Sometime in the early 1980’s, my mother discovered exercise. First there was aerobics, with its perky wardrobe of pastel tights and leotards with matching elastic belts, legwarmers and sweatbands. For many of my formative years, I virtually lived at the Klub Novus, an aerobics studio arranged in a communist-era house of culture in the suburbs of Warsaw. Mum would dress up in her bathing suit, as there was no real work-out clothing available in Poland then, pack a bag of books, papers and colours to keep me busy and off we’d go.

For those who wonder about the origins of my uncanny ability to remember song lyrics of the period, look no further: I owe it all to the Novus and countless hours spent listening to Olivia Newton-John, Whitney Houston or Pointer Sisters. Thinking about tools of change coming from below under communism, I automatically thought about the women in the aerobics studio. I have decided to interview 5 of them in order to find out whether their practice of aerobics back in the 1980s should be conceptualised as a site of opposing the regimes (communism and patriarchy) they lived under.

Aerobics is it!

Aerobics, in Polish Aerobic or Aerobik, is a form of exercise based on cardiovascular activity elaborated and popularised by Kenneth H. Cooper, an American Air Force physician. His book Aerobics was published in 1968 and initiated the wave to start a worldwide fitness revolution, but it was only the release of Jane Fonda’s Workout that brought the fitness craze to a broader market. Interestingly the same pattern of dissemination of a new sport trend was repeated in Poland- the first publication on aerobics by Andrzej Liedtke was released in 1977, but it was only famous athlete Hanna Fidusiewicz, who managed to turn aerobics into a staple of popular culture in Poland of the 1980’s.

The first press report on an aerobics class (by Ewa Gajewska in Tygodnik Polski) describes the colourful crowd of mostly young women instructed by Hanna Fidusiewicz to the songs of Electric Light Orchestra and Terry Jacks. Other reports from the era paint a picture of Fidusiewicz as an acclaimed athlete, bringing a pair of leg warmers from her trip to Paris in 1983.

Indeed, it was 1983 when Fidusiewicz started to give aerobics classes in “Pod Skocznia” sports club in Warsaw. Shortly after, she became a regular guest on TV shows, which gave her a status of icon in the underdeveloped Polish pop culture of the 1980’s. I remember her petite frame from the aerobics instruction booklet that she released in 1984. She seems to look even more fit now, when we meet in August 2008, so I am just trying to hold in my stomach as I ask her opinion on the phenomenon of the aerobics-frenzy in the 1980s.

“Sport studios with aerobics classes mushroomed, but in the beginning it was mainly about the trendy novelty imported from the West,” says Fidusiewicz – the Polish Jane Fonda, still today the most famous ambassador of fitness in Poland. “The reality of the 1980’s was black and white and women were simply eager to embrace the colours of aerobics outfits into their lives.” Ewa, another of my interviewees, who attended aerobics classes in the 1980’s, explains, “It’s just that under Communism, about the only things available in the stores were cheap polyester clothes, shoes of poor quality and few choices of lipstick or eye shadow. Someone in central planning came up with the makeup colours, and that’s what we got.” The gym outfit consisted of tights, a leotard, leg warmers and tennis shoes, oh and you can’t forget the classic sweatband around your forehead. The more the colours that clashed, the better.

I found several tips for how to create “the dream sports-wardrobe from nothing,” in female magazines from the early 1980’s. In the reality of shortages, the leg warmers were not bought but knitted or made from cut off sleeves from sweaters. A leotard would be a bathing suit with trims cut off to expose the length of legs. Looking at the pictures documenting the first aerobic sessions, I am impressed by the wide spectrum of possibilities for wearing the same type of bathing suit, and even more by layers of purple eye shadow, fuchsia lipstick and carrot-orange or lilac-coloured hair. The black and white reality was surely left at the doors of the sports studio.

“For years the dream was to look Western, or what women thought was Western,” says Lidka, who discovered aerobics in the 1980’s and is now owner of small fitness studio in the outskirts of Warsaw. “For decades we were shut off from the world, and the concept of the West was that everything was bright and colourful. In other words, the more outlandishly coloured makeup you wore, the more “Western” you looked. The more outlandish hair colour, the more you were like America. “Of course we care how we look, we always have,” explains Lidka, as she dusts her face with powder. “We were told under Communism that looks didn’t matter, that the bigger goal did, but, of course, that was just a big lie. The Communist woman was dowdy and frumpy, someone who didn’t care about her looks or how she sat. And naturally since the Communists told us not to pay attention to ourselves, we wanted to do it all the more. It just wasn’t so easy.”

Following the church of aerobics was time- and money- consuming. The price of aerobics class in the club in Warsaw was 1200 PLN for 45 minutes two times a week- it was a tenth of the average women’s salary back then. For those who preferred to exercise at home, Przyjaciolka magazine published a booklet with a music tape – the cost of this take away aerobics was also quite high at 460 PLN.

Heavenly Bodies

If the price didn’t scare off the crowds of interested women; on the first day of registration for the course, there was a queue waiting in front of the building from 4 o’clock in the morning. A system of queue-place reservation was even developed. Finally, 10 groups were formed and 150 ladies attended classes, another 140 were waiting for the weaker ones to drop out and free up a place.

Aerobics was not perceived as a completely new form of exercise but rather as a slightly modified form of traditional gymnastic exercises, yet the aerobics frenzy was not comparable in popularity to any other sport discipline or form of recreation. Although most of my interviewees tended to frame their passion for aerobics within the context of physical education (“I have always exercised”), the analysis of press articles reveals that aerobics was conceptualised as just another novelty imported from the rotten West. Columnist Janusz Atlas discredited it as another sport for the nouveau riche, while another journalist noted that among the followers of the new fashion was the entire crew of stewardesses at LOT, the Polish Airlines. And note, that to compare a Polish stewardess circa 1982 to today’s flight attendant is like trading an easily accessible plastic bottle of “Unity on the Coke side of Life” for a curvy, vintage flask of “Coke is it!”

