Stronger Than Yesterday: The History of the Women-Only Gym

Illustration: Angelica Alzona

“IF you are a size 14 YOU CAN be a size 10

IF you are a size 16 YOU CAN be a size 12

IF you are a size 18 YOU CAN be a size 14,”

A 1968 ad for the opening of the Milwaukee location of Elaine Powers screams.

Starting in the late 1960s Elaine Powers, a chain of no-frills “figure salons,” promised women the ultimate dream: “get back to a dress size you’re proud of.”

The promise was enough to make hundreds of women across the country flock to the gym in their colorful Danskins. When you arrived at an Elaine Powers location your figure was quickly analyzed, measurements were taken, and you’d be asked to keep a list of the foods you eat—including breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks—to be sure you didn’t go overindulge later. Then there was the actual gym equipment: wooden rollers that massaged the flesh, reducing belts that vibrated mid-sections, quaking away fat. Women at the time may have wanted to be thin but didn’t want to do anything too strenuous (or sweaty) in order to reach their goal.

Elaine Powers had cultivated this intimate workout space, utopian in theory but oppressive in practice, for women who desired to get fit in the company of women alone. “If you’re not having much luck going it alone, ask Elaine for the help you need!” a cheery 1979 ad urged viewers. But Elaine Powers, the woman, never existed. She was a fiction created by the gym’s founder, Dr. Richard Proctor, a bodybuilder and chiropractor. Proctor founded the chain in 1964, targeting women and their “figure development” because working out was still largely an activity geared towards men. He invented Elaine Powers because, as he told the New York Times, “I just thought women could identify with a woman’s name.”

Proctor was right, women did identify with Elaine Powers. But more than identifying with the unknowable fitness guru Elaine Powers specifically (she was as real as Betty Crocker) women were drawn to a woman-centric brand. The “figure salons” were an unintimidating, colorful atmosphere where instructions and movements were carefully laid out and the equipment was easy to use. Though the ever-present group goal was to be thin, the gyms offered the support and accountability of other women.

The formula was a success: By the mid-70s, Elaine Powers had over 300 locations throughout the United States before closing in the 1980s. Since the passive, beauty-obsessed figure salons of Elaine Powers’ era, the women-only gym has continued to evolve. But the fitness industry today doesn’t look anything like it did in 1968, or 1988, or even 2008. The pursuit of a bikini body is now seen as a sexist joke rather than an actual workout goal. Women want to be “fit” and “strong,” not “lose weight.” They want to eat “clean” but not “diet.” The single-sex gym seems to be a thing of the past, a retro relic of a time period when high school P.E. classes were divided into girls, who settled for archery and dance, while boys would actually play physically-demanding sports.

Big name gym chains like Curves, Lucille Roberts, and Spa Lady continue to exist, but most have taken significant hits, closing multiple locations. From 2006 to 2014 Forbes reported that Curves dropped from 10,000 global locations to 6,000. Today the company oversees 4,000 locations worldwide, a drop in numbers attributed to franchise closures. In 1997 the New York Times reported that Lucille Roberts oversaw 47 locations in the New York City area, but that number is only 16 locations today. Chains have shuttered entirely or scaled back, while smaller local gyms for women across the country have struggled to stay open in an increasingly competitive market. No women’s gym has risen to the kind of ubiquity and size of big-box gyms like LA Fitness or Planet Fitness.

Even as the idea of a women’s health club seems tethered to images of neon leg-warmers and rusty, vibrating rubber-band machines, women’s gyms persist. As the women’s gym has continued to evolve, so have ideas of what women’s fitness looks like. Where once women turned to single-sex spaces out of a societal pressure to meet limiting beauty standards, today the women’s gym has become more of a respite for those looking to escape that history, a place where women can become stronger far from the leering, judgmental eyes of men.

Illustration for article titled Stronger Than Yesterday: The History of the Women-Only Gym
Illustration: Angelica Alzona

Members-only spaces dedicated to working out existed in one form or another since the mid-nineteenth century, from boxing clubs to YMCAs, it wasn’t until much later that the gym as we now know it today began to take form. After early fitness icon Jack LaLanne opened his first “fitness spa” in 1936, complete with a juice bar, health food store, and gym, the prototype for the club continued to multiply. The dark, dank gyms of the past had suddenly become a place of luxury, replete with swimming pools and fancy equipment. For middle to upper-class white women, they were tied to an increasingly lucrative beauty industry.

