How Jewish women pioneered the fitness movement (for better and worse)
The women appear perfectly coiffed, makeup impeccable. They’re dressed in shorts, blouses, light sweaters and earrings to match. You might think they were headed off to a picnic in the park. But no, it’s 1958 and they’ve arrived at a calisthenics or “figure-shaping” class.
Well, actually this is a fictionalized recreation of what women’s group exercise might have looked like at the time in one of the most memorable scenes in the first season of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”
At the start of episode two, Miriam (aka, “Midge”) Maisel, a well-to-do Jewish housewife on the Upper West Side whose husband has just up and left her, meets her best friend Imogene for what seems to be a routine session. As the class gets underway, Imogene looks over and implores her friend, “Hey, stop working so hard,” lest she turn into them, the dead-serious divorcées relegated to the back corner, decked out in dark, solemn hues in sharp contrast to the rest of the room’s ultra-feminine pastels. They breathe heavily as they, in Imogene’s words, work so hard. Too hard.
This representation isn’t quite historically accurate, according to Danielle Friedman, author of “Let’s Get Physical: How Women Discovered Fitness and Reshaped the World,” which traces the rise of women’s exercise and exercise culture beginning in the wake of World War II. Though “Maisel” creator Amy Sherman-Palladino was reportedly inspired by images from a real Helena Rubinstein salon of the era, “It’s sort of a contemporary understanding of group fitness, projected onto the 1950s,” Friedman said.
“Women would go for a spa day; it wasn’t like they were going three times a week, as is suggested in the show,” said Friedman. And. she added, “the classes were even less rigorous than what is shown — it was like gentle stretching and very gentle calisthenics.”
But there are a few things the scene does capture about the history Friedman chronicles in her book, including the beliefs midcentury Americans held about gender roles and the dangers of women moving their bodies as well as the Jewish threads that run through the story of how a cadre of fitness pioneers slowly and painstakingly changed those beliefs in the decades that followed.
Just before the camera cuts to the bustling Garment District, where Midge’s father-in-law works, a concerned Midge gives the back corner of the room another long glance, then touches her manicured hand to her temple, brow furrowed, as though horrified by the possibility that she might be breaking a sweat. In that one motion, she hints at prevailing anxieties of the time. Not only was sweating considered unladylike, but it was thought that vigorous exercise might make a woman grow hair in unwanted places, turn her into a man — or a lesbian — or even make her uterus fall out. Yes, you did read that correctly, but go ahead and read it again.
“I was shocked,” Friedman said. But she heard it over and over again as she interviewed women in their 70s, 80s and even 90s. Though women had proven themselves capable in so many ways before and during WWII, the postwar era reimposed rigid gender roles. And the Cold War — which pitted strong and physically competent Soviet women against American ideals of femininity, beauty and grace — didn’t help.
“While I was shocked, and disappointed, to hear that many women grew up hearing these myths,” said Friedman, “it also reinforced for me that there was a really important story to be told here.”
A Very Jewish History
It was against this backdrop of plunging-uterus rumors and patriarchy that fitness pioneers began pushing back and advocating that women can and should move — and many of those pioneers were Jewish.
“At each pivotal point in women’s fitness history, there was a Jewish figure helping to propel it forward and helping to change the cultural landscape,” said Friedman, who grew up in Atlanta’s Jewish community, going to temple and Hebrew school and feeling like a bit of an outsider in the dominant Christian culture of the Bible Belt, surrounded by “a sea of blonde, blue-eyed cheerleaders.”
Friedman’s book grew out of an essay she wrote for The Cut about the sexual history of barre, which prominently featured its creator, the German Jewish dancer Lotte Berk, and went viral. In “Let’s Get Physical,” Friedman recounts a fateful night in the 1930s: Berk was warned by the Gestapo not to dance in a scheduled show or risk arrest. Her husband, who was not Jewish, performed without her but danced as though she were there with him, emphasizing her absence.
Friedman recalled being “taken aback” both by the drama and also by “Lotte’s bravery and her chutzpah, for lack of a better word, to run onto the stage at the end and thank the audience for being there and not being Nazis, and to know that the SS were literally waiting in the wings.”
