How Jane Fonda Made Fitness a Feminist Cause


Four decades ago, Jane Fonda released her iconic “Workout” video, inspiring untold millions to feel the “burn” of heart-pumping exercise for the first time—and starting a global women’s fitness movement.

But while Ms. Fonda’s early ’80s brand of fitness is often remembered for its shiny leotards and leg warmers, her fitness evangelism had a huge impact on the way women perceived their own strength and potential. Today, every woman who makes a New Year’s resolution to run or lift or cardio dance owes at least a small debt, albeit sometimes a troublesome one, to Jane Fonda, the original Hollywood fitness influencer.

In front of me. Fonda was still in its infancy in the fitness industry and struggled with outdated beliefs about women’s physicality. It wasn’t until the 1970s that female athletes and exercise enthusiasts began to debunk the widespread myth that vigorous exercise would cause a woman’s uterus to “fall out.” The sports bra was not invented until 1977. And it wasn’t until 1984 that the Olympics finally included a women’s marathon, after years of claims by officials that the distance posed a danger to women’s bodies.

So then Ms. When Fonda, a bona fide megastar, opened her original fitness studio in Beverly Hills in 1979 and began advocating for women’s sweat and strength, America took notice. She offered women the ultimate promise: Do as I do, and you can be like me.

Fonda’s own search for self-worth would inform her workout and lead to her own feminist breakthrough.

It was a powerful incentive at the right time. After the activism of the 1960s and early 1970s, the nation’s focus shifted from social causes to individual ones, as baby boomers became disillusioned with their ability to change the world and instead focused on changing themselves. By the 1980s, feminism didn’t mean marching in the streets for equal rights so much as caring for yourself, doing for yourself, above others. As actress Cybill Shepherd declared in the era’s ubiquitous L’Oréal ad campaign, “I’m worth it.”

As it turned out, Ms. Fonda’s own search for self-worth both informs her workout and leads to her own feminist breakthrough alongside the women who bent and stretched with her.

To the public, Ms. Fonda, then 42, was the woman with everything. After a decade of controversy surrounding her anti-Vietnam War activism, she had a thriving new acting career. She was celebrated as stunningly beautiful, defying decades-old stereotypes about women of a certain age. She was a devoted mother and wife. Redbook’s readers recently voted her a woman they most admired.

But privately, she struggled to build a life that would make her feel whole and happy. Her quest for the approval of her emotionally distant father, beloved actor Henry Fonda, led her to develop eating disorders as a young teenager, she later revealed. Becoming a model and actor only reinforced her belief that her body existed for other people’s pleasure. “I learned that love is earned through perfection,” Ms. Fonda wrote in her 2005 memoir, “My Life So Far.”

When she injured her foot on the set of “The China Syndrome,” she discovered group fitness classes, which were just starting to take off. Like many in the late 70s, she found the experience of sweating in a room full of other women exhilarating. The class worked muscles she didn’t know she had. She was sold.

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The actress directs one of her many follow-up videos, “Low-Impact Aerobic Workout,” 1986.


Warner Bros / Courtesy Everett Collection

But it wasn’t until her new husband, the anti-war activist Tom Hayden, sought a way to fund a newly formed progressive political group that Ms. Fonda considered going into the fitness industry herself. She would open a studio and pour every cent into her husband’s cause.

The studio’s success with local women soon led to a brand new publishing deal, and the book that followed is both a testament to how far women have come since the 1950s and a reflection of what Ms. Fonda’s still limited understanding of feminism was. “Like many women, I am a product of a culture that says thin is better, blonde is beautiful, and buxom is best,” she writes in the book’s prologue. “I internalized this message and, in an attempt to conform to the desired female image, abused my health, starved my body and ingested heaven-knows-what chemicals.” In many ways, she picked up the baton from the second-wave feminists of the 1970s by offering women a highly visceral form of physical autonomy and confidence in their bodies. But she presented it in a distinctly ’80s package.

Then came her video. Not long after its release in the spring of 1982, Jane Fonda’s “Workout” soared to number one on Billboard’s videocassette sales chart, where it remained for 41 weeks. It would go on to sell 17 million copies and become one of the best-selling home videos of all time. Women are “doing Jane” by the millions, as her fans have cutely called her regimen. By 1984, the World Almanac ranked her the fourth most influential woman in the world, behind Mother Teresa, Margaret Thatcher and Nancy Reagan.

In her book, she encouraged women to “break the ‘weaker sex’ mold” and start thinking of themselves as athletes. “Please remember that your goal is not to become pencil thin or to look like someone else,” she wrote. “Your goal should be to take your body and make it as healthy, strong, flexible and well-proportioned as you can.”

And yet Ms. Fonda’s fitness-as-feminism had its limits, suggesting that women can only achieve true freedom by forever working on their physical selves. Even as she lamented the pressure women felt to be thin, the book and video featured only super-thin fitness models. In the fitness idol, women found a path to both feminism and becoming more conventionally beautiful in a culture that still valued women for their looks above all else. Millions of women would spend decades trying to unravel the mixed messages.

An irony of the “Workout” as a tool for women’s empowerment was that it began as a way to fund her husband’s ambition. It turned out, she later wrote, that he couldn’t stand her new career, which she called an “exercise in vanity.” The success of “The Workout” helped get Hayden elected to the California State Assembly, his first public office, in 1982. Four years later Ms. Fonda separated the business from her husband’s political ambitions. Not long after, she also divorced Hayden. (He died in 2016.)

She would go through several more “acts,” as she called each defined stage of her life. Finally, in her 50s, she began to fully confront her two lifelong demons: existing to please men and doing so by trying to be perfect. After spending so much of her life fearing that if she wasn’t perfect, she wouldn’t be loved, she began to realize, she wrote in her 2005 memoir, that “to want to be perfect is to to want impossible.”

Jane Fonda’s story may be just the splash of cold water needed to ignite women’s fitness—and help women harness the true power of the movement she started.

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