The Eternal Treadmill of Fitness Trends: From Hot Pants to Hot Mess

By Penelope Green

Past Tense

New year, same resolution.

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In the early 1980s, instructors had become celebrities by virtue of their ability to bark exhortations that could be heard over the chorus of “It’s Raining Men.” Lee Martin, shown here in her West 72nd Street studio, was one of Manhattan’s most sought-after drill sergeants. May 17, 1984.CreditCreditSue Ann Miller for The New York Times
Penelope Green

Do you remember Face-o-Metrics? How about FloMotion? Or kitchen calisthenics? Me neither. But The Times recorded these and many, many other modern fitness fads, an exhausting — and often poignant — chronicle of pain, gain and some very peculiar practices. Taken as a whole, the paper’s coverage of the last half-century of exercise recalls the old joke, Samuel Johnson by way of Oscar Wilde, about second marriages: a triumph of hope over experience.

In the mid-60s companies like Shell Oil offered their female employees a program of self-improvement: five weeks’ worth of exercise, posture, etiquette and fashion entitled Personality Workshop Inc. It was so successful with “the girls,” as they were called — otherwise known as secretaries — that their male managers signed up as well, to learn how to count calories, breathe properly by blowing up balloons and fling towels about to stay trim.

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In 1966, towel calisthenics were offered by companies such as Shell Oil to female employees, otherwise referred to as “the girls.” Jan. 26, 1966.CreditJack Manning/The New York Times
In the ’70s, not all exercise required actual exertion. Mar. 17, 1971.CreditDon Hogan Charles/The New York Times
The Health Spa, located across the street from Macy’s, benefited from dressing-room trauma, welcoming as many as 400 clients a day. Mar. 17, 1971.CreditDon Hogan Charles/The New York Times
Face-o-Metrics, taught at Alexander's department stores, schooled participants in moves like “the ostrich” and “the basic woo.” Oct. 4, 1966.CreditBarton Silverman/The New York Times

In 1966, Face-o-Metrics were taught at Alexander’s department stores. (It was an era when department stores were still gathering places, vibrant agoras for more than just shopping.) These facial workouts were invented by one Jessica Krane, the “prophet of the basic woo and the ostrich,” as the paper described her. The basic woo, the article went on to say, is the shape your mouth makes “as if one were uttering a very intense woo” — go on, try it — and its practice, with variations, promised to erase lines around the mouth. The ostrich, designed to banish double chins and jowls, required leaning your head back as far as possible.

Another exercise was to obscure your age, if you were a woman older than 25. The article portrayed Ms. Krane’s own face as being wrinkle free, though it pointed out, rather nastily, that she did look as if she were over 25.

In 1969, The Times declared that exercise studios, particularly those run by a certain Russian émigré, had become as modish as restaurants. Women who were attuned to aspirational signifiers like the right hairdresser or, as the article said, “that little jewel of a manicurist” — these included a copywriter from Cosmopolitan, a filmmaker’s assistant and the wife of a television personality — were drawn to places like Alex & Walter on West 57th Street, where they might hang from rings like circus performers or real gymnasts.

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More populist was an establishment that cannily operated across the street from Macy’s, where fashion collided with reality on a daily basis. The trauma of the dressing-room mirror greatly benefited the Health Spa, as it was blandly named, which saw as many as 400 clients a day. “Hot pants, especially, have gotten us a lot of clients,” its proprietor said.

Operating under the principle that “all women are sisters under their leotards,” the place was a favorite of switchboard operators, flight attendants, bookkeepers and, notably, Phyllis Chesler, the second-wave feminist author and psychologist, who offered, as the reporter wrote, “the women liberationist point of view.”

Aerobics got spicy in the mid-’90s, when instructors like Anthony Truly at Crunch led classes in semi-drag. Sometimes he brought a whip. Feb. 16, 1995.CreditEd Quinn for The New York Times

“Physical health is important to women,” Ms. Chesler said. “And they don’t get the same opportunities that men do to exercise their bodies.”