The 1950s and ‘60s saw the introduction of “figure salons” like Elaine Powers, Helena Rubinstein, and Slenderella, the latter of which invented the wretched “bikini body.” At the time, these salons had more in common with American spas like Elizabeth Arden, which focused on weight loss (spas were often called “fat farms”) and alcohol or drug detox, alongside massages and the typical modern spa treatments. They all preached the importance of passive exercise, which relied on bizarre machines to pound away at your body and make fat disappear. “The selling point for most reducing salons and health spas was minimal effort on the part of the client,” Elizabeth M. Matelski writes in Reducing Bodies: Mass Culture and the Female Figure in Postwar America. “‘The trouble with exercise is—it’s often so much trouble,’ one women’s magazine lamented.”

“They absolutely had their origins in the beauty industry, they had nothing to do with the science of fitness,” says Shelly McKenzie, author of Getting Physical: The Rise of Fitness Culture in America, of the figure salon, in an interview with Jezebel. “It was about losing weight but how you lost weight was still very purely misunderstood. It wasn’t culturally acceptable for women to be very sporty.”

The reducing salon was not a gym, exactly, but it was a burgeoning section of the fitness industry that centered women specifically. Even when “Pudgy” Stockton—a pioneer female bodybuilder in the 1940s—decided to open her women-only gym, the “Salon of Figure Development” in 1948, she was quick to refer to it as a place to “reduce.” (Stockton would later quit the gym business in 1955.) And while women were just beginning in the 1960s to work out at big box gyms like Vic Tanny’s, who like LaLanne was a fitness pioneer trying to elevate the concept of the gym, men and women still worked out separately or on alternating days.

“Though women were becoming more interested in going to the gym as a way to ‘reduce,’ many still weren’t comfortable sweating alongside men who might ogle them, hit on them, or worse, find them unfeminine because they were working out with weights,” Marla Matzer Rose writes in Muscle Beach: Where the Best Bodies in the World Started a Fitness Revolution.

It was those anxieties that would continue to propel the women’s gym industry into the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, as more people with both time and cash to spend embraced and joined gyms. “I think it’s easier in a women-only situation,” one gym manager told the Los Angeles Times in a 1999 trend piece. “They don’t have to worry about their makeup or their hair, and they can concentrate on exercise.” A cheeky old ad for the chain Living Well Lady plays off the women’s gym as a girl power utopia, a place that’s “just between us girls.”

As standards of beauty changed, the slender and slim bodies of the ’60s and ’70s gave way to the toned, body-building-inspired muscles of the ’80s, the techniques became more specific. Even as lifting weights became standard for women, aerobics, Jazzercise, and barre still emphasized slimming; women’s gyms were not a girl-power utopia, free of archaic ideas of what a fit female body should look like.

“This one’s a loser, this one’s a real loser, and just look at this loser!” a 1985 ad for Lucille Roberts gym announces, scanning the faces of three tanned, toned women. “At Lucille Roberts, we’re all losers,” one woman perkily announces, shrugging, as the camera pans to show their unitard-clad slim figures. “But look what we’ve gained!”

Similarly, a 1987 ad for toning, trimming, and shaping at Spa Lady gyms ends with a forlorn silhouette of a woman staring down at her scale, while a 1981 ad for Barbara Ellen Enterprises sang a tune of “you can do it, I can do it, take it off and really lose it.”

Illustration for article titled Stronger Than Yesterday: The History of the Women-Only Gym
Image: Lucille Roberts Ad, 1985

“All of our plans, when you go back to old ads and marketing, everything we did was about how much pounds you were going to lose,” Barbara Pallante, former head of operations for Lucille Roberts for nearly two decades after starting as an instructor in the 1980s, tells Jezebel. “I mean when you tell women you can lose 10 pounds in a month, they’re there.”

When Lucille Roberts who, unlike Elaine Powers was a real woman, opened her gym in 1969, she wanted it to be for the everywoman: middle-class moms, teachers, and housewives. Roberts, an immigrant from Siberia, made the gyms cheap and affordable, like “the McDonalds of the fitness industry,” Pallante says.

“It is only the upper classes who are into exercise for health,” Roberts, who died in 2003, told the New York Times in 1997. “The middle classes just want to look good. We have tried health classes. They just want to fit into tight jeans.”

Even though Pallante says weight loss was a key component of Lucille Roberts’s advertising, she adds that the messaging just doesn’t work on young women today. “Over the last, I’d say, eight or nine years, [with] the younger generation ‘lose 10 pounds’ doesn’t pull them in as much as a great kickboxing class or a great bootcamp class.”

It is a shift that Mark E. Harrington, president of the 1977-founded chain Healthworks Fitness Centers for Women, has noticed as well throughout the gym’s several locations in the Boston area. “I would say one of the trends that a lot of our staff was most excited about over the last five to 10 years is how accepting it is now for women to lift weights and lift heavy weights.”

