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Has America Always Been Obsessed With Going To The Gym with Natalia Petrzela

Did you know that in America’s fitness-crazed, obsessive society that it was once strange not just for women to go to the gym, but also men? In today’s episode, Molly is interviewing Natalia Petrzela– a historian, writer, teacher, and activist– about our history of fitness culture and walks us through its interesting (and polarizing) spectrum.

This episode starts out with something that comes up often in the show– how destructive the diet and fitness culture can be. Natalia even brings about an interesting point saying that we have “moralized” our food decisions. Ever heard of a “sinful” chocolate cake? Or when you eat kale you’re “being good?” Even words like “detoxifying” and “eating clean” have raised the stakes and increased the pressure of something that is supposed to be nourishing and pleasant, making it destructive and damaging. So how did we get here?

Well, as Natalia admits, any historian will tell you that it wasn’t just one moment, it was a process. As the episode progresses, Molly and Natalia’s discussion spans decades (over 100+ years)! There was a moment where, for men, it was considered deviant to focus on your body. For women, you were considered masculine– some even going as far to say that your uterus would fall out… yikes. In the 1920’s this evolves into advice of restricting your diets to retain a womanly figure and keep the attention of your husband. In the 1950’s we get a first glimpse on the TV screen of women exercising and in the 1960’s, your thirties have become your new twenties, ladies. So where do we go from here?

A purpose that Natalia found it necessary to write her book, FIT NATION: The Gains and Pains of America’s Exercise Obsession, was to find a productive way of talking about weight loss. So a solution to create this productive way to talk about weight loss, or “releasing weight” as Molly says, is loving exercise. Natalia captures this idea by saying exercise on your own terms. 

Tune in!

Episode Quotes

  • “There’s sometimes a need and a real intuitive knowing to release weight, and then there is this hyper-focused obsession that is like a spiritual thief.” –Molly Carmel
  • “Fitness culture has incorporated women in such a sense that empowerment is hardly the only legacy– it’s just a new way of having to be thin, having to have a particular kind of body, having to do more work on yourself.” –Natalia Petrzela

Key Highlights

  • We need a more productive way of talking about losing, or releasing weight;
  • Through history, there have been too many extremes of looking at fitness with no middle ground;
  • We have “moralized” our relationship with food;
  • It used to be considered deviant for men to go to the gym and for women it was considered too masculine;
  • The fitness industry the way it is today can be empowering, sure– but unfortunately that is not the only legacy it leaves;
  • Finding a balance to where you can lovingly push yourself and not get caught up in the pains and pressures the fitness culture has created is crucial.

About Natalia Mehlman Petrzela

Natalia Mehlman Petrzela is a historian of contemporary American politics and culture. She is the author of CLASSROOM WARS: Language, Sex, and the Making of Modern Political Culture (Oxford University Press, 2015), and FIT NATION: The Gains and Pains of America’s Exercise Obsession (University of Chicago Press, forthcoming 12.7.2022). She is co-producer and host of the acclaimed podcast WELCOME TO YOUR FANTASY, from Pineapple Street Studios/Gimlet and the co-host of PAST PRESENT podcast. She is a columnist at the Observer, and a frequent media guest expert, public speaker, and contributor to outlets including the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, and the Atlantic.

Natalia is Associate Professor of History at The New School, co-founder of the wellness education program Healthclass 2.0, and a Premiere Leader of the mind-body practice intenSati. Her work has been supported by the Spencer, Whiting, Rockefeller, and Mellon Foundations. She holds a B.A. from Columbia and a Ph.D. from Stanford and lives with her husband and two children in New York City.

Connect with Natalia Mehlman Petrzela

Instagram: @nataliapetrzela

Facebook: Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, PhD

Twitter: @nataliapetrzela

Preorder FIT NATION here: Fit Nation: The Gains and Pains of America’s Exercise Obsession

About Molly Carmel

Molly is a leading addiction and eating disorder therapist and the founder of the Beacon Program, which offers individual and group solutions to help people break free from their destructive relationships with food and dieting. She is also the author of ‘Breaking up with Sugar’ and the host of ‘What You’re Craving’ Podcast.

Connect with Molly

Want to spend MORE time together? Me too! Here are all the ways:

Instagram: @mollycarmel

Facebook: Molly Carmel

YouTube: Molly Carmel

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