Week 5 Responses

Reminder: responses are due at midnight on Sunday.

I especially encourage you to focus on the connections McKenzie makes between the history of the body and the larger cultural and political trajectory of the US.


6 thoughts on “Week 5 Responses

  1. In McKenzie’s book Getting Physical: The Rise of Fitness Culture in America, McKenzie studies and explains the evolution of our concept of ideal fitness. She begins by explaining the roots of fitness as legitimized by the government in the 1950s in the first Chapter. In the government’s eyes, the need for a physically fit country was to compete against other superpowers after WWII; physical fitness became another manifestation of global competition in the Cold War. The country’s overall fitness seemingly tested below that of other countries, encouraging President Eisenhower to start a presidential campaign (PCYF) focusing on incorporating physical fitness into the country’s standard. “Much of [the PCYF’S] rhetoric cast economic prosperity and increased leisure time in terms of sin, sloth, and gluttony and warned that without intervention, the nation would be in jeopardy,” so rather than taking time to relax, people were forced into filling any free time with more work, thus pushing capitalist work ethic into every aspect of someone’s life (41, McKenzie).

    In the next chapter, McKenzie discusses the effect of the newly popularized fitness on women in the 50s and 60s. As presumed, the newly popularized fitness crazed entered into the sexist patriarchal model: “promoters argued that in addition to functioning as a beauty technique, exercise could create a happier matrimonial relationship, based on the premise that a woman’s worth as a marriage partner depended in large part on her appearance (69, McKenzie). Women, as wives, were forced into an expectation of beauty of newly emphasized thinness. However, there was increasing debate over whether or not exercise was the way to lose weight. What I found most interesting was McKenzie’s discussion of the place of self-solace in exercise; women had “an opportunity to consider the care and functioning of their bodies, and opportunity to engage in a leisure activity and take a moment to think about themselves” (81, McKenzie). I would argue that this is a crucial step towards women’s liberation, as this is the first time where women could focus on themselves.

    In the third chapter, McKenzie explains the paranoia surrounding heart disease in working class white men. In this chapter, I think that it is the first explanation for the marginalization of exercise. As white-collar, middle class, white men were the target audience for exercise advertisements, exercise became something of and for the elite. I question the impact of this exclusionary activity on things like food deserts and the general lack of food health directed to communities of color.

    In the fourth chapter, McKenzie discusses the arguably hilarious phenomenon of jogging. There were many disputes over whether or not jogging was beneficial, some doctors thinking that it is useless in stopping heart attacks and other lauding the practice. In terms of long term benefits of jogging, I would argue that it was actually somewhat beneficial, as it made people aware of the environment, and contributed to a greater understanding of self-awareness as practice. Of course, jogging did indeed become an over-consumed trendy commodity.

    In the last chapter, McKenzie describes the popularity surrounding body building vs jogging, and the increasing trends surrounding health clubs. The most stunning part of this chapter is McKenzie’s explanation of the distinction between President Carter and President Reagan and how their different forms of exercise were relevant to American society. I find it a little funny to buy into a 72-year-old man being portrayed as “fit” because he can cut down trees. Pre-Trump, I would agree that the President is forced to express physical fitness; however, with and extremely unhealthy orange man in office, physical fitness seems to be no longer important.

    I do find this book to be a complete unraveling of my concept and expectations of fitness. Our standards physical fitness seems to be a total commodity and not fully rooted in health practices. I would already be a person to sort of poke fun at religious yoga-goers, but now, the common practice of yoga seems to be silly (even though I do enjoy a good yoga class). Additionally, I was able to follow the evolution of ballet through McKenzie’s study, as it adhered to a similar timeline as the physical fitness trend, what with power-house ballerinas really taking off in the 80s (eg. Baryshnikov).


