Workout Exercises for Women in the 1940s


During the 1940s, the average women boasted a figure whose dimensions measured a curvaceous 33-21-33. The constraints of World War II -- which included limited gas supply -- had much to do with these slender bodies, writes the "Daily Mail." Women walked, cycled and watched their diet out of financial necessity, rather than a concern for aerobic conditioning. Some women did exercise in spa facilities, which featured some rather odd exercise contraptions.

"We Can Do It"

  • During World War II, many women either signed up for military service or abandoned their positions as homemakers in order to fill the vacancies in the work force, especially in the munitions plants and shipyards. Posters of the biceps-flexing Rosie the Riveter, complete with the "We Can Do It" caption, inspired a new sense of physical competence, which led to the creation of the first women's professional athletic team, the All-American Girls Baseball League, writes "The Sports Journal." Meanwhile, multisport athletes such as Babe Didrikson Zaharias became champions of female athleticism, with slogans such as “Loosen Your Girdle and let ‘her fly!”

Fitness Versus Femininity

  • Despite Babe and Rosie's encouragement, women of the 1940s received mixed messages regarding fitness and femininity. Martha H. Verbrugge, author of "Active Bodies: A History of Women's Physical Education in Twentieth-Century America," writes that a physical education teacher named Winifred Van Hagen attended a family night at a local public school. The town's residents wondered about this woman, who had the strength of a man, the playfulness of a child and the "refinement of a lady." Sweat was considered unfeminine, and even the super athlete Babe Didrikson Zaharias was required to wear makeup and girly clothes, notes former basketball broadcaster Jill Hutchison.

The Vic Tanny Solution

  • During the late 1940s, gym owner Vic Tanny decided to redesign fitness centers to appeal to women. He decorated his gyms with pastel color combinations and plush red carpets, and outfitted them with glossy chromium barbells and contouring equipment. He used the slogan "Take it off, build it up, make it firm," and started calling his centers "health spas" instead of gyms.

The Battle of the Bulge

  • Although Vic Tanny was ahead of his time in his advocacy of weight training for women, other fitness entrepreneurs played into their female clients' fears of building muscle, while reinforcing their misinformed belief in the possibility of spot toning. A 1940's film clip titled "The Battle of the Bulges" shows a medley of vibrating and rolling devices, designed to passively shake and roll inches off a women's body. Calisthenic classes were also popular during the era. Huntley Film archives shows 1940s film clips of women doing exercises such as side leg raises, donkey kicks and abdominal exercises similar to those seen in Pilates classes.

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