Separate and distinct identity has been always an ongoing plight of women. In history it has been women's up hill battle in suffrage, working equality, and even the very right to smoke. But in today's world the conflict for women's rights has been largely won, or has it? Certain aspects of this argument could pose for an interesting dinner time debate, but for the sake of the fitness industry, women have had their indiscreet allowances for exercise throughout history. One could say, "you've come a long way baby." But not so fast, in the fitness arena, things are not always what they seem to be. Recent history suggests there has been a calling for women to participate in their appropriate form of exercise. So naturally what appeals to women by their nature is different from the opposite sex, so in that respect alone they should exercise differently. I am afraid not! Women should not have separate fitness distinctions than men but they do indeed deserve equal rights to proper exercise and the suitable results that do follow. Therefore all exercisers should be created equal! After all, physiologically and intrinsically there are the same number of skeletal muscles (434) in both men and women. The muscles therefore are the engines of the body, and when exercised properly make for a much stronger and functionally efficient human being regardless of sex. Hence, a woman's fitness routine should be no different than that of a man's. This being the case, the prescriptions for proper training should never be gender specific at all. Think not? The necessities in human biology are reasonably generic across the board in the requisites for nourishment, sleep, medications, and medical treatments. So why should these conditions be so different in exercise and fitness? Why has it not been considered popular factual understanding? It just may have centered on the old tradition that women were always considered the weaker sex. The misinterpretations of the myths, superstitions, and nightmares of large manly muscles were always in the way of getting women their optimal rights to exercise. Culturally, little girls have largely been trended into being delicate and dainty.
Unfortunately, this persuasion lasts a lifetime in many ways and cases. Therefore women are bound within the exercise ideologies perceived by their self dignified femininity. In order to open these previous closed doors to fitness, the convenient terms of firming, toning, lithe/suppleness, and muscle elongation were first introduced to women. Dance movements, light weight exercises, and calisthenics were then established based alone on their assumed feministic needs and became somehow ingrained as a woman's birth right. So the prejudicial attitude towards women in keeping their femininity with in the boundaries of their exercise has caused a wandering into a questionable direction. Once these stereotypical exercise myths are universally accepted, they are almost impossible to remove from mainstream thought. As a result, "so called" sculpting, flexibility, and various dance (powder puff) routines largely exist to serve a woman's supposed needs. Whatever the case may be, these activities and pursuits don't suffice and just do not stimulate the potential benefits that are as a result being denied of women. What is the solution in spite of the result of this anti knowledge? The truth: a proper progressive strength/weight training routine for a woman dedicated to it far outshines anything that is popularly suggested. Then again this involves the progressive and calculated use of meaningful weights such as barbells, dumbbells, and Nautilus like machines. Unfortunately these golden opportunities again are pooh-poohed and are stereotyped as mythical muscle bulking programs. Consequently, breaking away from this gender specific exercise barriers can be very difficult. Therefore women are left behind with many having an archaic understanding of proper exercise. Why again is this the case? Recent history suggests that many of the early gymnasiums were populated entirely by men, a focus on men's perceived dominance and physicality until someone discovered this lure of the firming, toning, and flexibility lingo. When the skies opened up, it came time for women to finally pursue their right to exercise.
Pretty Boutique Fitness
The colors powder blue and pink come to mind when discovering lost fitness past. The softening allure of the pink pastel surroundings of the early women's exercise salons presented the lady with her first opportunity. When asked, Vic Tanny (a famous fitness entrepreneur from the 1940s Ð 1960s) how he got women into exercise, he said that he used those pretty color combinations as a strategy to attract women to his fitness franchises. As a result, he became a legend in the field of exercise. Starting his career in Santa Monica California in August 1940 with a dank dungeon of a gym for men, he decided the equal opportunity for co-ed fitness could indeed work. Fancy Fitness Boutiques he thought would be his ticket for fitness equality. His idea was ripe for the picking. His scheme caught on like hotcakes. By 1959 he had developed an empire reportedly grossing close to 15 million dollars a year. This Fitness King blathered in his imaginative creativity. He developed miniature glittering wonderlands that housed glossy chromium bar belles, soft music, rich red carpets, and presented glamorous advertising with scantily clad women in leotards. His gyms had turned into virtual Fun Lands adorned with sparkling swimming pools, steam rooms, bowling alleys, and ice rinks with pink ice. His innovations were far ahead of their time and allowed for the treasured Tanny Gymnasium to dominate pretenders such as the Pink Jungle - Slenderella Salons. The ever so clever Vic also included the increasingly sought after dance classes centered on Ballet. Women had finally the right to pursue their physical fitness Tanny style, combined with the spiritual fitness they sought from the Reverend Billy Graham. It was a marriage made to last.