  2. In Getting Physical: The Rise of Fitness Culture in America, Shelly McKenzie details the history of attitudes towards health and fitness in America since the 1950s. The book explores five crucial moments in American fitness history, beginning with widespread anxiety about the mental, physical, and emotional fitness of Americans compared to their second world counterparts during the Cold War, moving on to the increased pressure for women to stay slim in the late 50s and 60s, then exploring the push for men’s health during the cardiac crisis, the jogging response to the crisis, and finally a focus on health clubs in the 1980s and perfecting the outward appearance of the body. An overall trend away from the original ideal of “total fitness” – encompassing the mind, the body, and the spirit in an attempt to form competent future soldiers at an early age – towards physical fitness, the fetishization of muscles, and demonstrations of power through strength and endurance threads its way through the book. Every stage of American fitness history is, of course, fraught with racial discrimination, fear of socialism, and reinforcements of the gender binary, the patriarchy, and heteronormativity. In this response, I will trace the ways in which the ideal heteroseuxal/patriotic American is constructed by the fitness imperative, as detailed in Getting Physical.

    McKenzie’s first chapter, “Fitness Begins in the High Chair”, discusses the ways in which efforts to improve American fitness were inspired and shaped by the ideological battle between capitalism and communism in the 1950s. McKenzie writes that one of the goals of the President’s Council on Youth Fitness (PCYF) was “to achieve fitness without mass regimentation”, so that the U.S. wouldn’t be putting out images reminiscent of Nazi or Soviet mass calisthenic routines (McKenzie 24). The solution that the PCYF came up with was to “sell the idea of fitness to the public” by convincing them “to participate in fitness because it was helpful and fun and because it was their civic duty”, a very capitalist plot indeed (McKenzie 26). This first chapter also goes into depth about the American fascination with brainwashing during this period, particularly after 21 American POWs refused to be repatriated after the Korean War and went to live in Communist China (McKenzie 44-46). Evidently, this was an accusatory fascination meant to further condemn communist nations. Yet, the American drive to promote fitness among its citizens doesn’t seem too unlike the “mass regimentation” that the fitness council feared so much. While huge numbers of youths performing arm circles in city squares was never an image that came out of the U.S., the attachment of morality and state-desired character traits to one’s commitment to fitness seems to me to create a regiment that is more or less compulsory. Even if there was no direct punishment for not showing up to a mandatory mass calisthenics gathering, as may have been the case in the Soviet Union, the moral condemnation of those who were unfit physically, mentally, or emotionally by the American State’s standards ensured that shame would punish those who did not fulfill their civic duty from their high chair days, through their military service, and later as white collar executives. Of course, this whole narrative assumes white male middle-class heterosexuality, since men were the country’s future soldiers, and youth fitness imperatives were directed at those who were seen as being coddled by their luxurious lifestyles, aka white middle-class folk.

    So, fitness became compulsory, just as heterosexuality and able-bodiedness have always been compulsory, as we explored last lesson. The connection between these phenomena is many-layered, and McKenzie details some of these connections in Getting Physical. For one, the PCYF’s messages to American youth were heavily based in heteronormative imagery that posited young Americans as future fathers who would serve as soldiers and workers, and future mothers (who would raise future sons to fight for American “freedom”) (McKenzie 38). In the following chapter, “Your Honeymoon Figure” McKenzie deals with the increasing demand for women to stay not just physically, spiritually, and emotionally fit, but thin. Fitness in this era (and ever since), has been promoted to women as a way to maintain happy marriages and pleased husbands, “based on the premise that a woman’s worth as a marriage partner depended in large part on her appearance” (McKenzie 69). Thus, it was the (white, middle-class) woman within the heterosexual relationship whose job it was to keep her own body fit, thin, and healthy so that she could best perform her role as a mother and a housewife.

    Yet, as McKenzie notes in her third chapter, “The Heart of the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit”, it was also the woman’s duty to keep track of and maintain her husband’s health. During the “cardiac crisis” of the 1950s and 60s, “wives were supposed to set good examples, reduce stress in the home, serve nutritional meals, make smart buying decisions, and even resort to subterfuge when resistance husbands balked at their efforts. (McKenzie 93). Apparently, being at risk of suffering a heart attack (or actually surviving one), was seen as a badge of honor for (white) men at this time, since it meant that they were performing at high-stress executive, white-collar jobs (McKenzie 88). Where a wife was shamed and seen as at risk of losing her husband for being seen as unhealthy (even if she was perfectly healthy), a husband was seen as doing his patriotic, husbandly duty for not fussing about his health. As McKenzie writes, “For middle-class, white-collar men living in the mid-twentieth century, masculinity was demonstrated through marriage, fatherhood, and gainful employment, not physical prowess or a muscular physique” (McKenzie 106). McKenzie argues more than once that the placing of a husband’s health in his wife’s hands gave the wife power within the household, but she doesn’t explain what she means by this. I don’t see how that could be the case. Rather, it seems as if getting married to a white, middle-class, white-collar worker at the time would have been quite a risk.


