Petrzela is fully qualified for this project. A history professor at The New School and an activist for expanding access to exercise, she is also a fitness instructor who has taught at Equinox and served as a brand ambassador for Lululemon. In her introduction to “Fit Nation,” Petrzela revealed that a huge poster of her pregnant body “covered in expensive, stretchy fabric” adorned one of the walls of Lululemon’s store. Her past work with Equinox and Lululemon makes her criticisms clear, and many of the clips bear eye-rolling action. She writes against the “lifestyle” represented by her former employers. As she argues, when “physical activity rose to a virtuous form of conspicuous consumption, what had been a ‘fitness craze’ evolved into a newly inclusive ‘lifestyle’, adopted by a relatively wealthy few and imposed on many others.”
“Fit Nation” reveals the origins of American attitudes toward physical fitness, beginning in the late 1800s, when exercise was a circus side business. She reminded us that for a long time, respect wasn’t associated with playing sports. We set sail for Muscle Beach in the late 1950s, when the squeamish Santa Monica City Council feared these underemployed unemployed (in their sexy terms: “sex athletes,” “queers,” “drifts,” and “perverts”). But it was around this time that photos of John F. Kennedy and his brothers exercising, proud and t-shirt-clad, confirmed that a certain kind of exercise was a necessary habit for the rich and successful.Playing tennis and cruising around in boats, the Kennedys showed how to achieve “the proper balance.” between discipline and leisure.
Petrzela explains that wealth and acceptable exercise have been closely associated since the beginning of American exercise culture. Mid-century aerobics pioneer Bonnie Pruden, for example, found that her classes were more popular when she got paid to do them. For the participants, the push was a real investment in their health and strength. From the early days, physique seemed more worthy if more expensive.
By the latter half of the 20th century, the private sector had dominated the fitness market, overtaking public recreation centers, parks, trails, and other freely available locations. Petrzela traces the evolution of a privatized fitness environment that prizes an edge over those who can afford to participate and bestows individual empowerment over collective and civic participation. As she points out again and again, for something morally neutral, physique has also managed to assert itself as a widely accepted sign of virtue—especially when it comes at a premium.
Butterzilla’s basic argument is unchallenged: exercise shouldn’t be available to the wealthy alone. But to make the point, she mostly focuses on glamorous and specific examples of culture from the private sector. Petrzela certainly understands that programs like SoulCycle aren’t the root cause of inequalities in fitness. but in her preoccupation with them she seems to blame the supply side for the shameful inaccessibility of sport in this country. SoulCycle and its high-end ilk are a symptom of privatization, not a cause of it.
Despite its attempt to provide a broad view of exercise in America, “Fit Nation” It is primarily a history of the fanciest gyms and state-of-the-art programs in America, punctuated only by squeezing reminders that physical education programs are routinely underfunded and undervalued. Stylish and expensive gyms, Petrzela explains, have a huge impact on our collective mindset about fitness, and they do so effectively. Her analysis of elite exercise culture has a sharp edge.
But if these critical scissors are to cut, they need a second blade: a sustained critique of the failures of public infrastructure to provide options outside of exclusive gyms and expensive boutique classes. The book promises to explore the tension between an American fitness obsession and a culture that very few people participate in. However, he places great emphasis on the “obsessive” half of this tension and does not even slightly ignore the neoliberal abstraction that made this privatization possible.
For example, there is a chapter on the Let’s Move public campaign and its remarkable effort to define “fitness as a matter of social justice.” But there is no physical education-focused class in schools in the past 50 years, or in community-focused enrollment centers like the YMCA, or in parks or bike paths. The two chapters on running focus on the arrogant attitude of many runners, but it seems funny, as they criticize their sneaky superiority rather than the socioeconomic conditions that prevent people from doing one of the only ostensibly “free” exercises in the book that seem like a waste. opportunity. These chapters could have assessed failures to invest in park infrastructure, talk about public safety or address the pollution that discourages many from outdoor sports.
Petrzela’s approach is understandable: it is very difficult to report what is not there. Trendy fitness stores are easier to analyze than more equitable alternatives that cannot raise enough start-up capital. I am also fascinated by the weird and wonderful active lifestyle! But the book’s attempt to explain why it’s so hard for people to get fit remains unfulfilled.
Fit Nation is most exciting when it argues provocatively and emphatically that fitness is not an absolute commodity in American culture. But even as Petrzela is careful about the resources, social and otherwise, that fitness requires of its participants, she hasn’t given up on a radical future for exercise. At one point, she made an anecdote about Jane Fonda and her then-husband, political activist Tom Hayden. Hayden lamented a “culture of narcissism” in the fitness lifestyle which included civic engagement. Fonda, of course, built her coaching empire to fund her activism and financially support Hayden’s political ambitions. But Hayden “didn’t much appreciate the idea that his wife and a group of women who would become sweaty had so much power over his political life, and he made her aware of such activity which he considered out of proportion to their serious activism.” Petrzela’s book proposes an idea that contains and blurs the limits of Haydn’s critique: Yes, Petrzela argues, a culture of exercise can cultivate our qualities of consumerism, myopia, individualism, and absurdity. But it doesn’t have to be this way. and as a source of pleasure, social engagement, play, strength, health and exercise should not be Be that way.
Butterzilla makes a point that would startle Hayden: Exercise is one aspect of American life that deserves activists’ attention and efforts. Petrzela highlights problems with exercise culture that expose America’s much larger social ills, such as allowing purchasing power to masquerade as social superiority, valuing leisure over experience and equating productivity with virtue. Although “Fit Nation” is often distracting From the illustrious fitness endeavors of the wealthy, the book provides a valuable foundation for activism around fitness. Butterzilla has torn the luxurious carpet of the elite institutions to reveal the rotten foundation beneath. The coolest elements of our culture do tell us about our aspirations, values, and failures—and it’s usually irresistible to stare at them.
Maggie Lang writes about books for many publications. She also runs the weekly Purse Book newsletter, which publishes snapshot reviews of slim volumes.
The gains and pains of America’s exercise obsession
By Natalia Mehlmann Petrzela
University of Chicago Press. 443 p. $29
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