Workouts and White Supremacy: Exercise History According to TIME

Matt Philbin | January 4, 2023
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Did you know that the K.K.K. were the original fitness trainers? You couldn’t see the Spandex under their robes. Did you know that poor people can’t run? You would, if your read Time Magazine (motto: “Remember Us?”). 

On December 28, Time published an interview with one Mehlman Petrzela, who’s written what sounds like a real page-turner of a history on working out in America. Petrzela is a prof at The New School and has written for the New York Times and the Washington Post. And she sounds like it:

Until the 1920s or so, to be what would be considered today fat or bigger, was actually desirable and actually signified affluence—which is like the polar opposite of today, when so much of the obesity epidemic discourse is connected to socio-economic inequality and to be fat is often to be seen as to be poor.

“Socio-economic obesity discourse?” That’s pure intellectual catnip to this guy! 

If you couldn’t tell, this is fitness history from the woke perspective. Of her research into women’s fitness, Petrzela enthused: “At first, you feel like this is so progressive.” You know, empowered women fighting the patriarchy with their sweat, making the gymnasium safe for radical feminism and maybe marginalized sexualities and … 

Then you keep reading, and they’re saying white women should start building up their strength because we need more white babies. They’re writing during an incredible amount of immigration, soon after enslaved people have been emancipated. This is totally part of a white supremacy project. So that was a real “holy crap” moment as a historian, where deep archival research really reveals the contradictions of this moment.

Hmm. Disconcerting. You know what really was progressive back in those days? Eugenics. This sounds like the other side of the same coin. 

But as history marches on toward the sunlit uplands of enlightenment, Petrzela found things to like:

I was also really moved speaking to gay men who had lived through HIV/AIDS and talked about how they exercised to display that they had a healthy body at a moment when there was so much homophobia. Some gyms became like community centers, sharing medical information, almost like mutual aid societies.

Even better, there’s now “[an emphasis on] wellness, self care and healing and being meditative in an increasingly traumatic and unpredictable world. Ah, the therapeutic benefits of self-obsession …

Related: Study: ‘Shark Week’ Features Too Many White Guys Named ‘Mike’

Still, things aren’t perfect. America, after all, is still the bleak hellscape it always has been for everybody but white men:

But it’s important to point out that access was never totally equal, if you lived in a neighborhood that didn’t have safe streets or streets that were not well lit. Women were catcalled. People of color were thought to be committing a crime.

The “running is for everybody” discourse still quite often leaves out the fact that depending on where you live and the body that you live in, it can be a very different kind of experience.

And that guy yelling at you on Peloton? Could be a Grand Kleagle. 

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