Not Jane Fonda
Aerobics for Fat Women Only
Clad in high-cut leotards on the cover of her bestselling Workout Book and aerobics videos, Jane Fonda and her message of discipline as liberation are emblematic of the beauty and bodily norms of the 1980s (Kagan & Morse, 1988; Losano & Risch 2001).1 Aerobics videos and classes, like Dancercise or Jazzercise, combine callisthenic exercise with dance moves and set them to music. By 1986 an estimated 21.9 million Americans were doing aerobics on a regular basis, most of them women (Kagan & Morse, 1988). Fonda was at the forefront of this trend. Jane Fonda's Workout Book (1981) sold over 1.8 million copies in its first two years of publication, and by 1987 her workout videos had sold 4 million copies (Hribar, 2001). Fonda represented the new ideal of femininity in the 1980s: she was athletic, slim, and sexy. Aerobics and aerobic clothing were popular signifiers of this new ideal, and images of women “working out” were used to sell films, food, and clothing in this era.
Though Fonda herself saw fitness as part of a pro-woman agenda and sought to “break the weaker sex mold” (Fonda 1981, p. 45), her body (and the aerobic body in general) has become a site of contestation about beauty and bodily norms in the late twentieth century. Feminist analyses of the phenomenon place aerobics on an “axis of continuity” (Bordo, 1988, p. 90) with a broader popular culture of the 1980s that idealized, disembodied, and demeaned women (Freedman, 2002; Kagan & Morse, 1988). Sports feminists believed that aerobics undermined the credibility of “real” female athletes because it focused more on keeping women slim than keeping women fit. Rosemary Dean argued that the very popularity of “keep-fit” classes stemmed from “women's anxiety over their body weight and appearance.” Aerobics appears to have co-opted physical fitness for the purpose of selling slenderness and colorful leotards to women (Deem, 1987, p. 427). Participant observation and sociological studies of the aerobics phenomenon (Lloyd, 1996; Loland, 2000; MacNevin, 2002; Markula, 1995) similarly argued that aerobics classes were a site where “women … sculpt their bodies in line with dominant messages about femininity” (Maguire & Mansfield, 1998, p. 125). In this literature, aerobics, along with crash dieting and plastic surgery, is emblematic of the new normative femininity of the 1980s: the healthy body was a slender body. Sociological analyses of aerobics have problematized femininity, but