- Managing the Body: Beauty, Health, and Fitness in Britain, 1880–1939 by Ina Zweiniger-Bargielowska
This encyclopedic look at the history of physical culture in Britain examines the interactions between commercialism, culture, and many of the organizations that influenced concepts of health and fitness. Zweiniger-Bargielowska has written a comprehensive, albeit occasionally cumbersome, account of “life reformers and physical culturists, public health campaigners, and the state from the late Victorian period to the eve of the second World War” (p. 1). The book provides an unprecedented amount of information on this topic, but the depth of her description sometimes obscures larger themes, making it unnecessarily hard to read.
Zweiniger-Bargielowska earned her Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge and wrote her dissertation on the industrialization and nationalization of the South Wales coal mining industry. She teaches history at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and her research focuses on politics and gender history, themes that suffuse Managing the Body. The book is divided into two parts, 1880–1914 and 1918–1939, comprising seven chapters. Each part contains one chapter explaining the political trends and two chapters explaining the social trends influencing concepts of both male and female fitness. This thoughtful organization is necessary given Zweiniger-Bargielowska’s ambitious argument and helps to reinforce the central themes of the book.
Managing the Body begins by setting the stage of physical culture in 1880. It focuses on the juxtaposition of life reform and scientific revolution, “the question of how to use science to improve the human condition without alienating man from nature in the process” (p. 18). Zweiniger-Bargielowska connects these socioeconomic trends to the rise of commercialism in fitness, led by physical culture advocates like Eugen Sandow. Her argument raises the question of why certain aspects of physical culture commercialism have [End Page 369] persisted and others have not. Muscle magazines and vegetarian restaurants remain commonplace, while physical culture institutes are rare. The answer likely involves financial viability and, though not directly addressed in this book, would make for a compelling continuance on Zweiniger-Bargielowska’s topic.
In contrast to her commercial arguments, the author presents a convincing case for the link between physical culture and women’s suffrage. Zweiniger-Bargielowska claims that the patriotic concept of woman as race mother, championed by eugenicists, drove a societal consciousness towards women’s health. Though eugenic feminism promoted legal and sexual equity to elevate motherhood, gender relations remained limited to the male provider/female homemaker paradigm. The modern female body was not fully recognized until the interwar years.
Following World War I, the patriotic ideal of a fit body and racial motherhood opened the pursuit of health and beauty to lower classes. A fully healthy, liberated female body remained a middle-class privilege, however, as evidenced by the condemnation of the slim figure for its association with “the exhausted face of the slum girl” (p. 253). Zweiniger-Bargielowska also attributes excessive slimness to anorexia nervosa, but this seems detached from the crux of her argument that Britain in the late 1800s and early 1900s valued the “normal” body because it enhanced women’s capacity for motherhood.
The years after World War I also saw fears of inferior national fitness reemerge. Zweiniger-Bargielowska clearly connects this controversy to the revival of life reform in the 1920s, spearheaded by initiatives like the New Health Society and the National Fitness Council. These organizations aimed to educate the public about exercise, diet, and hygiene but enjoyed limited success because they could not agree on the content of their advice. Inequitable government initiatives and fragmented private organizations remain obstacles to public health today, and the implications Zweiniger-Bargielowska raises here deserve further attention. Education programs not only influenced the fitness of Britain at the time but also had a lasting impact on concepts of health and medicine. The National Fitness Council’s definition of “fitness as a state of physical, mental, and spiritual well-being” was adopted by the World Health Organization in June 1946 and...