Sweating in Public: On Jane Fonda’s Dance Aerobics Empire and Progressive Politics

jane fonda

Lady Jayne Seymour Fonda was born in 1937 and was also raised to believe that weight management was a paramount concern for a young woman. As a teenager, she and her boarding school friends sent away for tapeworms and stuck their fingers down their throats after dinner to stay slim.

As Fonda followed in her father’s footsteps to acting, a slim body maintained at any cost became even more important to her increasingly glamorous image. The storied liberalism of 1960s Hollywood hardly liberated Fonda and her female peers from these pressures. Despite her involvement in various liberationist struggles—raising money for the Black Panthers, marching for Native American land rights, and (infamously) traveling to North Vietnam to criticize American military involvement—women’s liberation was not central to her worldview.

In 1969, the year Missett launched Jazzercise, Fonda was flummoxed by a feminist who pointed out how her recent role in the sci-fi film Barbarella—all skimpy outfits and sex with questionable consent dynamics—had objectified her: “I did not even know I had been. The burgeoning new women’s consciousness had not yet found its way into my mind and heart.” A foot injury Fonda sustained on the set of The China Syndrome would be key to developing that feminist identity. In 1978, her stepmother recommended that in order to rehabilitate her foot and get in shape for bikini scenes in an upcoming role, she should visit Body by Gilda, an exercise studio located in a Century City medical building.

Fonda had always danced ballet, but Gilda’s, which offered strength training and dance exercise and was frequented by actors and celebrities such as Barbra Streisand and Bette Midler, was an entirely different experience. Gilda was founder Gilda Marx, a self-described former “chubette” and Pittsburgh native who had relocated to southern California, where she found exercise gave her the confidence to fit in and earn a livelihood. Marx had started out instructing homemakers who gathered in her San Fernando Valley living room, but her workouts became so popular that she expanded to multiple locations and in 1975 even launched a fashion line, featuring nylon-spandex body stockings branded as “Flexatards,” which ultimately became a multi-million-dollar business.

But it wasn’t fashion, or even Marx, that entranced Fonda and convinced her of the transformative potential of exercise. It was the classes taught by petite former ice skater—and current smoker— Leni Cazden that Fonda found nothing short of “a revelation.” In the company of forty other women sweating and leg-lifting to pounding music over ninety minutes, Fonda felt “in her gut” how “exercise could affect a woman’s body and mind.”

Sure, she lost weight for California Suite as she initially intended, but she did so in the company of women strengthening rather than starving themselves. Marx was a contemporary of Orbach and Nidetch, and she also never challenged the conventional physical ideal of “sleek and flexible,” despite proclaiming, “I am against dieting!” But even as her studios perpetuated the timeless pursuit of thinness, Marx insisted that the real transformation that exercise enabled came from the “first-rate feeling” and “self-assured attitude” borne of “mental and physical harmony.”

Sure, she lost weight for California Suite as she initially intended, but she did so in the company of women strengthening rather than starving themselves.

Fonda soon hired Cazden to teach her privately, and even led a version of the class herself when she was on a movie set. If Fonda didn’t yet explicitly associate her growing passion for fitness with her burgeoning feminism, she did understand it as a concrete way to energize progressive politics. Six years earlier, she had married activist Tom Hayden, a founder of Students for a Democratic Society, and his antipoverty nonprofit, California’s Campaign for Economic Democracy, desperately needed cash. Cazden’s workout, with Fonda’s celebrity imprimatur, could be their ticket.

Within a few months, they moved forward—that is, Fonda did, as Cazden remembers painfully: over lunch one day in 1978, under pressure from a lawyer, Fonda told Cazden, “This is going on, with or without you.” The two made amends years later, but Cazden remembers that lunch as “literally taking everything from me.” Cazden swallowed her pain, and took off for the next six years, sailing around the world with her third husband on a self-described “soul retrieval.” She was not there in September of 1979, when Jane Fonda’s Workout studio opened on Robertson Boulevard, in a space that Cazden had found, in Beverly Hills.

Fonda was far from first to the dance-fitness world, but her celebrity was crucial to making the format famous. Gilda Marx brushed off the idea that she was offended that Fonda’s name had become more synonymous with working out than her own; the exposure benefited all of them. The choreography in Fonda’s Workout was similar to that in Jazzercise, but liberal Hollywood was a markedly different environment than Missett’s San Diego, and the Workout united women’s fitness more closely with Fonda’s overtly progressive politics.