Berk and her husband escaped with their daughter to London, where Berk opened a studio and promulgated her revolutionary new method of exercise. But “much of her adult life was shaped by her early experiences as a Jew amid the rise of Nazism,” said Friedman, who interviewed and took a Lotte Berk technique class with Berk’s daughter, Esther Fairfax, author of the biography “My Improper Mother and Me.”
“This could be said for many of the Jewish pioneers in the book: Because of what she went through, she was forced to reinvent herself entirely, she was forced to forge a new career, to make a home in a new country,” Friedman said. “The promise of exercise for many people is the promise, for better or worse, of reinvention.”
Some of the figures Friedman writes about fall into well-worn archetypes of 20th century Jewish narratives, but with a fitness twist. Fred Lebow — founder of the New York City Marathon and a huge supporter of women’s jogging who co-created the first all-women’s road race with legends Kathrine Switzer and Nina Kuscsik — was a Romanian Jew who’d evaded both the Nazis and the Communists and worked in the garment and textile industry in addition to being an avid runner.
Lucille Roberts, of the eponymous women’s gyms, was a Soviet Jewish immigrant whose family fled religious persecution. She started a business and built a fortune.
“At its best, fitness and movement can be a path to power. And so it does sort of make sense that after being imperiled, you would find a lot of comfort in an activity that allows you to feel physically in control and strong,” Friedman said.
“Jews are so associated, understandably, with the life of the mind,” she added. “And so the idea that Jewish people are so integrated into this very physical history really challenges some of those assumptions, my own assumptions and maybe stereotypes.”
Of course, the stories of Jewish trailblazers also reflect the “entrepreneurism and the type of innovative thinking that was required to fuel some of these movements and inventions,” which, as Friedman said, are “some of the traits that I think are more commonly associated with Jewish people.”
There was Hinda Miller, one of the inventors of the sports bra, for example and Gilda Marx, who ran the trend-setting aerobics studio that inspired Jane Fonda’s workout and invented the Lycra leotard that swept fitness fashion.
“Knowing that so many Jewish figures helped to pave the way for the opportunities that we have today is just another level of significance for me as a Jewish writer,” Friedman said. “I was happy to see that they had a, I would say, seat at the table or a spot at the front of the studio.”
These women weren’t just leading the charge, though, they were also participants. Friedman also spoke with many Jewish women who were students and enthusiasts throughout the second half of the 20th century — including her own mother as well as other women recruited with the help of her mother-in-law in the aerobics hot spot of Los Angeles.
At the same time, Friedman says, “It’s a little bit tricky, because obviously, several of the Jewish figures in the book were these complicated figures,” with unmistakable flaws. Berk, for instance, sent her daughter away to boardinghouses, told her not to “make a fuss” and risk their livelihoods when a producer raped her at 15, and subjected her to other cruelties. And Richard Hittleman, born to Jewish parents in the Bronx, helped popularize yoga in America, but his legacy smacks of cultural appropriation. These complexities in some ways reflect deeper tensions that shaped the rise of women’s fitness.
The Promise of Women’s Fitness
The literal and physical strength and competence women gained through exercise often begat figurative and symbolic strength they were able to carry over into other parts of their lives.
“Growing up, many women were taught to fear their bodies, to believe that their bodies were delicate, and to believe that their bodies belonged to other people. And so exercising as adults allowed them to feel more of a sense of ownership of themselves,” Friedman said. “A theme that came up, again and again, was when you feel comfortable in your body, and when you feel like you own your body, that can translate to feeling more comfortable and stronger in the wider world.”
In story after story, Friedman heard about how movement improved women’s physical and mental health and well-being and contributed to their confidence, independence, self-worth, happiness and ability to be active participants in their own lives even as they grew older.
Friedman can relate — her experience training for and running a marathon “has just translated so directly into so many other experiences in my life, even like writing a book,” she said. “When I was sort of hitting the wall toward the end, I just remembered what it was like to be at mile 21.”