Commodifying Freedom

According to Marx, commodity fetishism is a state of social relations, said to arise in capitalist market based societies, in which social relationships are transformed into apparently objective relationships between commodities or money. As it relates to commodities specifically, commodity fetishism is the belief that value inheres in commodities instead of being added to them through labour. This is the root of Marx’s critique relating to conditions surrounding fetishism-that capitalists “fetishize” commodities, believing that they contain value, and the effects of labour are misunderstood.

Feminist scholars coined term “commodity feminism” referring to aestheticisation and depoliticisation of feminist ideas by connecting them with consumption. Feminists criticise the use of feminist rhetoric (e.g., language of equality, assertiveness, and liberation) offered by aerobics as being form of commodity feminism, which occurs through the articulation of consumer objects to feminist values, meanings, and goals. While, I wholeheartedly subscribe to the feminist critique of consumptionism and realise that many of my interviewees valued the cosumptionism-related aspects of aerobics culture in the 1980’s, it would be difficult to argue that inciting women to cut off the sleeves of their husbands’ sweaters, equals masking the essence of consumer goods as being produced in an inherently patriarchal system for patriarchal gain.

Another possible critique of aerobics or any other form of workout is that it maintains ideologies of female inferiority and lowers the status of female body by implying that it is deficient without exercise. No doubt, today the body is commodified to sell diets and health products, fashion, sport, travel or leisure. In contemporary society, people are constantly overwhelmed with media images of a young, healthy and sexy body, which is considered to be essential for social success.

“It was never my aim to lose weight. This trend of shaping your body in a certain way was not as strong as today, back then a woman had an outburst that she wanted to lose weight, it was not like today when you contemplate that your butt has to have this shape and your legs this shape. It was more that after childbearing, a woman had some extra kilos, so she said to herself I need to lose weight so I’ll go there and jump a little bit,” says Ewa. Of course, her statement is hardly a vanguard of feminism. But back in the 1980s, the concerns of Betty Friedan or Simone de Beauvoir seemed distant and my interviews tended to ignore the politics. Lidka says, “For me, exercise forms part of your own personal interest no matter if there is communism or capitalism, a sports club is open to everyone, everyone can exercise.”

Similarly, discussing the marketing of beauty products or diets in a society governed by the “need” rather than “like” paradigm is rather pointless. It seems that aerobics under state socialism was gradually deprived of its Western capitalist connotations and gained a widespread popularity among Polish women. If aerobics in the Western world went hand in hand with  individualising the cult of the body, my mini-research showed that in state socialist Poland it was the notion of community – or to be more precise – the notion of a women’s community. Almost all of the women I talked to commented on friendships that started during aerobics classes.

Of course, I could quote the statements proving: focus on individual consumption, self-objectification, immediate gratification or apoliticism related to the practice of exercising back in the 1980’s. Nevertheless, based on the interviews, aerobics can be interpreted also as a space to use strategies for participation that both downplay oppressive aspects of, and further enhance personal empowerment in, aerobics classes. Therefore, I argue against understanding aerobics exclusively as a game of compulsory heterosexuality, which demands appropriate, feminine behaviour and appearance. That the women I interviewed applied diverse strategies (distancing, rejecting the critique, asserting agency) to make aerobics’ practice enjoyable while constantly remaking it to suit their own purposes, is indicative of the way women often must live their lives within a misogynistic, patriarchal culture.

Last but not least, sports have been constructed traditionally as a masculine preserve and women’s entrance to sports clubs in the 1980’s was the first important effort to finish male gatekeeping dominance in sport. Scholars stress the utilitarian character of communist sports based on Marxist denial of the duality of mind and body – only with sufficient leisure could the worker return to the job fully refreshed both physically and spiritually.

Although socialism was supposed to guarantee equal footing for men and women, women were doing double shifts in the factories and at home. In their spare time, they were supposed to bake rather than profit from free access to state-organized and state-financed exercise together with their husbands. In many cases, a Polish woman’s way to the public sphere led through the cloakroom of a sports club, where she could discuss her problems with other women, experiencing empowerment based on a feeling of controlling her body and transgress the bounds of “appropriate” femininity.

Power (of) Aerobics vs. Changes from below

The point of departure for my research was an urban legend according to which there was a secret system of aerobics clubs during martial law in Poland (1981-83). After interviewing Hanna Fidusiewicz, spiritus movens of the aerobics movement in Poland in the 1980’s, I have learnt that it was just a hoax. I have not found evidence for the existence of female secret agents in the exercise groups after 1983 either. Still, while conducting interviews with these women, I could feel the power of change they introduced to their lives by donning their first pair of leg warmers. Our body is highly politicised and exercising any kind of bodily act is political. Personal is political is one of very few slogans that could be used as a common denominator for the second wave of feminist movements and the situation of Polish women in the 1980’s. 

The question at hand is whether Polish women in the 80’s could exercise agency within the gendered constraints of aerobics? Based on my interview responses, the answer is yes. Moreover, their practices from the 1980’s, helped them change their lives for good, the effects are evident today – they are all in their 50’s but thanks to the muscles they developed back then, they seem younger. Three of them have started their own businesses (all related to fitness and beauty care) and act as successful entrepreneurs. They keep exercising and still take care of the friendships that started in the gym’s cloakroom while changing and chatting. Those who are retired and live with their partners, stick to the rule of celebrating their own free time – for meeting friends, having hobbies and exercising.

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