“We’ve seen a change in perception where previously we had to work very hard as a company to say just because you lift heavy weights you’re not going to look like Arnold Schwarzenegger,” Harrington adds.

Fitness sold to women has long been thinness sold to women. And the myth has long been that weight-lifting makes women bulk up in muscle, a no-no for those looking to fit the svelte, lean ideal gym body, and countless articles have had to combat this idea that weight-lifting simply isn’t for women. Celebrity instructor Tracy Anderson, whose clientele includes already slender celebrity clients like Jennifer Lopez and Gwyneth Paltrow, has come under fire for her workout method which urges women to not “bulk up” by using weights, especially those heavier than three pounds. “The key is to not use more than what you need, and to learn that less is more,” she once told Well + Good.

Increasingly women aren’t afraid of weights, nor are they afraid of workouts that seriously challenge them. It’s this progress that has shaped the marketing of women’s gyms in 2018, slowly attempting to unravel a history of only pitching fitness to women as a constant pursuit of skinniness.

“I think about those female gyms in the past...a lot of the programming was beginner level,” Leanne Shear, co-founder of New York’s Uplift Studios says. “A lot of our personal training focuses on building strength, lifting heavy weights, because I’ve always said that strength in physical fitness, strength in the physical realm, almost always translates to strength in all areas of a woman’s life.”

Uplift, a Manhattan work-out studio, teaches the sort of classes women of Wonder Woman’s hometown of Themyscira might appreciate. The small but stylish Flatiron studio offers personal training and intimate, unique strength-training classes for $34 each that are designed to give you rigorous high-intensity workouts.

The studio feels in many ways like the antithesis of what a women’s gym has long been. For starters, it’s not even really a gym. “I purposely don’t call ourselves a gym, Uplift is a fitness studio and female society,” Shear tells me. “The beautiful thing is physical fitness is wonderful, but the downside, especially for women, is all these societal ideals that we’re forced to keep up with. So there’s a connotation of that negativity sometimes as well, or of keeping up with what society expects, which typically is being skinny and not necessarily strong.”

Shear moved into the fitness industry while working as a freelance writer. Tired of the solitary nature of her job she began working out with and training friends on the side as an escape from the solitary confines of her job. At Uplift Studios, opened in 2012, Shear preaches a constant emphasis on strength—both physical and mental, but particularly the former, and an overarching idea that working out is a tool of women’s empowerment.

“We want to take the focus away from what your body looks like, and on what your body can do,” says Brit Rettig, founder of GRIT Fitness, a duo of gyms in Dallas, Texas, that center specifically around classes, from weight-lifting to cycling. Rettig was working in management consulting when in 2012 she began blogging about working out and teaching classes at a 24 Hour Fitness on the side. A natural athlete who grew up playing sports, Rettig says she decided to fix a problem she had been noticing in boutique fitness for women, which is that all the best actually hardcore workouts were dominated by men.

“I wanted to train hard and I wanted to be around more women,” she says. “The stuff that was there was very delicate, like barre, and I didn’t like the stereotype that all women’s gyms had to be about being smaller, getting thinner, being toned.”

Still, women tend to make up the majority of many work-out classes like yoga, barre, cycling, or pilates, by default. But many women, especially those who are interested in transcending the “get leaner, get thinner” logic of a lot of fitness marketed to women, still value the specificity of a space that caters only to women.

“They say they’re willing to take more risks here than they are in another place, at a big-box gym or at CrossFit, or a place that had men in it, honestly,” Rettig says of women in her gym. “Just the virtue of it being women’s only makes them feel a lot safer, especially when it comes to the heavy lifting classes and dance.”

That’s particularly true of workout spaces that have historically catered to men. Reese Scott, who opened her New York City studio Women’s World of Boxing earlier this year, says she noticed this dynamic at traditional boxing gyms. “If a woman did walk into the gym she got the attention from most of the male trainers and it seemed more than they were interested in taking her out as opposed to teaching her how to throw her jab,” Scott says. Before opening her own gym, Scott was a former creative director for magazines. When she started an all women’s boxing group in 2007, working out of Kingsway Boxing, she says male trainers regarded her mission to train women specifically with skepticism.

“They just felt that women just wanted to sweat, they didn’t want to learn,” she says. “I had a problem with that because I was there to learn and I’m pretty sure there are other women who really, really want to learn this sport.”

Boutique fitness, with a heavy emphasis on classes, has become increasingly popular in the past decade or so, as services like ClassPass have allowed for people to spend less money going to a variety of specialized gyms. That shift is one of the reasons we see women’s gyms mostly popping up across the country at the boutique level—they’re easier to launch than a big-box gym format.

“You need big money to keep up a big gym,” Pallante points out. “I think it’s why you don’t see a 15,000 to 20,000 square foot ladies only gym.”