  3. Getting Physical by Shelley McKenzie investigates the development and active creation of fitness movements in america by outlining historical and economic shifts as well as cultural trends which changed the public’s perception of health, beauty, and the capability of their bodies.
    The first chapter hones in on wartimes as historical moments which called for an evaluation of the physical fighting ability of the american people, and subsequently effected the general view of the body. Germany and Russia led the globe in physical education as a civic responsibility, giving them an image of a strong, joined, and obedient population, and featuring group exercise en masse as well as in schools and workplaces. In 1955 President Eisenhower created the President’s Council on Youth Fitness (PCYF) under Shane MacCarthy. Its purpose was to direct and brainstorm a way for the U.S to engage in similar fitness culture to its enemies, but to do so in a distinctly American fashion. Paired with a growing sentiment of general lawlessness and freedom among the youth, the PCYF began a campaign of physical fitness that was not mandatory, but had the distinct intent to ‘target character reform” (McKenzie 25) in addition to giving the youth a workout. In their eyes, this wholesome venture of the “total fitness policy allowed MacCarthy and other officials to sidestep comparisons with Soviet and Nazi fitness programs” (McKenzie 25). Overall, they ran into challenges defining and testing the fitness of the participants (what is capable?). Some campaigns featured allusions to the ideal childbearing home as a duty to one’s country, and how it ought to feature fit parents, but with the onset of televised sports, they struggled to see actual effects on the public. However, the raised awareness of the idleness of modern life paved the way for an industry to engulf it.

    Chapter two shifts to fitness in the sixties, as a productively useless act but a socially advantageous activity, specifically for women. The housewives of the late fifties and sixties found themselves idle, stable, and in a time of great attention to personal physique as well as family life. In short, televised exercise shows and workout groups allowed women to fulfill their end of the ‘marriage bargain’ (beauty), but also to spend time focusing on themselves and their bodies, which would go on to create a culture of fitness crazes as a means of personal love and care. The self-love of the fitness-focused housewife was countered by the images surrounding her, telling her she was inadequate without it. This movement also claimed to add “personal exuberance, dynamism, and charisma” (McKenzie 81) to a now more physically desirable wife and mother. It is no wonder that these industries continue to target this audience.

    In chapter three, Mckenzie highlights decline in the health of american men, and the following ‘cardiac crisis’, which spurred a new fitness industry with far higher stakes. In tandem with the stress on wives to be pristine models of caretakers, many men felt pressure to become the ideal businessman and wage earner. 60 hour work weeks paired with fatty and processed food trends, as well as smoking, suburbanization (and thereby car use), and heavy drinking led to a heart attack crisis, with even young soldiers in the Korean War showing signs of coronary buildup. Also, the class divide within this must be noted, as it was commonly believed that middle class white men were the demographic most affected, therefore the surge for a solution was a high national priority. Many efforts failed due to what would become a running paranoia among men in any fitness context: fear of the homoaestheticism that dominated body building and fitness clubs, and also the homoerotic nature of men paying attention to their own bodies in such a concentrated way. Also, because of the association with physically demanding jobs of the working class, it became increasingly difficult to alter the public’s perceptions of the muscular build as brutish, stupid, poor.

    The fourth chapter explores the unique ‘craze’ characteristics of jogging, an activity with questionable health benefits in comparison to other forms of exercise which quickly became commodified. McKenzie highlights that it was market forces, not purely governmental intervention or even public health crisis, that drove the jogging trend, pushing men and women alike into high race fees, expensive shoes, health guides, and gym memberships.

    Chapter five delves further into health clubs and gyms as the modern money machine of muscle. They made exercise seem sleek, effortless while simultaneously productive, and elite. This falls in line with the theme of elitism in much of the book, and the shift from exercise as a patriotic group duty to one which made you stand out and excel beyond your counterparts. Both the gay community and the emerging straight Schwartzeneggar’ed body building communities were focused not on health but on pristine aesthetics. ‘Clone culture’ in the gay community gave rise to an even more solidified body ideal: straight looking, working class type men with fully body ability. The gym became a highly sexualized place of peacocking, being compared to the new singles bar, which only reinforced the industry and the culture of white beautiful elitism it emanated.