Waging the war on the feeble woman on the home front were the Glamour Belles that were promoted to create the balance of cultural and physical beauty. These were simple delightful dumbbells painted in our popular bright pastel colors. They created their own success as a result. Originally designed for the Hollywood starlet, it was then offered to "average" women (for every girl's budget) all over so they could be their own individual star. There was a delicate transition for women to be included, so our exerciser became a GLAMOURSIZER! This "glamorizing" was intended to soften the harsh "overtones" of men's bulked up heavy weight lifting. Beauti-bells were then offered by competitors eager to enter the women's market. They brilliantly added weighted iron shoes called glamour boots that resembled Dorothy's ruby red slippers in the Wizard of Oz. The addition of these special shoes was to correct those horrible leg and ankle contour imperfections. Total beauty courses were then accompanied with the "exercise" programs to allow the delicate imperfect woman to become the total glamour queen with a lifetime of captivating muscle tone and beauty. It was the trend to become full, firm, and fashionable. These alone were bright, dazzling, and "colorful" ideas to open up the pearly gates in fitness, but those that truly understand the brilliance of exercise promotion had only to look at one early factor, the allure of dance.
Dance had been instituted as a separate and distinct mode of physical fitness and education in women's colleges in the mid 19th century. Although not the staple, it was offered in conjunction with calisthenics and the ever popular imported European gymnastics systems of fitness. Dancing had always been considered a distinctive fashionable appealing part of recreation and art to women. Available at the time were Ballroom Dancing, The Waltz, The Tango, Conga, Fox Trot, Polka, and Ballet and they were popular and attractive expressive activities for women. The exciting combination of a basic thirty minutes of limbering Calisthenics and dance, allowed for the ladies to "grow slender." Early exercise crusaders understood the allure of this and instituted programs that allowed for the like. Of these many cultured dance disciplines; Ballet emerged and evolved to become the most popular in the United States in the 1920s. This was as a result of the many Russian aristocratic disciples that immigrated to New York City just after the Russian Revolution. George Balanchine the crowned king of Russian Ballet was encouraged to explore the Americas as he too ended up in the Big Apple. Although not the originator of classical Russian Ballet, he made it popular in this country in the 1930s. Ironically lurking in the same neighborhood was one Joseph Pilates and unbeknownst to the Ballerinas, they were about to get a major makeover.
No Ordinary Joe
Joseph Pilates was touted as one of America's great early physical educators. This was a man with a vision. Born in Germany in the later part of the 19th Century, Joe was a sickly youth. His story starts with sensationalist origins as in every other Horatio Alger episode. As a child, this miniature Charles Atlas discovered he was skinny and weak, and he had his fair share of sand kicked in his face. He planned to take revenge on the bullies. His abominable resolve led him to cure and strengthen himself as others did before him. He was out to prove his worth to himself. Being aware of the sporting life, he used this as the ultimate resolution. This athletic lifestyle seemed to work with him, as this natural athlete imminently grew and matured. But he soon found out sports did not pay the bills. A brief stint with the circus allowed him to eat a few meals and fill out his physique. It was then he found that posing semi-nude for anatomical displays and as a Greek statue would pay him all he needed to get by. Not satisfied there, he turned his direction towards the study of his passion, the fascination of human movement. That he observed, involved all forms of living and exercise. Joe found this to be his ultimate calling as he was attracted to and enthusiastically studied many different Yogic Systems. Being a voracious reader, he found discarded books on human anatomy and proceeded to devour every word on the subject of the human body. Fitness at the turn of the 20th Century was far more popular than one might suspect. There were systems of exercise from Delsarte System of Physical Training which portrayed grace and poise for theatre, to the great Sandow's System of Physical Training which avowed for manly strength. There were plenty of materials, books, and gymnasiums in an era long forgotten in which to glean and borrow ideas from. Loyal to all of his exercise study, he then rediscovered the Classic Greek ideal, "a healthy mind and a healthy body." Joe decided it was now his time to institute his own "named" system. It was about this time when he was then called to duty in World War 1. It was there he became a self appointed physical therapist. He discovered there that he could take ram shackled and discarded old hospital cots and rescue the springs from them to mantle into what eventually became one of his patented exercise apparatus. He took those crude tools and attempted to rehab the injured soldiers. Honor followed, but this was nothing new with war and fitness..
