research of Western health and bodily tradition historical past, at the same time as Friedman’s informal methodology generally detracts from this effort.

G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2022.

A journalist and editor, Friedman begins her journey by way of the information of the latest previous with an examination of Bonnie Prudden, the Cold War-era guru who promoted train for American schoolkids and housewives. Complementing Friedman’s reliance on a group of accessible major and secondary sources is her interview with Prudden’s long-time assistant Enid Whittaker. She additionally had entry to Prudden’s private papers, that are nonetheless underneath Whittaker’s care. That Friedman didn’t undertake a deep archival dive is forgiven, given her generalized objective. Yet, readers conversant in sure facets of American health historical past could also be left with extra questions than solutions following her overview of Prudden. For occasion, how did Prudden’s later train profession, talked about briefly in closing, match into the burgeoning late-century health tradition for which she helped pave the way in which? In what methods did her midcentury reputation relate to tv personalities like Debbie Drake, who’s unmentioned?

Friedman’s relaxed type and casual quips assist informal readers alongside, however points with context and chronology could reduce the facility of her quantity as a preferred historical past and feminist instrument. Some may discover the e book’s divergences into glamour and trend historical past distracting, as extra care may have been taken to foreground these narratives. Still, connecting icons equivalent to Mary Quant and Vidal Sassoon to barre train developer Lieselotte “Lotte” Berk presents intriguing historic relationships between bodily and sweetness tradition that run all through the story of girls’s health. For instance, Friedman capably hyperlinks the profession of working pioneer Katherine Switzer to the event of the sports activities bra and Avon’s sponsorship of a girls’s marathon in 1977. Making the significance of trend in girls’s health historical past express within the e book’s introduction would have given it better conceptual grounding, even when this will run counter to its later, extra forceful criticisms of magnificence tradition.

A runner herself, Friedman hits her stride across the halfway level in Let’s Get Physical, providing a breezy, participating narrative of Jazzercise and health entrepreneur Judi Sheppard Missett, buttressed by ample oral and written sources. A requisite chapter on Jane Fonda offers an intensive overview of her profession as a exercise icon, in addition to the way it was formed by these round her. Female bodybuilder Lisa Lyon receives due credit score as the game’s first movie star, although the chapter shortly decentralizes her story for a litany of vignettes on Eighties fitness center and health tradition, and at the very least one historic slip means that Black bodybuilding champion Carla Dunlap was by no means featured on the duvet of a Weider journal. (In full disclosure, I shared an essay of mine on Lyon with Friedman for the e book.) Friedman touches evenly, however capably, on the darker facet of an more and more sexualized health tradition for American girls by the top of the 20 th century, exhibiting extra damaging, much less celebratory tones than are expressed earlier within the e book.

Pausing within the early Nineteen Nineties, throughout a hunch in American curiosity in well being membership memberships and vigorous train, Friedman strikes backward to debate Indra Devi and the early historical past of yoga within the United States. She later attributes the apply’s burgeoning reputation on the flip of the millennium in context with the “bitchification” of girls in widespread tradition throughout the Nineteen Nineties, from which yoga, in her estimation, offered an escape. However, her skinny context and jarring chronology throw her narrative astray. It additionally is probably going that post-Cold War values and shifts in feminism present a lot of the historic rationalization that Friedman seeks.

Nevertheless, like a marathon spectator, you cheer for Friedman to complete sturdy within the inviting, easy-to-read chronicle that Let’s Get Physical for essentially the most half delivers. And she does. The remaining chapter presents a millennial’s retrospective on the latest rise of health boutiques and the socioeconomic limitations and alternatives of modern health tradition. According to Friedman, whereas earlier feminine pioneers “succeeded by pushing social boundaries while still playing by conventional rules,” twenty first century advocates are bravely selling physique range and transferring away from emphasizing typical requirements of magnificence. Whether Instagram permits a “woke” understanding of feminine health tradition is left to future historians. Friedman’s widespread feminist historical past is a helpful first draft of subjects that deserve nearer inspection from students.


Richard Ravalli is Associate Professor of History at William Jessup University. His article on California “glamazons” and feminine bodybuilding within the late twentieth century was revealed final yr in Journal of the West.

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