Images of a young, beautiful woman filming herself with her Christmas gift went viral last month. A television advertisement for the home exercise cycle Peloton depicts her trying out the new product, a present from her partner/husband, as she records her experiences on a cell phone. The appearance of the woman—identified as “Grace from Boston”—sparked controversy. Selfie stills from the commercial emphasize her complicated expression, a face somewhere between being excited about using her Peloton bike and seemingly terrified of it.
Critics pointed out how fit she appears to be as she uses the bike, complete with its live video instructor screen, for the first time. Why does Grace feel she needs this machine? Has trouble in her relationship forced this new exercise equipment and an unnecessary fitness regimen upon her? For many viewers, an overall spookiness infected the Peloton commercial, causing some to reimagine it as contemporary folk horror. Social media attention forced the company later in December to respond as being “disappointed in how some have misinterpreted” their holiday spot.
What seems to be missing from the dialogue surrounding gender and beauty pressures is how the Peloton ad reflects back to the not-so-distant American past and female fitness trends of the post-war era. By the 1960s, television exercise shows and physical culture media began to reach into more homes. Fitness gurus such as Jack LaLanne gathered large audiences for their daytime broadcasts that encouraged American housewives to stay trim and healthy. LaLanne’s positive attitude and encouraging, unscripted words blended well with his impressive physical attributes, making him widely popular for years. Just as in the Peloton commercial, he would occasionally call out female viewers by name who had written in to the show, adding to the excitement of watching him five days a week. As Shelly McKenzie notes in Getting Physical: The Rise of Fitness Culture in America, “Some viewer letters indicated that women gathered to watch and exercise in groups at home. According to one report, LaLanne received 1,000 fan letters a day.”
If LaLanne’s likeability represented the fun and excitement experienced by post-war American women as they worked out at home, other media personalities were perhaps more threatening. Debbie Drake’s The Debbie Drake Show went national in 1961 and warned female viewers about the consequences of an unhappy marriage if they did not take care of their bodies. Drake’s media outreach included a newspaper column titled “Date with Debbie,” exercise albums and books, and a Barbie-like doll sold by Sears in the early 60s. Alluring and wearing a tight-fitting leotard that emphasized her incredible figure, Drake was reported as being more distracting than encouraging as a fitness instructor. No doubt this was aided by the fact that many stations broadcast her show at off hours, guaranteeing larger numbers of male viewers who appreciated her sexual appeal.
Drake’s 1964 exercise album cover encapsulates the pressures on women in the era to conform to evolving fitness and beauty standards. Titled How to Keep Your Husband Happy: Look Slim! Keep Trim! Exercise along with Debbie Drake, it shows a man reclining in a vest and slacks while imagining Drake working out in various poses within a thought bubble. The back cover offers various words of advice: “Nothing is quite so good for the ego as admiring glances from the man you love. Money won’t buy it, but dieting and exercising will accomplish it.” McKenzie observes, “Drake made no reference to a woman’s health. Rather, exercise was a way for a wife to demonstrate her love for her husband by maintaining her body.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, Drake eventually expressed frustration about the difficulty of keeping Americans interested in an exercise regimen for longer than a few months. More women may have taken up working out during her relatively brief career, but enjoyment was tempered with fear, which likely resulted in many who simply gave up.
Whether or not there is a lesson here for Peloton marketers to take to heart (although the $1 billion hit the company’s stock took in the wake of their controversial ad was probably lesson enough), we should be careful not to condemn either Debbie Drake or the actress in the commercial. Both worked within the confines of male dominated industries too often unsure of how to represent fit and athletic American women. Moreover, despite what may seem like complicity in mid-century sexism, Drake remained a television host until 1978 and was one of the few recognizable female fitness stars prior to Jane Fonda and the 1980s fitness industry boom. Unfortunately, information regarding the later years of her career is difficult to find. (It is even hard to tell in Google searches if she is still alive.) Hopefully historians will pay closer attention to Drake’s life and legacy.
Richard Ravalli is Associate Professor of History at William Jessup University