After the war, the adventurous Pilates was looking to conquer something new. This along with his distaste for the political storm on the horizon in pre-Nazi Germany, a change was eminent. He was encouraged to go to America, where the real adventure was about to begin. New York City he declared, from reports from his colleagues, was where he could start his fitness revolution.
He opened the first Pilates studio at 939 8th Avenue. There he displayed a fascinating apparatus he developed, patented and brilliantly called the Reformer. It was a simple spring-driven apparatus claimed as the ideal resistance training tool for women and even real men too! Joe continued his onslaught of developing additional apparatus with carefully contrived names. In addition to the Universal Reformer he had the Barrel, The Tens-O-Meter, The Magic Circle, and The Air-O-Mill. Being considered a concerned crusader of fitness, Joe's influence was also seen around the clock. He developed a pillow-less V-shaped bed for healthful and restful sleeping. So as you slept, the Pilates influence was there to provide you with a complete "Bednasium."
Conveniently and coincidentally, he and his wife Clara ended up sharing the same address with the New York City Ballet. It was a result of his dogged desire to locate his studio adjacent to the "dance district." He knew that his unique approach to training would attract the ever so weakened and injured ballet dancers. He was right! The wholesome apparatus' although limited their scope, would do the trick. For the Ballet following were injured more than their contemporary sports participants.*(Ballet dancers by and large are more injury laden than football and soccer players.) Although there were many other popular and better constructed gym machines, he was in the right place, at the right time. It was a marriage made to last, a connection wedged in stone. As a result of this union, dance was to be for ever connected to Pilates. Pilates knew that this was the utmost of golden opportunities, a turning point for the direction of women to finally express their rights to exercise. Dance, grace, limberness, and new buzz words such as realignment and elongation allowed for women's rights for their own expressions of exercise. The door was opened wide and his studio flourished, but Joe decided it was not enough. While his elegantly adorned assistants were helping clients, Joe decided it was time to go big-time. He knew the stars were aligned for him literally, as many of his clientele included stars and starlets. It was time for a change as he then reconnected with the sport of boxing, as he once dabbled in it as a youth. He then sought out the old boxing champion Jack Dempsey and Ring Boxing Magazine Editor Nat Fleischer.
In a letter written by Nat entitled "A Longer Life for All," he pleaded for all that there was no reason why the common workingman could not live at least another fifteen to twenty years of healthful and vigorous life. He then hired Pilates as his teacher and went on to explain that Professor Joseph had the line on "Correct, Mental Controlled Exercise." Joe then laid out a simple plan that required only five minutes of fun, invigorating work. Yes, Five Minutes of the this special apparatus named the "Between-Door-Gym" he claimed, could cure round shoulders, hallow chests, protruding stomachs, spinal curvatures, bow-legs, fallen arches, intestinal disorders, and various forms of heart disease. This very low cost gadgetry sold like hotcakes and when the going got hot, Joe got his game going! Pilates was so proud of his far reaching fame that he decided it was time to write his Bible of exercise. In 1945 (with the assistance of William John Miller), at age 60 his cherished Mind and Body principals went to print. Return to Life through Contrology hit the shelves with a series of nearly 500 exercises parlayed with multitudes of a variety of skillful and amber dexterous movements. His introduction to his exercises was fortified with a dash of mind, body, and spirit. The Pilates embodiment of exercise was emphasized in the ideal objective of the lithe-like suppleness of a cat without the expensive bulging muscles of a circus strongman. It was this he thought was the balanced and idyllic condition of human muscular uniformity with an emphasis on complete flexibility. Women he knew were relatively "virgin" territory and his book was cleverly predicated with alluring premise and promise. There was never a road block; in order to realize the ideal as all they had to do was follow his exact instruction. He believed regardless of the case, that he could make a "silk purse out of a sow's ear." His prime objective however was to rewrite physical education and make the Pilates System world wide. If he did not succeed, he could always stick to his rehabbing and strengthening of his band of Ballerinas. But Pilates did not stop there. He resurrected the old and convenient exercising in bed theory from decades ago. He had already designed the ideal bed, but after awakening, there was concern for the early morning bout of exercise. He then combined forces with a bed manufacturing company and developed what was called the Automatic Posture Bed. It was there that you could have a complete gymnasium at the foot of your bed. Why one would have to venture anywhere, he thought. Pilates' touted claims with this simple apparatus should be taken note of by those today. He alleged that one could strengthen and stretch muscles on it like none before it. There magically one could be taught rhythm and balances, cure posture defects, and conquer the ever so menacing scourge called chicken breast. The routine he now suggested was done for 10 minutes daily (eclipsing he previous record of five minutes). A bout of exercise was to be done just upon rising (5 minutes) and then upon retiring (5 minutes). Imagine how this sold to the sedentary public. As in previous exercise gadgets, gizmos, and fads, it had its shelf life and then faded. However the indomitable Pilates still stayed strong with his studios, and remained as the stalwart there until his death in 1967.
