It’s almost impossible to turn on the television today without scenes of limber men and women in spandex flashing back at you, encouraging you to worship at the feet of the goddess of fitness. Whether through infomercials or reality shows, it is hard for Americans to imagine a time before our culture focused on muscular physiques. Between 1981 and 1985, 25 million Americans joined aerobic dance classes in one of the 50,000-100,000 aerobic studios. By 1982, with the help of Jane Fonda, Richard Simmons, and other fitness celebrities, the industry boomed into a 30 billion dollar media empire and permeated into all aspects of American culture. Arguably, America’s obsession with physical fitness, at least the spandex-clad version, is a relatively new aspect of our nation’s history. While the passion for fitness began in the early 1900s, it was not until the 1980s that fitness commercialized in the aerobics. The 1980s became an incubator where the rise in free-market economics and the development of new technology mixed with the Me-generation creating a new cornerstone of American culture: the admiration of a fit body.
During the 1980s, aerobics became tremendously popular, especially among women. The lingering question then: Why aerobics?
A History of Women and Athletics
Any form of exercise arguably produces the same physical and mental results. Yet, the history of women and athletics revolves around maintaining authority over the female’s freedom to interact outside the home. With the development of the bicycle at the turn of the twentieth century, women found a gentile activity allowing them a multitude of benefits. (This of course, happened after men decided it was an easy enough activity for women.) It provided women with unchaperoned mobility and independence. The bicycle craze also brought a new freeing fashion in short pants, or Bloomers, instead of restrictive skirts. For the first time, Americans supported exercise for women, emphasizing the benefits of outdoors and an active lifestyle for women.
For women, athletic activity always demanded justification of participation. As the bicycling fad declined, the popularity of basketball increased in the early 1900s. Women participated in this relatively new sport and other intercollegiate sports, arguing that it built team-working skills. Others disagreed claiming the active lifestyle enticed women away from their rightful place in the home, as well as being potentially damaging to women gynecologically
By the 1920s, exercise became about maintaining a fit and slim figure in order to wear the long-waist flapper dress. The Great Depression, however, took the vanity out of fitness, and until the 1960s, society viewed sports as a health benefit to women, but not a necessity. It’s easy to see why society didn’t focus on creating fit women. Massive unemployment followed by war makes knee-bends seem trivial. It wasn’t until the increase of the American Middle Class that emerged in the post-war era that created a group of people with enough leisure time to dedicate to their bodies.
Rise of the Middle Class… and Female Exercise
The increase of leisure time, plus the drastic social changes in the 1960s, inspired female leaders to stop focusing on sports for the purposes of fitness and encouraged competitive sports, which provided athletic participants with a drive to achieve. Throughout the 60s and 70s, sports for women became a political platform, and with the success of Title IX (the 1972 education legislation that made it illegal for schools to deny participation of male or female students to federally funded programs), a mainstay in American culture.
The female athlete in American culture remained a consistent source of scrutiny. In the second half of the twentieth century, a “crisis of masculinity,” or the fear that the male gender gripped American culture. Previously gender definitions in American culture became harder to discern, creating a heightened sense of anxiety. Frequently chastised for their masculine physiques, female athletes found themselves under scrutiny. Aerobics blended female sexuality and fitness creating an acceptable form of exercise that did not upset the male standards of female athleticism. While the pandering to the masculine fears seems inappropriate, aerobics helped women by gradually blending female empowerment with male expectations. If the women’s empowerment movement “urged women to take control of their body and learn to accept them as they were,” as historian Marianne Thesander describes it, then participation in aerobics convinced women to accept their bodies at their healthiest. Eunice West, the publisher of Equal Times, a feminist newspaper, believed that Fonda found a way to “translate women’s issues…into the mainstream…making a bridge to women who have been conditioned to think themselves as weak.” Others, like Peg Jordan, editor of the American Fitness magazine, attributed Fonda to launching the women’s physical empowerment movement. Based on her personal struggles with attempting to achieve the ideal of bodily perfection, Fonda believed “some people weren’t meant to be thin…but they can look and feel their best and that is what my program is all about.” She did not care if women developed perfectly toned bodies, as long as they finally took control of their own lives.
