With an investigative journalist’s penchant for exposing the underside of popular movements, Black (Yes, You Can! Behind the Hype and Hustle of the Motivation Biz, 2006) presents an engrossing history of fitness in the United States.
While offering largely a chronology of the evolution of a uniquely American brand of fitness, Black is quick to provide scintillating glimpses into the lives of fitness icons and explore philosophical trends and lucrative business models. From a sweeping portrait of 19th-century bodybuilding to 20th-century exercise champions, who “figured large in the early use of television” and “helped spawn the videotape industry,” to contemporary entrepreneurs who fashioned the multibillion-dollar health club, athletic shoe and exercise equipment industries, a fascinating window into American values emerges. Black convincingly argues that while modern notions of the “perfect” body may derive from the sculpted male form idolized in classical Greece and the importance of sound physical health from ancient Egypt, China and the Indus Valley, it was the rise of Victorian attitudes that helped infuse into the American bent for physical fitness a notion of moral health. Concepts like mid-19th-century “muscular Christianity” espoused by YMCA founders stressed that “bodily vigor is a moral agent” and promoted the acquisition of physical strength in the service of protecting the weak. It may seem somewhat ironic that bodybuilding, a largely aesthetic pursuit that traces its roots to this period, emerged from a moral imperative. However, by assembling the biographies of scrawny, sickly and/or relatively obscure youths who went on to become fitness legends—Eugen Sandow, Charles Atlas, Jack LaLanne, Bonnie Prudden, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jane Fonda, Richard Simmons and legions more—Black effectively shows how the drive for personal transformation is right in step with the American dream.
A must-read for fitness buffs and beefy enough to whet the appetite of even the most inert couch potato.