Tuesday, August 30, 2016

What eugenicists did for women's sport?

Summer holidays is a traditional time to rest and feast. Unfortunately most of us spend the rest of the year trying to lose the excess pounds we gain during the mid winter break. Spare a thought then for those athletes who need to keep in training during the holiday period. Whilst we might take women in sport for granted today, this was not always the case. Indeed during the early nineteenth century it was quite unthinkable for young ladies to be seen engaging in physical recreation. All this changed thanks in many ways to an eccentric man by the name Bernarr McFadden. He was a Darwinist and eugenicist and had made his fortune from writing and selling pulp fiction and magazines. Born in 1868, he was a prolific author and publisher of popular books and magazines. The self styled professor of kinesitherapy,wrote in his journals on the health the benefits of physical activities for men and women. Titles like Woman's Beauty and Health, Physical Culture, National Brain Power and Muscle Builder all became instant successes. McFadden’s publishing empire had another side to it and that was the sensational journal titles. True Story, True Romances, True Lovers, and True Confessions all came from the same stable. Men were more likely to read them but the journals did sell well and were the equivalent of today's soft porn.

Like contemporary eugenist, William Keith Kellogg inventor of the corn flake, cereal manufacturer, McFadden’s had many eccentric beliefs. Both men were of the opinion physical weaklings should not marry without first reaching an acceptable level of fitness. The ethos for Physical Culture, founded in 1899, was longevity of life and related to good living and appropriate exercise. McFadden often used himself as model for his publications and soon earned the title 'Bare Torso King'. Needless to say the popularity of his publications brought nothing but condemnation from the medical fraternity with much of their criticism directed toward encouragement of women taking exercise. It is not clear whether he was exploiting women or just preparing society to accept the importance of physical health for all. McFadden recognised how ignorant the general population was to the human body and cited better understanding would stop female degeneracy and make for a more physically fit and healthy nation. He encouraged young ladies to take up some of the more gentle outdoor pursuits such as walking, dancing, skating, croquet and cycling. He also advocated riding horses astride and for the more robust female frame women's baseball and basketball was ideal. This had major implications on the shoe industries.

As the popularity of physical culture societies spread throughout English speaking countries the middle classes flocked to them in their droves and of course needed the apparel. The first American Olympiad in 1904 included physical culture activities for women but females were not allowed to participate in the track and field events. The world was not quite ready for women doing physical jerks and it took another four years before the Olympic committee agreed to include ladies events (1928). Eugenics became a philosophical pillar of Nazi Germany in the thirties and mass exercise programs were openly encouraged. This again created a ready market for leisure shoes and as walking became a national past time; walking shoes took on the air of respectability and became the sensible shoes with its nemeses the heeled pump. It was only in the 1970s when the aerobic craze fronted by Jane Fonda was there as much interest in designing sport shoes for women. In the 21st century it has been left to the Soccer Moms to drive the shoe companies to cater for better fittings for girls’ soccer boots and now thankfully women in sport are better fitted than ever before.

Reviewed 31/08/2016

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