By the 1980s, “feminism” became the moniker for most female movements, including the female empowerment movement. This mislabeling is unsurprising considering that, by the 1980s, feminism groups splintered numerous times. One of the few reoccurring themes is the reclamation of control over the female form. Two feminist factions, second and third-wave feminism, both approached the female body and sexuality in different ways.
The second wave of feminism began in the 1960s. Imbrued with the spirit of the Civil Rights Movement, second-wave feminists became political and organized taking on heated topics that predominately involved the female body, such as family planning and objectification. As Maggie Humm relates, “the single most important feature of second-wave feminism is its challenge to traditional political concepts…connecting issues with reproduction with issues of production.”
As the movement continued, they became more known for their protests against beauty pageants, pornography, and other spectacles degrading women. Outside of the public eye, feminists became more intellectual hoping that validation in academia could lead to societal acceptance. However, many feminist theorists, shielded by the semi-anonymity of the pen, became more critical of society than ever before. As a result, these women frequently viewed as “abrasive” brought about a negative connotation of “feminist” by the 1970s.
By the end of the 1980s, second-wave feminism appeared caustic and judgmental to many young women. Unlike the feminism of the previous decades, which centered upon sisterhood and complete deflection from a patriarchal society, third-wave feminists rejected the grand narrative of feminism as overly reflexive to the point of unproductive rhetoric. Instead, third-wave feminists concentrated on the practical application of feminism.
A common source of contention between the two movements revolved around beauty. Second-wave feminists argued that exploring outer beauty further oppressed all women. Instead of claiming that wearing make-up and high heels as a sign of their culpability, third-wave feminists believed in the right to choose as the ultimate tool of empowerment. The younger generation of feminists believed that through reclaiming these objects of oppression, one could re-assert sexual independence and power. Appalled, second-wave feminists claimed that the idea a woman could reclaim her sexuality through the demeaning tools used by male society was delusional and worse, disrespectful to the women who fought for their right to choose.
Jane Fonda matured during the second wave of feminism but never voiced her opinions regarding the movement. Yet, her actions during this era reflected the subconscious influence these feminist movements had on American women. Through her anti-war movement evolvement, we can see how she enacted several feminist actions. She chose her career (activism) over her family when she left to travel the country. She worked her way into the inner circle of the Anti-War Movement, a movement dominated by males. Initially, the men and the general public viewed Fonda as a joke, a female leader influenced by passion, not logic or knowledge. She persisted, and eventually, Fonda’s activism grew to be viewed as threatening to the American public, a form of credibility, even if negative. So while Fonda never joined her sisters at a rally, she did succeed.
Fonda realized that a woman did not need to forsake her family in hopes of a career. She chose to have it all. She became an advocate for women, families, and anti-nuclear war, all while managing her career. Along with her booming fitness career, she came to symbolize the positive attributes of the third wave. Subconsciously, women latched onto Fonda who demonstrated the happy medium of second and third-wave feminist principals and obtained success in life on a masculine level through hard work and physical ability.
While Jane Fonda did not acknowledge her association with these movements, she did define herself as a feminist in the sense that she supported women through strengthening their bodies to combat patriarchy in American society. The degradation of women became a sore spot for Fonda during the Vietnam War. In Hanoi, Fonda witnessed Vietnamese prostitutes painfully altering their physical appearance. They hoped to attract the higher paying American soldiers through dieting and bleaching their skin to look more American. As an actress, Fonda saw herself as a part of the problem as she conveyed the stereotypical American female ideal. In the film industry, she constantly saw women “pitted against each other…made to believe…they only existed as a function of how they look.” By toning their bodies, Fonda hoped for fitness to take on a psychological property where their strength began “in the muscles and ended in the heart.”
Origins of Exercise Videos
Of course, Jane Fonda is not the only name in the fitness game, nor was she the first. Fonda did not invent the concept of instructional videos for exercise. That credit belongs to Jack LaLanne, whose fitness television program ran from 1953 to 1985 and was geared towards helping women exercise with household items. But as a woman, Fonda’s role deserves a closer look.