Friedman says the trust she’s developed in her own body through movement also played a role “in going through the experience of being pregnant and giving birth and then being postpartum and recovering. Because just being able to remind yourself that you have been strong and that you can be strong can be so psychologically helpful.”
The women who took up fitness throughout the 20th century weren’t necessarily self-proclaimed feminists out protesting in the streets or aligning themselves with the women’s movement. Often, they “were enticed to walk through the door and maybe take the first step because of the physical motivation or the cosmetic motivation, but then discovered the more profound benefits,” said Friedman, who herself took a barre class for the first time because she was preparing for her wedding before realizing how strong and energized it made her feel. But exercise fomented a quieter revolution.
Friedman quotes Jazzercise founder Judi Sheppard-Missett, who said that women were “not necessarily changing the world, but they were changing their world.”
Friedman argues that “when enough women feel empowered to change their world, they are changing the world at large and the culture at large.”
How Far We’ve Come (and How Far There Is To Go)
Beneath the neon glow and perky purveyors, there are darker forces that run through the history of women’s fitness and fitness culture, which became intertwined with beauty and diet culture in unequivocally damaging ways.
“As exercise became more accepted for women, it also became more expected, and the ante was just continually raised until the standards of what a fit body looks like are just out of reach for many women,” said Friedman, who explained that grappling with this tension between the promises and perils of exercise was one of the central challenges of the project.
Fitness culture also frequently targeted a very specific segment of women — not just in terms of size, but also in terms of race, socioeconomic status and other factors — excluding much of the population.
In a sense, the growth of women’s fitness was possible only because of how it was packaged as a way to uphold rather than defy expectations of what women “should” be.
Bonnie Prudden, the very first personality Friedman profiles in her book, who made it her mission to convince Americans that men, women and children should exercise, “recognized that selling strength for strength’s sake to women, in the postwar era, when gender norms were so strictly enforced, just would have been dead on arrival,” Friedman said. “So it was a kind of clever business move to sell exercise as a beauty tool. It made it both acceptable to husbands, which was important, and to women themselves.”
Other innovators presented barre, jogging, aerobics, yoga, and other modes of exercise as ways for women to lose weight, shape their figures, and tone their bodies to match whatever the ideal was at that cultural moment. And, like Prudden, the pioneers themselves were for the most part small, slim and conventionally attractive.
“As much as I wish we lived in a world where the movement would have happened without that marketing, that packaging, I don’t think so,” Friedman said.
The fitness industry’s focus on appearance came at a steep cost for many women who’ve attempted to mold their bodies according to impossible standards — as exemplified by another recent pop culture representation that fast forwards a few decades from Maisel’s New York to 1980s San Diego.
- Apple TV’s “Physical” follows Sheila Rubin as she accidentally stumbles upon an aerobics class at the local mall and finds herself captivated. Her discovery offers a path to self-determination and fulfillment — “after just one class you can feel it happening, you becoming you again,” she says.
But her journey is entwined in painful ways with body dysmorphia and bulimia and a ruthless inner monologue in which she tells herself she’s a fat, ugly, pathetic, worthless loser. Friedman was riveted by fictionalized echoes of the real history in the show, particularly of Jane Fonda’s story (another ballet devotee turned aerobics star) as well as the toxic messages women absorbed as workout and beauty standards became increasingly exacting.
“It can be a hard show to watch,” she said. “But I think, of course, that is such a big part of this culture.”
Going in, Friedman knew that her book at its core would be “a celebration of how far we’ve come and of what exercise at its best and fitness at its best can offer women and has offered women” — while also critiquing the ways in which it has fallen short of its potential.
“I hope that it will help to fuel the recent shift that we’ve started to see toward greater body diversity in fitness, a more expansive understanding of what a fit body looks like, and a move away from fitness to shape the way our bodies look to meet a very rigid ideal of beauty,” she said.
And instead, maybe we can finally, finally, she added, “really focus in on the aspects of movement that make us feel good and that truly benefit our mental health.”
Stav Ziv is a journalist based in New York City whose work has also appeared in Newsweek, The Atlantic, Newsday, and the San Francisco Chronicle. She is currently deputy editor at The Muse.