Speaking of hot pants, The Times reviewed a curious piece of apparel in 1971, an inflatable “reducing” garment named for the popular short shorts. Shrinkage, not fitness, seemed to be the goal; the contraption was tested by a 32-year-old woman and a 16-year-old girl, both of whom were identified as overweight in a jaw-dropping expression of rigid beauty standards that would surely have inflamed Ms. Chesler.

“The teenager is about 30 pounds overweight according to insurance industry statistics,” the article said flatly, adding that she was “extremely athletic, and has won several swimming and diving trophies.”

Neither tester lost inches, but their legs were sore from the routine, which was grueling by any standards. Also, the Hot Pants leaked, making them potentially more toxic than their messaging. One can only imagine what poisonous cocktail was in the garment’s “thermal packs,” which contained “a chemically-impregnated sponge that produces heat.”

In 1973, two years before it went out of business forever, Arnold Constable, a carriage trade establishment on 40th Street and Fifth Avenue, offered working women lunchtime exercise classes. (Open since 1825, it was once the city’s oldest specialty store, and a favorite of Eleanor Roosevelt’s.)

One teacher performed her version of yoga and calisthenics in the windows, hoping to lure passers-by into her classes. The female reporter who had written so trenchantly about aspirational exercise also covered the Arnold Constable window act, in an article that included this unsisterly sentence: “Women shoppers, including one 200-pounder, looked on in envy.”

Luring passers-by into exercise classes at Arnold Constable on Fifth Avenue and 40th Street. Once the city’s oldest specialty store, the place closed for good in 1975. April 30, 1973.CreditBarton Silverman/The New York Times
Physical culture in the 80s reached new heights. At Alex & Walter, a gymnastics studio on West 57th Street, you could hang from rings like a circus performer. May 1, 1986.CreditFred R. Conrad/The New York Times
Kitchen calisthenics were fueled by classical music arranged to a disco beat. Participants shook salad dressing and whirled furiously to “Flight of the Bumblebee.” Jan 7, 1982.CreditSara Krulwich/The New York Times

Oh to have been a participant in kitchen calisthenics, taught by Suzy Prudden, a co-author of “I Can Exercise Anywhere,” published in 1981. Couples wielding salad spinners whirled furiously to “Flight of the Bumblebee,” among other classical favorites that had been set to a disco beat.

“When you’ve finished making the salad, you’ll be very tense,” Ms. Prudden was quoted as saying, “so that means it’s time for the shake-the-salad-dressing exercise.” (Actually, the paper’s honorific for the author was Miss; The Times was notoriously slow to accommodate Ms., adopting it only in 1986, 15 years after the founding of Ms. magazine.)

Gospel aerobics had legs in the ’90s, and what an improvement on Pat Benatar. April 28, 1992.CreditChester Higgins Jr./The New York Times

When the movie “Flashdance” landed in 1983, with a sweaty flourish of leg warmers and scissored-up sweatshirts, its “calisthenic pornography,” as Janet Maslin put it in her review, was more than just the filmmaker Adrian Lyne’s fantasy. To remind: Jennifer Beals (and her uncredited body double, a French dancer named Marine Jahan) played a welder who also worked as an exotic dancer, and dated her older boss.

Young women had already begun to sport leg warmers as a fashion statement, though not, as their forebears did, to signal an allegiance to the ballet barre, but to prove membership in a new tribe of aerobics fanatics. Led by instructors who had become celebrities by virtue of their ability to bark exhortations that could be heard over the chorus of “It’s Raining Men,” they imagined that contorting to Pat Benatar would be a transformative experience.

Still, by 1985, the Centers for Disease Control reported that only 7.5 percent of the population had engaged in aerobic activity at least three times a week.

“I believe we’re becoming less active,” a prescient epidemiologist said in 1990. “We’re an information society. It keeps us at our desks.”

Penelope Green is a reporter for Styles. She has been a reporter for the Home section, editor of Styles of The Times — an early iteration of Styles — and a story editor at the Times magazine. @greenpnyt Facebook