Written works about Fonda lambast her political choices or praise her talent and social passion. Others paint her as a hypocrite for making money off of fitness when she supported Communist ideals. Yet, by 1982, Jane Fonda became the most admired person by readers of entertainment magazine US Magazine, outranking President Reagan and his wife, Nancy. Americans recognized three Jane Fondas: The sex-kitten of the 1960s, the political radical of the 1970s, and the admirable health-nut of the 1980s.
Massive Production of Products
From 1981 to 1996, Fonda produced five books, twelve audio programs, 23 videotapes, and a cookbook, grossing seventeen million dollars in those fifteen years. In her 40s, Fonda became “a perfect advertisement for herself” where her non-threatening beauty drew women to her. Her patrons trusted her familiar face over strangers. By 1986, Fonda sold over 4 million dollars worth of fitness videos alone. Her popularity relied on several key factors: The origins of female athleticism, her appealing books and tapes, the psychological principals surrounding exercise, and the new culture of the 1980s.
In 1979, she opened her studio, The Workout, in Beverly Hills, California and recruited Leni Cazden along with a business manager, Julie LaFond, to create an empire. Her studio took off immediately. Soon publishers approached her to write her first book, 1981’s Jane Fonda’s Workout Book, and her first home video, Jane Fonda’s Workout, in 1982. For each book, Fonda dedicated herself to researching sports physiology to understand the process of exercise, not just the outcomes. She denounced using exercise for appearances only. Turning to facts and eschewing beauty became an appealing component to Fonda’s devotees.
Despite the immediate success of her studios, Fonda chose to expand her business through print and videos instead of franchising. She wanted to reach the most women across the country, not just the privileged housewives of Beverly Hills. In 1982, 49 percent of working women said they wanted to exercise but did not have the time. Realizing this, Fonda set out to make healthy bodies a democratic right. Her multi-media approach allowed women from all over the world to “feel the burn.” Her books translated into several languages and women purchased VCRs specifically to play Fonda’s videos. Continuing to promote equality, Fonda chose women of different ethnic groups and sizes to represent students in her books and tapes.
A Healthy Body as a Democratic Right
There are two ways to look at the equality demonstrated in Fonda’s products: Explicit belief or distrust. Taking her at her word becomes suspicious when one notes that the only time she mentioned the notion of democracy through aerobics is in her 2006 memoir, a source that requires careful examination. Furthermore, the incorporation of different genders, races, and body types in her books and videos could be a deliberate attempt to appeal to a wider audience. Regardless of her motivations, Fonda’s rhetoric of a healthy body being a democratic right was emblematic of contemporary thought.
Richard Simmons also created a name for himself during the 1980s selling a better body and mind. Whereas Fonda’s program emphasized individual potential, Simmons, her principal competitor, sold a more emotional brand of fitness. Simmons formerly weighed 238 pounds and found his motivation after someone placed an anonymous note on his car window that said, “Fat people die young. Please don’t die.” By the early 1980s, Simmons lost over 100 pounds and gained a multi-media empire, including books, a national television show, fitness videotapes, and records.
Simmons’s strategy focused on the disease aspects of weight gain and how to combat it psychologically and physically. Where Fonda equipped women with powerful female imagery, Simmons provided women with a sympathetic shoulder. Richard Simmons commented many times on his competitor claiming “[Fonda] teaches her class the way she takes on nuclear warfare…the emotional part of over-eating is a very big part of my message.” Instead of selling catharsis, like Richard Simmons, Fonda empowered her demographic, that is, white, middle-class women, and sold them on their potential. Fonda’s books and videos displayed average women, who willed themselves to be extraordinary, bringing the goal of “change your body, change your life” within reach for her readers.
Commodification of the “Perfect Body”
With VCRs in every home, the endorsements of popular, albeit controversial, celebrities like Jane Fonda, and emotional gurus like Richard Simmons, it is no wonder that aerobics entered the mainstream so quickly. But upbeat music and glittery costumes were not the only reasons why Americans shimmied into spandex. Instead, the ascendency of a free market economy during the Reagan administration combined with the “Me-generation” created a space where the perfect body could become a commodity. Or at least, commodities could be purchased in an attempt for the perfect body.