Clients who visited the three studios she opened over the next few years may not have known their class purchase supported a left-wing nonprofit, but they found a space Fonda described as designed explicitly to “create more realistic, less anxiety-ridden standards” for women, judges or janitors, who all struggled with body image and sexual exploitation. Fonda was so famous that even before VHS tapes would make the Workout a global phenomenon, this ethos suffused the experience of exercise even for women who never set foot in one of her studios. Fonda made it acceptable “to sweat in public,” countless women told me.

Gloria Steinem, no stranger to feminist consciousness-raising, marveled at the “Family of Woman” engendered by the intimacy of the locker room at her own women’s gym. In a Ms. magazine essay, she remarked that Fonda-style exercise was unmaking the assumption that athleticism was unfeminine and frivolous. The camaraderie of the locker room was a powerful antidote to messages that women’s bodies should look a certain way or existed primarily for male pleasure.

Unashamedly changing together before or after a class was in itself a feminist experience, making “great beauties seem less distant and even mastectomies seem less terrifying.” Molly Fox, who had taught at Fonda’s San Francisco studio, credited Fonda with inspiring a generation of women to be unabashed about their new exercise habits, proudly wearing the pantyhose they cut into crop tops, or the belted leotards and off-the-shoulder sweatshirts that advertised they were coming to or from a class.

If Fonda didn’t yet explicitly associate her growing passion for fitness with her burgeoning feminism, she did understand it as a concrete way to energize progressive politics.

Fonda had been inspired by Gilda Marx, and so was Kathy Smith, the midwesterner turned Hawaii marathoner. She had recently caught Marx’s eye while running on the beach. Marx quickly hired her as a “hangtag model” to shoot in her Flexatards, which women were not only wearing to exercise, but increasingly pairing with jeans and skirts too. Smith was working at a small gym on Montana Boulevard, Sean Harrington’s Nautilus, that under the banner “it’s torture, but it works” advertised a twenty-minute circuit on Nautilus weight machines that were then cutting edge, but rarely at clubs that welcomed women. Smith not only loved the workout herself but found herself lining up with the likes of stars like Linda Evans, Bo Derek, Cher, and Morgan Fairchild.

Smith sensed an opportunity, and asked Harrington if she could build out a small, unused space in the gym to sell workout wear: Flexatards, but also the tiny, clingy Dolfin shorts favored by the growing ranks of active men and women. “People wanted them in every color,” Smith recalled. Decorated with a Superman logo and repainted in bright colors, the space was called “Kathy’s Knockouts.” Around 1977, Smith remembers, she asked Harrington if she could take over another space in his club as “an exercise room,” to teach her own version of the class she loved at Body Design by Gilda—but with more choreography. He built it out, and before long, Smith built “a huge following.” And because it was at a gym, not a “studio,” Smith told me, it was unique in being “really male-female.”

Another Body Design by Gilda regular, Richard Simmons, went still further in launching a fitness phenomenon that redefined both exercise and who could participate in it. A frizzy-haired Louisianan working as a waiter in Los Angeles, Simmons had always struggled with his weight, and had “felt like a failure” at every workout he attempted. But a friend sent him to Marx, whose red lips, nails, and matching leotard reminded Simmons—before the music even began—of a warrior princess. Marx’s luminous smile, the live piano, and the room full of music and movement were a game changer.

Simmons broke into song several times and signed up for a multi-class membership on the spot, practically floating with joy at having found such a fun version of exercise that made him feel his “body was really alive.” But that night, as Simmons worked the dinner shift, Marx and her husband showed up to deliver some bad news: Simmons was “too much of a cutup, too much of a disruption” to be welcomed back to class. She returned his money and walked away, leaving him heartbroken and furious.

This was Simmons’s interpretation of the snub, but Marx clarified that the problem was really that “women were not comfortable with a man in the class.” He was skeptical, and doubly hurt because he dreaded returning to unwelcoming men’s gyms, where the trainers were militaristic and his emerald-green tracksuits with white piping stood out uncomfortably amid the sea of stained, gray sweats.

Redefining exercise beyond calisthenics, weight lifting, and organized sport—and as an activity appropriate for everyone—was revolutionary.