A New Era?
Pilate's principals held on through the 1970s and on throughout the 1980s. There were still original disciples that remained from the previous era, as they were determined to keep afloat their fledgling ship. As in all fitness fantasias, the pot was waiting to be stirred up again. Their perseverance paid off, as women again were looking for something distinct and different for their "needs." Aerobics became non vogue or at least the word became somewhat pass. The transition turned into more or less different styles of choreographed dance. The Mind and Body connection became the rage again and was a shoo-in for the baby boomers. The disciples of Pilates coincidentally multiplied to serve their version of it, which of course was same old Pilates all over again. Gyms and Health clubs expanded their exercise menus to offer several variations of this "latest" fitness delicacy. With Pilates, the subtle repetitive actions appealed nonetheless to women and along with their choice of dance, it was all that was thought they needed. The skies opened up for more Pilates Styles to appear out of nowhere. Freshly made to order experts quickly memorized and mimicked the classical Pilates prophesy and added many new imaginary twists to boot. As in every bureaucratic structure, there were many separations and disagreements in what really Pilates was. This resulted in many breakups in Pilates Protocol. As they split apart and started on their own, all these newly anointed experts claimed their form of Pilates was indeed drawn directly from poor old Joe. Allegro, Windsor, Classical, Stott, Body Control, and even Yogilates claimed their seat on the throne. Joe would have never had believed it, and like Susan Powter*, he would have wanted to stop all of the insanity. Now it has interwoven with Physical Therapy and Osteopathic Practice as we see this trend surprisingly transcends the test of time. But again in the fitness industry, we see it is simply reinventing something was (in) appropriate from an era long gone by. Like a fashion trend, it was long forgotten, but rose up from the ashes. Retro exercise although it is fair game these days in fitness, the technology leaves less to be desired. If we were to trust Pilates as the ideal exercise for women, we also would have to go back to this era of its origins and leave all of our modern comforts behind.
After all, are we still using the Model T Ford for transportation, using Morse Code for communication, and cleaning clothes on an iron scrub board? Do you no longer enjoy the comforts of hot and cold running water? No, this old technology in fitness has no more validity than trying to improve a horse for transportation in today's society. The ideal rights for women to exercise are well established, but their popular choices are retrogressive in actuality. Women are unfortunately participating in exercise with ideas that are long pass, as well as for the wrong reasons. The stress of today's woman's lifestyle is indeed demanding. The coordination of mid life Wifery, the single mom raising children, and advancing female executive have challenges at home and at the competitive work place. The door is opened with this exercise routine that provides the escape from these life's pressures. Pilates is offered as the total fitness routine. The elixir that is sought after is the underlying needs for socialized and spiritual fitness. These are neurotic obsessions and are confused with valid exercise benefits. How in the world is spiritual taken from simple physical fitness? Stick around, you haven't seen anything yet! . Women need to use their intellectual ammunition to combat these poor objectives. The equal rights amendments have been long established but right to proper exercise actually leaves them in a state of previous persecution. But freshly made experts are there to perpetuate the Pilates Crusade, a movement from days gone by long before they were ever a gleam in their parent's eyes. Does the burgeoning fitness movement have any answers for women (as well as men) or are we just left with the recreational vagaries of children?
© 2010 David Landau