At Origin, we love books that shed light on how we think and feel about our bodies. This month, we’re celebrating the release of “Let’s Get Physical: How Women Discovered Exercise and Reshaped the World” by Danielle Friedman. Danielle is an award-winning journalist whose feature writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Cut, Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Glamour, and Health, among others.
Just after Danielle’s book hit the shelves, she joined Origin co-founder Carine Carmy to discuss the sex benefits of barre class, the fitness industry's double-edged messaging, the uplifting effects of moving your body, and more.
Carine: I am in the middle of your book right now, and I cannot put it down. How did this project get started for you?
Danielle: It began five years ago when I took my first-ever barre class. As a women's health journalist and feminist, I became intrigued by the barre subculture and its origins. In particular, I noticed that many of the moves in class felt comically erotic and sexual. So it all started because I was interested in exploring whether there were sexual health benefits to barre.
That led me to the woman who invented barre in the 1950s, Lottie Burke, who it turned out was this fascinating, complicated, larger-than-life cinematic character. I researched Lottie’s story for New York Magazine’s The Cut and discovered that there was this much bigger, rich history of women that had never been told. I think so many people assume that women's fitness history begins with Jane Fonda because she had such a huge impact. But I was interested in what came before and after Jane.
Carine: And did it turn out to be true — are there sexual health benefits to barre?
Danielle: Yes! Burke explicitly wanted her workout to help improve the sex lives of women in 1960s London. This was before the sexual revolution or at the very beginning, so she was radical in her time.
Carine: I love it. It isn’t really Origin if we're not talking about sex in the first few minutes. So I'm glad we're here. One of the things I thought was so interesting about your book is that these themes of fitness, body image, and sex are so interwoven. I think you speak to this often in the book — sometimes it can be empowering for women and other times it can be objectifying. How did you see those themes shift throughout your research?
These themes of fitness, body image, and sex are so interwoven — sometimes it can be empowering for women and other times it can be objectifying.
Danielle: That was one of the most challenging themes for me to parse out as I told this story. My book begins in the 1950s, in the earliest days of contemporary women's fitness. It was a time of strict gender norms. Masculinity was associated with strength — and femininity, with weakness. Sweating wasn't ladylike and women tried to hide their muscles. There were even myths about what would happen if a woman pushed herself, namely that her uterus would fall out.
So the way the earliest fitness pioneers sold fitness to women was by pitching it as a beauty tool, as a way to lose weight. Bonnie Prudden, who I feature in the first chapter, had a little catchphrase: "No muscle, no curve." And so it was kind of like, you know, broccoli dipped in chocolate. But it was actually a very savvy move because that helped to make strength and exercise — and even sweating, to an extent — an acceptable and respectable thing for ladies.
Carine: It's really interesting because until I reached my thirties, which wasn’t long ago, I didn't do any strength training. I was never taught the value of strength growing up. I learned about fitness in the context of image, not strength. And it's kind of crazy that this shift has only been happening in the last few years — even as gender norms themselves have shifted. Do you feel like that's one of the bigger reasons why we're finally starting to tease these things apart?
Danielle: That is definitely an important factor. It started about 10 years ago, but it's accelerated over the past few years. The way one body positivity activist characterized it to me, was that for so long and so much of the history that I write about, there was this kind of one-way conversation happening between the culture and women — telling them what type of body they should be striving for with exercise.
And then came social media. And, for all of its many ills, social media has offered an opportunity to talk back, and present a much more diverse array of ideals and images — and normalize all types of bodies. The catchphrase is ‘normalizing normal bodies.’ I've seen so many times, even while writing this book, instances where there will be a brand that's pushing sort of, I don't know… retro, shall we call it, message about getting Bikini Body ready or getting rid of your muffin top or whatever it is. And there's now an immediate backlash. This one activist pointed out that it's giving a voice to the people who are the majority in number, but not in power. And so I think that has had a huge impact.
There was a one-way conversation happening between the culture and women — telling them what type of body they should be striving for.... and then came social media.
Carine: That makes a lot of sense. So the concept of strength is now becoming more like strength for health vs. strength for looks.