“This extends across every industry with every business, [but] women regularly get invested in much less than men, for almost any idea,” Shear notes. “I think the playing field is leveling out a little bit and those things are changing, but I’m willing to bet that as we see those things change, we’ll see a proliferation of [...] more women’s gyms.”

But women-only boutique fitness spaces often cultivate something that simply can’t be replicated on a larger scale: a sense of community that gym-goers still crave. Clubs like GRIT or Uplift bank on selling their studios as social spaces as much as they are places for women to work out. Uplift, for example, hosts events for women that includes everything from drinking wine and making mood boards to workshops on grieving the death of a parent.

“I have a theory that millennials feel very lonely,” Rettig says. “We grew up with so much technology that all our relationships are all through [it] and I think there’s just a hunger for personal connection, to shake someone’s hand or hug someone, talk to someone face-to-face, actually be around people.”

Harrington said he’s been looking at the New York City-based social club The Wing for inspiration on how to adapt Healthworks into a space where women will want to stay, even when they aren’t working out. “If your vision is empowering women to be strong, what other ways can we do that aside from fitness?”

Scott said that she finds that more and more women are coming to her to learn how to box for the purpose of self-defense. “I think women are realizing that we are in the fight,” she observes. “That we have to learn how to fight for ourselves and for our rights as women.”

That message of empowerment was echoed by Shear: “I found out very quickly that when I was running alongside a woman or working out with her, we were giving each other advice in other aspects of our know, relationships, career, personal finances.” “I very quickly realized that physical fitness, physical activity, athletics, was a key for female empowerment,” she adds.

But it’s hard to imagine fitness being a tool of women’s empowerment when it’s still a largely exclusionary industry, inherently built for those who have the free time and disposal income to work on their bodies. The new fitness trends that have captivated women, from communal classes to weight-lifting, might just be for those willing and able to spend $30 on a single exercise class and not a sign of some feminist overhaul of the entire gym industry. As Lucille Roberts once said, “health is for the upper classes,” and it often shows in the lack of diversity people find in boutique fitness at large.

“Health shouldn’t be a splurge for people, it should be something that we do without thinking about it, that should be available to everyone,” McKenzie tells me. “The fitness industry, it’s not the thing that’s going to keep us healthy as a population, it’s privatized. If we want a solution to a national public problem we need national public solutions.”

But in 2018, even the most innocuous of women’s spaces, from bathrooms to social clubs to music festivals, have become unnervingly politicized. A man ogling a women’s body from across the room might have warranted an eye-roll and a treadmill move in 1985, but in 2018 it’s a different, if not more urgent, story. “It’s funny,” Pallante says. “Now, with what’s going on with the movement, it would have been good for us now for [Lucille Roberts] advertising.”

An unspoken but grim reality of running a space dedicated to just women members is the potential for men to feel excluded. While women-only gyms are adapting to a more gender fluid climate—Uplift welcomes trans and non-binary attendees—gyms that cater to women still potentially face litigious consequences. After a Healthworks location opened up in 1996 a lawyer who lived across the street became upset when he couldn’t join the club and filed a lawsuit against the company. Though a state judge ruled in his favor, and the Massachusetts chapter National Organization for Women sided with the lawyer who filed the suit, members protested so much that a bill was signed in 1998 to make single-sex gyms legal in the state. “It was a major turning point in the company,” Harrington said. “It was our members that actually got this bill passed.”

Since then several states, Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Tennessee, and Wisconsin, have laws allowing single-sex gyms to operate, though more find them discriminatory than not. Some gyms workaround this by calling themselves “a women’s gym” rather than an “all women’s gym,” or offering classes to young boys rather than actively advertising for men to join the club.

Ultimately, the women’s gym might be moving farther and farther away from constantly pushing women to be a size two, but it’s not, and probably never will be, the site of a feminist revolution. But women’s gyms will remain relevant as long as women still feel alienated from the same spaces men have dominated for decades.

“Men have throughout history had this ‘old boys’ network,” Shear explains. “They would shoot hoops with their buddies from work and grab a beer after and business would be done. Everything was centered on sports and socializing.” She adds, “women never had that.”

Hazel Cills is the Pop Culture Reporter at Jezebel. Her writing has been published by outlets including The Los Angeles Times, Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, The New York Times Magazine, ELLE, and more.


Covered in Bees

I moved away from the Boston area, and I will *never* stop missing the Porter Square Healthworks.  I had a series of kickass personal trainers over the years, two of which were professional bodybuilders and loved nothing more than teaching me to lift heavy, and basically the gym was 50% young professional/college women, and 50% old Cambridge hippies.  The only all-women gym in my area now is a pole fitness studio.  Womp.