    This book was very useful for me in terms of linking historical movements and idealogical shifts with body perception, especially the distinctions between the cold war period of the productive capable body and the more sexualized, aestheticized, reproductive trends of the 80s and 90s. The shifting tides of America’s own self-assessment in the world sphere had massive effects on the day-to-day physical activity of many people, as well as eventually their spending habits, health and mental health, and sex lives.


  4. If I took anything away from Getting Physical: The Rise of Fitness Culture in America, it was “the evolution of fitness is a process fraught with contradiction and contest” (McKenzie 178). There is a process of “normalization” that is expected of bodies in the United States, yet our lifestyles and eating habits cannot support that gaze. McKenzie writes, “the fit body has become a new form of physical capital” (McKenzie 8). Our bodies become the product of a new form of capitalism. We are expected to put time and energy into the “betterment” of the body, when that standard for a “better” body is something that was created by society. This “ideal” body is something that was developed over time and has had many different personifications. What makes one body ideal and another body not? McKenzie writes, “[u]nderstanding the cultural baggage we have attached to the practice of exercise is critical if the goal is to make exercising a healthy priority for all Americans” (McKenzie 9). It is important to realize the different societal contributions that added to this current state in which we are existing in. For example the post WWII era led to the spread of high calorie intake amongst the people of the United States. McKenzie writes, “[a]fter the privations of the Depression and rationing during WWII, hearty eating habits and consumption of premium foods signaled a return to normalcy” (McKenzie 60). People overcompensated on eating because for the first time in their lives they were not limited on how much they could or could not eat. McKenzie writes, “Liquor manufacturers promoted the consumption of high- calorie alcohol as a mark of sophisticated taste and, for men, of masculinity” (McKenzie 60). High calorie intake was a sign of status. People wanted to show that they could have all of these gourmet foods and still have the “perfect” lives. At the same time however, the demand for the “ideal” body was being perpetuated in the media and emphasized to the people: “[in the 1960s] the thin body was becoming more important in American culture as a signifier of status” (McKenzie 55). Beach scenes in movies and television provided the perfect arena to exhibit these bodies and make people feel as if that was the new standard in which they had to live up to. The hypocrisy was unreal.

    One component of the reading that fascinated me was the different ways in which “masculinity” was associated with fitness throughout the height of the fitness years. One of the most peculiar instances of this was through President Carter. When he fell at the Camp David race, the media started spewing him as less of a man. His physical fitness was put into question in a way that previous President’s hadn’t had to experience. His policies were directly put into question because of his inability to finish the race. People saw his mistakes as an extension of his “failed” physical abilities as a man. This eventually led to the success of President Regan. Per McKenzie, in the society of the 1980s “a fit body was a morally correct one” (McKenzie 13). Through the visual representation of lifting weights, Regan was able to “express his masculinity” in a way that Carter was not: “[e]ven if Carter had been able to finish his race, running didn’t convey the same message that weight lifting did. Reagan and his team demonstrated their awareness that fitness had been redefined: in the 1980s, sculpted muscles were the goal” (McKenzie 145). In the 1980s, the development of the physical look of something having a identity was becoming more present through media tactics, but it was internalized through the people. Body adaption was on the rise. People would manipulate their habits and lifestyles in order to look and be perceived a certain way. “Cloning” was on the rise: “[t]his affirmation of masculinity led to the development of a style of cultural presentation that took archetypal masculine figures and reinterpreted them for a gay lifestyle. “Clones,” as they were known, adopted styles of dress rooted in blue-collar masculinity, such as the woodman, cowboy, and construction worker” (McKenzie 161).

    In relation to the course, I was particularly captivated by this desire to adapt oneself in order to gain a particular gaze from society, especially from “cloning”. The essence of cloning is taking on the traits of another, internalizing them, and then moving throughout society as them. The person must physically embody the “essence” of the other in order to be accepted and seen as such. What does it mean to be performing another this way? How is it successful and unsuccessful? What was particularly fascinating about Getting Physical was the extent to which we as humans adapt our performances of the everyday in order to meet acceptable body standards. Even if we do not like what we are doing, we will place our body through such rigorous policing in order to match the status quo. We are a society that is constantly willing to adapt. We internalize the socially accepted terms that are presented to us and follow blindly. The rise of fitness culture follows that idea perfectly.