Danielle: Yes. And the 70s and especially the 80s were such an important time in history because it was the rise of the women's movement. There was Title IX. There was a real sort of explicit push for women to have the same physical opportunities and athletic opportunities as men. And that did fuel the rise of women's fitness, not just sports. For a long time in the 70s and 80s, strength was a sort of a fringe benefit of fitness, with the main goals being weight loss and beauty.
Now it's become taboo for fitness instructors or brands to encourage women to encourage cosmetic transformation in class. The language is much more focused on strength on wellness and mental health. A lot of the language is still very loaded, but it's progress.
Carine: Yes, which I'm excited about, but it's hard when you're in the midst of it. There's so much change happening on almost a micro basis.
Danielle: Exactly. And you know, I don't want to oversell it. There's still so much that needs to happen. But having studied this history, there are some encouraging signs of progress.
Carine: Speaking of history, there are so many amazing inspiring stories in your book and there could be a movie about each of them. I'm curious — who did you find the most inspiring?
Danielle: The one pioneer who was just the most purely inspirational for me was Katherine Switzer. She was the first woman to officially run the Boston Marathon. When she ran the race in 1967, she entered using only her initials. At that time, women weren't allowed into the race and when the race director learned there was a woman in his race, you know, he tackled her and tried to physically rip her number off. And she stayed the course. She finished.
Then she became this amazing pioneer for women runners. I mean, she was behind the first-ever Women's Road race, the first women-only marathons. And she has had an interesting way of understanding what it took to make the activity of the sport publicly acceptable. She was very savvy — she presented herself in a very non-threatening way, for better or worse. But she wore ribbons in her hair, which she felt like had to, to create a platform for herself.
Carine: Shifting gears a bit, one of the things that you explore that's so interesting to me and many of the folks in the Origin community is the mind-body connection and really the mental health benefits of fitness. I'm curious, what are some of the things that you've learned and how has the thinking around this topic evolved?
Danielle: What first comes to mind are the anecdotal reports that I heard while researching this book. I spoke to so many women across the country and across age ranges, including women in their 70s, 80s, 90s who lived the history and are still moving today. And it was interesting to hear about how exercise and movement have been there for them during difficult periods of their lives — periods of loss or illness — and how it helped carry them through. It was inspiring.
And then there are the social benefits. It can vary depending on the city, but so many women I interviewed talked about, not just the mental health benefits of moving, but the communal benefits of moving with other women. A major source of inspiration for me was Kelly McGonigal’s book "The Joy of Movement." She's a psychologist at Stanford and she breaks down the latest research on how moving literally serves as a natural antidepressant.
When we move in sync with other people, neurotransmitters are released that foster hopefulness and a sense of purpose. From what I could tell in my research, it's only recently that group movement has been linked to mental health in such a direct, explicit way. For a long time, it was more like, it makes you feel great, it boosts your mood, it's a natural high. Now there are more quantitative ways of describing how exercise impacts how you feel. It’s a more recent shift that movement is becoming a prescription for mental health.
Moving literally serves as a natural antidepressant — when we move in sync with other people, neurotransmitters are released that foster hopefulness and a sense of purpose.
Carine: And, finally, one thing that’s so exciting to us at Origin is this rise in the movement around the pelvic floor. I didn't even know I had a pelvic floor until my 20s. And I do think that a lot of fitness trends have helped create that awareness. I'm curious, how do you see pelvic health intersecting with the fitness movement?
Danielle: Over the past 5, 10 years in fitness culture, there's been just a much more open dialog around women's bodies, and a move toward normalizing pregnant and postpartum bodies. This conversation has made women much more aware of their own physicality. Some fitness classes, including barre, even focus on the pelvic floor. And well-trained instructors can be quite good at answering women's questions about their bodies and pointing them to good sources of information. So my hope is that fitness is helping to bridge the gap to pelvic floor health and getting medical care for pelvic floor health. After I had my son, I saw a pelvic floor PT during my pregnancy, then I went back to her after to make sure I was ready to return to all the activities I loved to do. I know seeing a pelvic floor PT is more normalized in other countries and I’m glad to see it’s catching on here.
Carine: So are we! Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me and the Origin community today. Before we go, any last thoughts to share?
Danielle: I think my overarching message when it comes to fitness is the importance of treating ourselves with kindness — just focusing on moving in ways that feel good to you and that make you feel strong.