Simmons took matters into his own hands and opened a studio called the Anatomy Asylum in 1974. His classes were performances as much as workouts, and he declared everyone was welcome. Gay men and fat women in particular would effuse that the studio was unique in that it “made them feel at home,” since “you didn’t have to look like you already go to the gym to belong there.”

Unlike muscled weight lifters or his slim, white, female contemporaries in dance-exercise, Simmons did not immediately present like a diehard exerciser, and in favoring spangled, multicolored hot pants and clownish makeup, refused to suppress his flamboyance or joy. The Los Angeles Times described him as “a kind of freaked-out Jack LaLanne” determined not to run “another phony hangout for the beautiful people,” despite the Beverly Hills location.

There were limits to his inclusiveness, as one hundred dollars would buy only ten introductory classes (four dollars apiece thereafter), rather than a year’s membership at the Y. Despite these democratic pretensions, Simmons explained, “it’s a matter of life-style,” likening the experience to that of luxury department store Bonwit Teller: “Some people like to buy a dress at [bargain store] Lerner’s In our field, we’re the Bonwit’s.” Anatomy Asylum also featured a salad bar, Ruffage, which at the time was an amenity found only in steak houses.

If dance-aerobics represented a convergence of the slenderizing spa, athletic field, yoga retreat, and ballet studio, Anatomy Asylum was equally influenced by the men’s gyms that had long been vibrant social spaces. What had been underground meeting places for most of the twentieth century were by the height of gay liberation in the 1970s far more visible in urban landscapes; even famed conservative attorney Roy Cohn was an investor in a Greenwich Village men’s gym.

The nightclub and fitness scenes often overlapped in New York City and Los Angeles, sometimes explicitly: party promoter John Blair opened The Body Center in Los Angeles in the early 1970s and described it as “the first gay gym: Nautilus machines, tiny shorts, tube socks, and Abba all day long.” Blair invited the best-looking members to parties to attract crowds, which in turn sold gym memberships to revelers who aspired to look like them.

In 1978, Blair opened a New York gym and later told the New York Times he “would give one month’s free gym membership to every cute boy I met at Studio 54.” Gay culture—in what some considered its most superficial form—flourished in fitness clubs, but also began to become normalized in mixed spaces like the Anatomy Asylum. As recently as 1971, Good Housekeeping had published the aesthetic exercise routine of a “remade man” who warned readers: “Before you get some idea that this is a little strange, let me tell you I’m not one bit ashamed of it, and I don’t feel effeminate either.” Within a decade, Simmons helped make obsolete such caveats from men who worried exercise would emasculate them.


“Jane Fonda’s Exercise Salons Aiding Her Husband’s Candidacy,” reported the New York Times of the crucial role of The Workout in funding Tom Hayden’s congressional aspirations. He didn’t much appreciate the idea that his wife and a bunch of sweaty women in legwarmers held so much power over his political career, and he needled her about this activity he perceived as incommensurate with their serious activism.

Hayden echoed a chorus of intellectuals such as Christopher Lasch and Tom Wolfe who derided yoga, aerobics, jogging, and other aspects of New Age “encounter culture” as part of a lamentable “fadeout” of legitimate political and civic commitments that had been supplanted by a “culture of narcissism.” According to these critics, the popularization of fitness was enabled by this dubious, self-centered spirit of the seventies, which Lasch disdained as the “prevailing passion … to live for yourself, not for your predecessors or posterity.”

Interestingly, Joel Kramer, a former resident yogi at Esalen, agreed with Lasch that the culture was becoming terribly self-absorbed, but saw an authentic yoga culture “gobbled up by the Me-Generation” as a casualty rather than cause of this troubling trend. Such laments resonated with a very different criticism from the Right, which argued yoga was part of “an evil tide sweeping America,” worshipping the body but “scarring the soul.”

So too were the groups of women sweating together in scanty body stockings discomfiting to religious conservatives; Missett, who sought to rent space in churches, had to convince clergymen that Jazzercise was no tool of the devil. Lasch argued that the “cult of expanded consciousness, health, and personal ‘growth’” was actually similar to religious fundamentalism, and a similarly unfortunate response to despair about a changing society. These blanket dismissals—mostly issued by men—overlooked or misunderstood the nature of the transformations afoot. Americans were channeling their spiritual, emotional, and—at times—explicitly political energies into a new sort of movement culture.