  5. Shelly McKenzie’s book chronologically tracks the history of fitness in America and the ways that notions of health have been marketed to the American populous. Her analysis implements a Foucauldian method of looking at how bodies are regulated on an individual level and how those methods interact with the health of the nation. McKenzie pinpoints personal fitness as the type of bodily regulation that lies at the intersection between the identity, economy, and policy.

    Starting in the post-war 1950s, McKenzie cites new American affluence as responsible for creating the conditions under which physical fitness becomes explicitly linked to nationalism and citizenship. The physical and temporal demands of industrial labor were falling away and a new suburban lifestyle of leisure required a restructuring of daily physical practices and required a new impetus for keeping people healthy. The government saw, with a new American way of life, the opportunity for redesigning the role of physical fitness to embody concepts of political strength. “ MacCarthy and his team envisioned physical fitness, and the social and emotional benefits associated with it, as a habit that would help young people reach adulthood with the ability to adjust to their rapidly changing world and ensure the proper development of a new generation of marriage partners, parents, and citizens”. (40) Government programs like PCYF were designed to harness an incoming generation of white, middle-class Americans born into an era of economic comfort and burgeoning technological innovation toward national ideals of fitness in order to showcase the collective strength of the American nation.

    As ideals of nationalism give way to the more powerful language of capitalism, fitness becomes more focused on the aesthetic body over physical strength or ability. McKenzie outlines the track of fitness from being concerned primarily with children and development to a lifelong project of health maintenance. The universalizing ideal of fitness for every body has opened a larger market of consumers for fitness products and services. In line with the suburban lifestyle, concepts of fitness and illness revolved around creating modern standards of health and a modern lexicon of illness. Where work in the industrial world was considered to contribute to physical health, the modern businessman faced a deluge of new stressors and threats to his health. “A portrait of the stereotypical heart attack victim emerged during this time…white, middle-aged, hardworking husband and father employed as a mid level manager or executive” (88). The health of the family patriarch within the suburban nuclear family introduced prominent gendered expectations and labor associated with fitness. Gendered differences in fitness reinforced the role of wives in the fitness of their husbands and children.

    The interplay between individual monitoring of diet and exercise and larger movements in fitness culture are mitigated by consumerism. The jogging movement as well as the physical space of health clubs, symbolize a turn inward in the realm of fitness to focus on the individual monitoring and regulating themselves. While previous fitness ideologies relied on outside guidance (parents and children, wives and husbands), these movements focused on the formation of identity and personalized fitness to be determined by and for the individual. “Fitness culture relies on the premise that the solution to the nation’s physical inactivity can be found in the individual, even though it’s apparent that sedentary lifestyles are a societal problem” (180). Ultimately, as daily ways of life in America are changing so do the meaning and practices of fitness on both an individual and national level.


  6. Getting Physical: The Rise of Fitness Culture in America by Shelly McKenzie, might have been one of my favorite reads from this course. In a lot of ways I think I was thrown off by how fitness came to be such a key part of American society. In the 1950’s the rise of fitness came out of the fear that was generated by the aftermath of World War II so compete with the other ruling countries and show that American children and people were more physically fit than our European counter parts. Many campaigns were started in order to promote fitness throughout communities and encourage people to begin to exercise. It then became part of a women’s job to exercise in order to fit into a standard of beauty as well as help further happy matrimony. But fitness wasn’t just targeted at women and it began to play a role in fighting against heart disease in men. It wasn’t about getting in shape but rather reducing the risks of heart disease and high cholesterol (it’s interesting how for women it’s related to beauty but for men it’s about health). There was a significant lack in the inclusion of people of color in these communities and outreach to those demographics. The book continues on to address the rise of jogging and bodybuilding within fitness centers. The depth in which McKenzie goes uncovering the aspects of history that shaped the fitness structure of America was truly so fascinating. I almost wish that there had been an extension into the current fitness world and how social media, especially Instagram, plays a role in how the ideal body and fitness mechanisms are supposed to reveal themselves and the ways in which these platforms have created trends and more modes of being that have sifted down into the way that we carryout our lives everyday.


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