The 1980s created a craze for toned, appealing bodies and aerobics became the manifestation of the decade’s quest for self-perfection. By 1985, social commentators remarked that Americans “developed a new awareness about the way they look and feel.” Forty-four million people participated in aerobics, making it the most popular form of exercise in the country. For Americans, fitness emulated a move away from the slothful hippie lifestyle emphasized in the 1960s and 1970s. The flower children shed their parent’s hippie identity and experienced a “Yuppie epiphany” or the “sudden realization that poverty was not romantic.” Young urban professionals, or Yuppies, built an identity around consumerism, defining themselves through ownership of the finer things in life. Yuppies wanted to obtain the American Dream and then surpass it. “Cocaine replaced marijuana as the drug of choice – the drug of a driven, high-powered generation and right behind it were diet and exercise.” This “perverse democracy,” as historian Gil Troy describes it, allowed Yuppies to forsake their inherited liberal identity and purchase a new one.
These new identities resulted from the growing economy of the Reagan years, where the United States saw over 20 trillion dollars in new wealth between 1982 and 1987. Bolstered by junk bonds and Wall Street speculation, this new money became a “social solvent” for the problems following Americans into the 1980s. The production of wealth came at a high price. Changes in workplace environments from an occupation to a lifestyle resulted in higher levels of stress. One 1987 poll reported that 59 percent of Americans felt “very stressed” weekly, and 20 percent felt stress daily. Fitness became an outlet to relieve that stress. Women also felt susceptible to the stress brought on by corporate America. By the early 1980s, a majority of mothers worked for wages, providing them with financial independence and a venue to provide “greater confidence, and expand their social circles.”
Bodies as Trophies
While feminism and success in the workplace motivated participation in fitness, the desire for perfection became a theme in the 1980s. Many Americans saw their bodies as a proverbial trophy, another representation to the outside world of their success. Popular mediums reflected this notion, such as the movie Perfect (1985), starring Jamie Lee Curtis and John Travolta, which grossed almost $13 million in box office sales. The film revolves around a Rolling Stones reporter, Adam Latham, who decides to write about health clubs turning into the singles bars of the 1980s. He finds a gym, The Sports Connection, with an advertisement claiming, “We’re more than a club, we’re a lifestyle.” In the film, Latham sees more to fitness clubs than a gym full of spandex covered young bodies used to make sexual connections. To him, aerobics and the desire for a fit body represented people’s desire to take care of him or herself instead of relying upon institutions. The fictional Latham believes people returned to an Emersonian America based on self-reliance since they lost their faith in government in the 1960s and 70s. He concludes “what can be more American, more All-American, more old-fashioned American than institutions like The Sports Connection?” Perfect demonstrates that the proliferation of fitness in the 1980s moved well beyond a need to fill the void of the social setting eliminated with disco’s demise. Aerobics became a way to control all aspects of life, from the physical body to love.
Music is another popular culture outlet that demonstrated the sexual aspects of aerobics. In 1981, Olivia Newton John’s number one hit Let’s Get Physical, euphemized the term “physical.” Newton John tells her romantic partner that “There is nothing left to talk about / Unless it’s horizontally / Let’s get physical,” as she trotted around a symbolic gym setting with three obese men. While the video mocks the fitness culture, the imagery demonstrates that the new culture places too much importance upon the body and not enough on conversation and personality. While satirical, the music video still sends the audience the message all people can change their bodies and even regain youth if they exercise long enough.
Television broadcasts also brought aerobics into the home of every American. Beginning in 1984, Crystal Light diet soft drink sponsored an Aerobics Competition hosted by Alan Thicke to showcase some of the most talented aerobic competitors in individuals, mixed pairs, and teams. People of both genders and all races competed around the nation to earn a spot in the competition. The winners of the competition received a spa treatment in Palm Springs, California, in addition to earning a spot on the Crystal Light National Aerobic Team, which traveled the country performing at expos and different fitness events. Part beauty pageant, dance competition, and bodybuilding competition, the Crystal Light National Aerobic Competition judged competitors on appearance, correct execution of the required exercise, presentation, choreography, and synchronicity. Representatives from fitness clubs in Miami to Detroit to Los Angeles all found a spot in the competition. The competition was one of many nationwide by the mid-1980s.
