- Making the American Body: The Remarkable Saga of the Men and Women Whose Feats, Feuds and Passions Shaped Fitness History by Black, Jonathan
Increasing concerns about obesity, as well as the swell of popularity in exercise regimens like Zumba, and expansive chains of gyms like Gold’s, Curves, and 24-Hour Fitness, have made exercise a top priority for many individuals. But as Jonathan Black demonstrates in Making the American Body: The Remarkable Saga of the Men and Women Whose Feats, Feuds, and Passions Shaped Fitness History, Americans have thought intently about their personal fitness for years. In his book from the University of Nebraska Press, Black traces the major American fitness trends from 1900 to the present. A journalist by trade, Black has written for Forbes and GQ, authored Yes, You Can! Behind the Hype and Hustle of the Motivation Biz, and taught at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He also penned a biographical profile published in the Smithsonian in August of 2009 entitled “Charles Atlas: Muscle Man.” That piece served as the inspiration for this larger work of twentieth-century American fitness.
Aimed at a popular audience, Making the American Body pays only cursory attention to the early history of fitness, condensing everything from the Greeks to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition that brought Eugen Sandow to popular attention into a nine-page chapter ambitiously named, “The Shape of History.” Chapter Two, “Selling the Body Beautiful, 1900–1930s,” also skims along at a rapid pace and covers four of the most significant figures in the history of fitness: Sandow, Bernarr Macfadden, Charles Atlas, and York Barbell founder and weightlifting advocate, Bob Hoffman, in only twenty pages. Chapter Three, covering Muscle Beach, Jack LaLanne’s television show, Bonnie Prudden and her efforts to promote fitness in the 1950s, and the birth of the first nationwide chain of health clubs by Vic Tanny, requires only eighteen pages.
The six remaining chapters continue this pattern, all biting off several decades of fitness history with an emphasis on breezy biographical profiles of the significant leaders in those eras. Dr. Kenneth Cooper, Arthur Jones, Richard Simmons, Jane Fonda, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Joe and Ben Weider, Jim Fixx, and Doris Barrilleaux, are among the more well-known personalities featured. To his credit, however, Black also covers less well-known, but more modern, fitness advocates, such as Alberto Perez and Mark Mastrov, creators of Zumba and the 24-Hour Fitness chain, respectively. But his attempt to cover such a large time span results in the neglect of the rich details and social or cultural context that engages historians and allows one to feel enveloped in the narrative.
Black’s journalistic use of interviews in the later chapters of the book is to be commended, but it is unfortunate he did not validate some of the claims made in them with outside sources. For instance, when discussing Alan Calvert, most known for founding the Milo Barbell Company in 1902 (p. 49), Black provides no citation associated with the information he provides. This is especially regrettable when a simple Internet search provides a link to Kim Beckwith’s dissertation, Building Strength: Alan Calvert, the Milo Bar-bell [End Page 501] Company, and the Modernization of American Weight Training, and her several articles on Calvert in Iron Game History: The Journal of Physical Culture.
Other omissions such as the lack of discussion about CrossFit in Chapter Eight, titled “Fitness Today,” are also bothersome. This is especially true in this case since CrossFit is by far the most popular “gym-based” fitness movement of the past few years with more than 5,000 CrossFit gyms in existence internationally, a hefty sponsorship from Reebok, and television coverage of its CrossFit Games. Black’s lack of attention to it is surprising in a book that is, otherwise, remarkably up to date.
Black’s work is also spotted with nomenclature errors. For example, when writing...