In the last decade, the women’s fitness industry has started to change, slowly but steadily. As a culture, we still aren’t fully comfortable with women choosing to increase rather than decrease their size. Women’s bodybuilding remains a kind of sideshow sport, due in part to a fundamental lack of understanding of “Why?” Why would a woman feel compelled to get that big? But there are signs of progress, evidenced perhaps most potently by the rise of CrossFit, the popular hard-core strength-building regimen whose devotees are nearly 50 percent women.
When women first show up to CrossFit gyms, writes journalist J. C. Herz in “Learning to Breathe Fire: The Rise of CrossFit and the Primal Future of Fitness,” they balk at the prospect of someday becoming as large — as “ripped” — as the more seasoned female lifters. “But then two months go by, and these women decide they want to climb a rope or dead lift their body weight.” And eventually, “their bodies become a byproduct of what they’re able to do.”
Shannon Kim Wagner, founder of the Women’s Strength Coalition, a group dedicated to helping members of all gender identities build muscle, described her experience with weight training this way: “For me, picking up a barbell meant focusing on my body, for the first time, in a way that had nothing to do with shrinking or making myself smaller. It felt radical to search for safety in myself, as opposed to looking for it in approval from others. When I chose to stop getting smaller in my physical body, I stopped existing for other people.”
Today, I exercise not only for physical but also mental strength. I exercise to feel the endorphin high of accomplishment and to manage life’s lows. I exercise to remind myself I can persevere, and that I am not alone. Most of the women I know (as well as the many women I’ve interviewed across the country) consider regular physical activity essential to their emotional and physical well-being. My mom, who is in her early 70s, calls her weekly cardio dance classes “a surefire source of joy.”
Not long ago, when I mentioned Get in Shape, Girl! on social media, an acquaintance sent me this note: I totally remember Get in Shape, Girl! and could sing the ad jingle for you. I grew up chubby and was overweight by college — precisely because I started dieting by fifth grade. I remember asking for it for my birthday or Christmas, thinking, This will be the thing that makes me “normal,” by which I meant “thin.” Of course it wasn’t. It wasn’t until I was in my late 20s and early 30s that I realized physical exercise didn’t have to be punitive.
I now know how fortunate I am to be living in an era when a growing number of fitness professionals sell exercise not as a punishment, but as a celebration of what our bodies can do; an era when women are encouraged to cultivate strength not for anyone else’s pleasure but our own. Increasingly, it’s just what ladies do.
Danielle Friedman is a journalist in New York City. This essay was adapted from her new book, “Let’s Get Physical: How Women Discovered Exercise and Reshaped the World,” a cultural history of women’s fitness.