“Physical culture is in the air just now,” reflected P. G. Wodehouse in an article forVanity Fair published a year before the “gentleman’s gentleman” entered the literary canon.
The essay described how the “average man” of post-Edwardian England “now postpones his onslaught on the boiled egg for a matter of fifteen minutes,” time devoted to a “series of bendings and stretchings which in the course of time are guaranteed to turn him into a demi-god.”
A century later and physical culture once again pervades. Earlier this week, a colleague in London penned an article highlighting the growth in female sports as symbolic of a wider trend towards health and fitness in the U.K.
The U.S. is similarly bending and stretching under the spell, with traditional gyms augmented by boutique fitness centers and juice shops in the country’s great metropolises.
My colleague cited figures on the mushrooming market for women’s sporting clothes to emphasize the refocus towards personal wellbeing, while noting the community aspect of modern fitness fueled by the carbs of “celebrity and media.”
She is certainly right on the community aspect, with a strong argument that gatherings around fitness have superseded the church and synagogue — brick victims of secularism’s powerful strides. As such, health could simply be the latest expression of the human need to experience transcendental emotion beyond the individual.
The fitness center is, after all, the modern incarnation of a religious cult, one that leans back beyond Wodehouse, even beyond the “muscular Christianity” of the Victorians and into antiquity with the Romans and ancient Greeks using exercise as a preparation for war.
Yet the current flowering may have more immediate psychological drivers too. Wodehouse wrote about the push towards “physical culture” in 1914, a year bandaged by the tumult of war wrought on both citizenry and soldiery.
Likewise, the 2008 financial crash (and its economic and political aftermath) blanketed the hitherto comfortable West in doubt, insecurity and a profound sense of unease.
Whereas Europe and America’s portly middle classes once relied on a career delivering sufficient recompense to raise a family, buy a house, enjoy vacations, and save for a comfortable retirement, the 2008 meltdown broke the illusion.
Banks crumbled, interest rates plummeted, employment fell and wages stagnated. Meanwhile, restrictions on lending created a generation for whom homeownership — the most basic emblem of long-term security — was denied.
Meanwhile, the rise of the Islamic State abroad was paralleled by anti-immigrant sentiment at home, the rats of the far-right resurfacing from the pipes and sewers to once again spread the bacilli of intolerance and hate.
For a generation, the system’s upheaval highlighted a lack of control in the world, a psychological blow that led many to turn inwards, attempting to regain control via dominance over their own bodies.
In a society unrestrained and a future unknown, perhaps exercise regimes, healthy eating and mindfulness offered a return to the illusion or at least a way to cope with the stress therein.
Writing the year the Great War was unleashed, Wodehouse scoffed at how “the advertisement pages of the magazines are congested with portraits of stern-looking, semi-nude individuals with bulging muscles and fifty-inch chests.”
The author lived to be 93, having practiced his own daily exercise regime for more than 50 years. Were he alive today, he may well have noted the plates of healthy food, yoga poses and shirtless pull-ups similarly congesting Instagram.