Too early for Jane Fonda, we had Jack

Barbara Amiel on how Jack LaLanne exhorted us all to stop being slaves to our aging bodies

Too early for Jane Fonda, we had Jack

Bryce Duffy/Corbis Outline

On the way to this column, I got distracted by Jack LaLanne videos on YouTube. Shameful, I know, but I must have spent nearly two hours watching them. I had intended to put in a note referencing his death just last week at the age of 96 and thought that perhaps I could view a few old shows from the sixties when he had his morning half-hour TV exercise show and wax nostalgic. Turns out there are hundreds of LaLanne videos online, including a hypnotic interview with Groucho Marx.

Jack wore a jumpsuit before Donna Karan got us in them and, something I had never noticed before, he wore black ballet shoes with black socks for his TV workouts, probably because Air Nikes hadn’t reached conception. He opened his fitness gym in 1936 in Oakland, Calif. (California is the only cliché about Jack), and the obits named him father of the American fitness movement, which is a triumph for the short man who started out truly fat and poxy, unlike the faux acne complexions and cellulite thighs universally recalled by gorgeous movie stars. I defy anyone not to like Jack after watching him, or to resist—behind the privacy of their computer screens—sucking in their waists and resolving to exercise more and eat better.

Jack was something else: he came from the tradition of the muscleman of the 19th century, the stunt guy at circuses who could lift improbable weights. Jack’s stunts included celebrating the U.S. bicentennial by swimming one mile, shackled and handcuffed while towing 13 boats symbolizing the 13 colonies with 76 people on board—and he was 62 years of age. His enthusiasm was so contagious you’d almost think you should do it yourself, perhaps starting off with the trussed part in the shallow end of the swimming pool.

I happened to be pretty good at “games” in my childhood, which is what phys. ed. was called in the U.K., and was often voted Games Captain, which in itself was rather thrilling. We had an hour and a half of bliss every day, vaulting horses, climbing ropes, playing rounders and netball overseen by Miss Lewis, our muscular games mistress with thighs like hardened tree stumps. At age 12, I arrived in Canada to lacklustre gym classes and a school doctor who pronounced my heart not strong enough to play volleyball.

Doctors were early opponents of female exercise. In 1850, Frances Mary Buss had founded the U.K. school I attended and together with her best friend Dorothea Beale took up the exercise gauntlet for females. Until these two pioneers started roiling the waters, “exercise” had consisted of two-by-two crocodile walks, deportment and dancing lessons.

The medical establishment fought Buss and Beale back. “Pelvic disturbances,” wrote doctors, were a “worry.” Exercise might well induce unintended sexual excitement with all its horrifying consequences. Child rearing of the day forbade girls to straddle anything: no stick horses, seesaws, velocipedes and presumably not uncle’s knee. Along came the crotchless bicycle saddle of the 1890s, intended to prevent any accidental “rubbing” while sitting astride rather than sidesaddle.

Men pretty much had a stranglehold on the health thing from antiquity on. But the ideal body changed from time to time, and somewhere between the Victorian and Edwardian era, the notion took hold that a gentleman’s beefy stomach was not a sign of prosperity but a liability. So began the Culture of the Abdomen, as author Frederick Hornibrook called his 1924 book—reminding us there is absolutely nothing new under the sun. The early pin-up for all this was Eugen Sandow, a.k.a. Sandow the Magnificent, and if you want to really enjoy yourself, take a look at www.sandowplus.co.uk, which pretty much covers the waterfront of physical culturalists.

The twenties linked masculinity firmly to muscularity. There were crash diets for men, programs to beef up biceps, and leagues of health. Fasting was pretty much a male thing linked to a pudding of Protestant purity and notions of virility, heroism, purification and the discipline of self-control. There was tricky treacle here: during the 1920s and ’30s, health and exercise ran a perilous course between the body-beautiful aims of fascism and eugenics. In Britain, the physical culture movement largely avoided this dead end, edging away from militarism to blossom into such displays as the 1937 Festival of Youth held in the presence of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth at Wembley Stadium, “representing over 40 athletic, physical culture and youth organizations,” according to professor Ina Zweiniger-Bargielowska, the undoubted expert on this subject.

By the 1930s, “obesity” was in the lingua franca and on the male mind. The hero of Orwell’s Coming Up for Air was George Bowling, a lower-middle-class suburbanite with a 49-inch waist at age 45. On contemplating his middle-aged spread, Bowling concludes, “No woman… will ever look twice at me again, unless she’s paid to.” Men’s body belts and Linia shorts (Spanx for chaps) were advertised. After the war, the spreading male middle was linked to the deadening culture of the commuting suburbanite and his sedentary life from office to home to TV set.

I don’t quite know when this exercise craze hit women. When the mantra of the Duchess of Windsor that you can’t be too thin or too rich hit the steno pool. When the models in the Eaton’s catalogue went from size 10 to size 4. But hit it did, and for those of us stranded on the shore, the pre-baby-boomers, the women who were too late for the youth leagues and too early for Jane Fonda, there was Jack LaLanne exhorting us all to stop being slaves to our aging bodies and help our slackening muscles match up to our inner youth.

God bless him. I know you’re doing fingertip push-ups on the clouds, Jack, with angels and cherubs in tow, all in heavenly workouts together.

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