Even kids enjoyed the aerobics craze. Disney capitalized with its own series of records, videos, and television programs called Mousercise in 1982, introducing children from ages 6 to 11 to the benefits of aerobic exercise. The videos included certified instructors and their favorite Disney characters leading the children to the proper postures for maximum efficiency. Not to be outdone, Miss Piggy came up with a parody exercise program Snackcercise that mimicked both Jane Fonda’s Workout and the craze in general.
Fashion of the 1980s
Fashion authorities refer to the 1980s as the decade of individualism and extremes marked by trends such as power dressing, status dressing, and the invention of high-tech fabrics such as Lycra. Clothing became more grandiose as women wore their outfits as a badge of achievement representing their newfound positions in commercial power. Female power suits, shoulder pads, and spandex all became in vogue as women demonstrated their masculine mindset in every aspect of life. The new female suit involved a long, tapered skirt, a button-down shirt, and an over-sized jacket. Vogue touted this look as having a “pulled-together quality, a completeness.” Even though these looks involved yards of cloth, the suits emphasized which women managed to achieve the perfect body instead of hiding imperfections. The suit required a slender silhouette so that the fabric draped over the shoulders perfectly. Shoulder pads mimicking the male’s broad shoulders became outrageously popular and women used them in every type of top, from jackets to t-shirts. Vogue magazine began running fashion spreads of the trend in the September 1984 issue and continued into the mid-1990s. Strong females appropriated the use of broad shoulders, once a physical manifestation of a man’s ability to protect a woman. Speaking through fashion, women told male society they no longer needed protection.
Younger women, not quite at the age where they competed for a seat in the boardroom, chose a different fashion mainstay in the 1980s: Sports and leisurewear. Lycra bodysuits paired with high-top Reebok tennis shoes and leggings became symbolic of the fitness craze and women wore them everywhere, from the 1983 film in Flashdance, to advertisements in fashion magazines, to every day casual. Sweatbands, legwarmers, and belted waists, formerly for gym use only, became appropriate attire in public settings. Increasingly, the gym became a social scene where women arrived in style. In 1982, Vogue stated that women put more thought into what they wore to the gym resulting in a “gym chic.” Brightly colored spandex replaced the traditional grey. Disco and fitness increased the popularity of the leotard and several popular brand names like Capezio and Danskin began to sell leotards with matching tops or bottoms to wear outside the gym. Couture designers mimicked the fashion trend and their dresses became tighter and shorter, such as the famous “ace bandage dress” by Azzedine Alaia. Even Barbie© participated in the fashion trend, hitting the shelves in a spandex bodysuit and a complete gym set with dumbbells, locker, and towel.
Wearing spandex became a uniform for many people in the 1980s, reflecting the new healthy lifestyle they wished to live. A young woman from Los Angles claimed, “It’s a marvelous way of dressing for today. It’s body dressing and it relates to people who diet and exercise for good figures.” Fashion developments in the 1980s demonstrated the increase of individuals attempting to define themselves through their clothing. For the powerful corporate woman, a tweed suit displayed her power to the outside world. The woman in the neon pink spandex twin set relayed to others that her physical ability set her apart from the average woman. The concentration on clothing demonstrates the increasing superficial attitudes of the 1980s where individuals chose to judge others and define themselves through their bodies.
As evident by the Crystal Light National Aerobics Competition, by the late 1980s, both genders enjoyed participating in aerobics. Fonda and other’s encouragement to “feel the burn” created a cultural phenomenon in the 1980s. Striving for a way to leave behind the legacy of hippiedom, America’s turn to fitness is a physical manifestation of a decade searching for perfection. “Perfection” did not last long. By 1993, Americans already began their descent to the couch and entered an “epidemic of physical inactivity.” While the aerobics craze in the U.S.A. did not result in the world’s healthiest nation, it did create a culture eager to accept anything that a celebrity sold to them. The legacy of aerobics, then, is not a culture that values a healthy lifestyle, but one that looks to the opinions of “experts” whether they are traitors, puppets, or cartoons, to inform them how they should appear to be accepted in society.