Redefining exercise beyond calisthenics, weight lifting, and organized sport—and as an activity appropriate for everyone—was revolutionary. And some who flocked to new spaces like yoga retreats, dance-fitness studios, and jogging trails saw participating in these activities as bound up with the fight for bodily liberation that powered activism for reproductive and civil rights, and a general search for authenticity in an era of disillusionment with so many social and political institutions.

The choreography in Fonda’s Workout was similar to that in Jazzercise, but liberal Hollywood was a markedly different environment than Missett’s San Diego, and the Workout united women’s fitness more closely with Fonda’s overtly progressive politics.

Others created and participated in these new arenas for physical expression as a path to a less explicitly political, but no less personally important, self-possession. Title IX, and the 1970s fitness boom more broadly, enabled women athletes to break into the mostly male realm of competition, but the broader democratization of physical activity also came to engage girls and women with little desire to participate in an athletic culture defined by men. Many of these enthusiasts specifically disavowed the revolutionary effect of their ambitions, emphasizing instead the uncontroversial benefits of fitness for beauty (for women) or athleticism (for men), or just their own personal achievement, untethered from any greater cause.

Companies happily capitalized on this new market, sometimes explicitly packaging a tepid politics with exercise apparel, as with the Nike “Liberator.” The Presidential Council on Youth Fitness, which had barely included girls in its early days, released advertisements in the mid-1970s that also reflected this measured transformation in ideas about girls and women. A “lovely revolution,” the ad announced, revealed a new reality: “Physical fitness is beautiful.”

But what about those weight lifters and bodybuilders who had first brought national attention to the salutary, transformative possibilities of physical fitness? Muscle Beach had planted the seeds of the sensibility that made fitness as a form of work and leisure acceptable, and bodybuilding ironically both became more popular than ever and remained a relatively marginal form of the pastime it helped popularize.

In Stay Hungry, a 1972 novel about an unambitious wealthy southerner who becomes captivated by a circle of Birmingham weight lifters, a Junior League debutante, Dorothy, stares at the massive shoulders of the “ruddy and foreign” protagonist, Joe Santo, in a mixture of awe and fear, mustering the courage to ask what on earth he does. When he replies he “lifts weights,” she wonders “what the hell that meant.” By 1976, Stay Hungry was released as a feature film, starring a new actor as the eccentric, inscrutable Santo: Arnold Schwarzenegger. In the movie, a blushing Dorothy reacts to his unconventional appearance with a common misconception: she had “always heard that people of your profession were … homosexuals.” He offers to prove her wrong.

The next year, Pumping Iron made Schwarzenegger a national celebrity and gave bodybuilding—and the gym—cultural currency. He spoke about the mind-blowing thrill of lifting weights in a way that resonated with a culture in which exercise was increasingly intertwined with exhilaration that infused all aspects of life.

“The greatest feeling you can get in a gym … is … blood is rushing into your muscles, and that’s what we call the pump. It feels fantastic.” But his elaboration on the specifically heterosexual ecstasy of exercise was also evidence of the continuing pressure on bodybuilders to prove their sexual normalcy. “It’s as satisfying to me as having sex with a woman and coming,” Schwarzenegger elaborated. “So can you believe how much I’m in heaven? I’m getting the feeling of coming in the gym. I’m getting the feeling of coming at home. I’m getting the feeling of coming backstage when I pump up I’m coming day and night. I mean it’s terrific, right?” He made the point even more clearly in a 1977 interview: “Men shouldn’t feel like fags because they want to have nice-looking bodies.”

If Schwarzenegger’s breathless words resonated with Jeannine Medvin’s celebration of yoga as a path to orgasmic self-possession, Jim Fixx’s elegies to endorphins, or Jane Fonda’s insistence on the “joy, excitement, vitality, and wellbeing” afforded by exercise, weight lifting felt oddly out of step with the moment it helped launch.

The macho brutality and bulging aesthetic were increasingly unpalatable for a mainstream culture more comfortable with the controlled family jog around the neighborhood first recommended by Bowerman, or the sorority of Jazzercise or a Lotte Berk studio, especially as women and gay men became more powerful presences at the gym and on the streets, if not in always in the marches and demonstrations that captured headlines and show up in history books—a different revolution brought about by these dynamic new movement cultures.


fit nation

From Fit Nation: The Gains and Pains of America’s Exercise Obsession by Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2022 by Natalia Mehlman Petrzela. All rights reserved

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