Did you know the sports bra wasn’t invented until 1977? Yeah, neither did I. I’m an active person who exercises multiple times a week and sometimes teaches yoga, and this essential part of my fitness wardrobe predates me by only four years.
When I read that fact, I expressed my shock aloud—and author Danielle Friedman was just getting started. Let’s Get Physical: How Women Discovered Exercise and Reshaped the World bulges with tidbits like this, drawing readers into this history of exercise and modern women. The factoids boggle the mind, but Friedman goes further, providing a rich story for each fitness trend she examines, from jogging to Jazzercise, bodybuilding to yoga and beyond.
Friedman uses her award-winning reporting skills to profile the fads of the past century, the women who instigated them and the challenges they faced. Whether through clothing that offered freedom of movement or movement that offered freedom of expression, Friedman demonstrates that women’s growing interest in and access to fitness has often granted them a sense of liberation and strength.
But the fitness industry has also created obstacles for women, of course, by pressuring them to conform to whatever physical ideal is currently in vogue. Even in activities that sought to break those norms, such as bodybuilding, participants have couched their efforts in the belief that women’s muscles shouldn’t be too big.
America has historically idolized white bodies, as well, which is a truth Black bodybuilder Carla Dunlap faced head-on. Even when she won contests, lower-ranking white contestants would snag magazine covers. Friedman also examines the classism inherent to these often-expensive activities and the privilege—whether related to time, money or access—that gives some women a chance to move but restricts other women from doing the same.
Let’s Get Physical incorporates the stories of dozens of women, including the author herself. Friedman shares just enough of her own experience to grant the book a defined point of view: that of a woman approaching middle age, seeking strength and release in movement. Her research is thorough, and her storytelling is as energetic as the exercises she describes. Let’s Get Physical is full of stories that humanize an industry that sometimes seems to prioritize perfection over people.