Wellness, Bodies, and Selfhood in the Modern United States

Endorsed by the OAH Committee on Disability and Disability History

Friday, April 3, 2020, 1:00 PM - 2:30 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Gender; Science, Medicine, and Public Health; Social and Cultural


“Your body is just the beginning.” In 2019, this slogan and its many variants represent a popular marketing strategy to sell scores of products that promise that the real results of a bodily regime – usually diet or exercise – will be metaphysical. The appeal of such messaging, prevalent in posh private medical practices and strip-mall supplements stores alike, rests on a widely shared assumption that care of the body yields loftier returns than beauty or longevity, and that pursuing these often emotional, spiritual, and intellectual ends is a core commitment of contemporary life. But how has this assumption emerged and why has it become so powerful? How have marginalized groups constructed this ideal differently and fought for the right to pursue it, at times with conflicting strategies? By reaching back more than a century and moving beyond the marketplace to community organizations, the medical profession, and the halls of government, this panel will explore how Americans have articulated personal health as part of a collective, often political, project.

Spanning the 20th and early 21st centuries, the research highlighted on this panel demonstrates that as “wellness,” broadly defined, has become an increasingly crucial facet of self-actualization, the ability to achieve it has been far from even, and there has been no single definition of what it has meant to be “well.” While there have been recent historical attempts to make sense of the American pursuit of fitness, the papers on this panel argue that we need an intersectional approach and that no single narrative of fitness or wellness is possible. Instead, this panel builds on historiographies of politics, race, gender, and health to consider the ways in which diverse Americans grappled with their own definitions of fitness. We build on histories of health and fitness in the United States by scholars such as Alondra Nelson, Shelly McKenzie, Samuel Roberts, and Jonathan Metzl to explore both how these structures have emerged and how Americans have both upheld and resisted them to promote the pursuit of physical and mental health.

Ava Purkiss argues that in the early 20th century, black women augmented their public health campaigns by integrating exercise into their health activism. Black women promoted exercise as not only a public health good, but as a physical act that had implications for real and imagined forms of racial competition and posterity. Rachel Louise Moran turns to the 1960s and 70s, when a growing feminist women’s health movement took up postpartum depression, but struggled to reach consensus about whether the challenges that mothers faced were about individual wellness or about structural inequalities.Finally, Natalia Mehlman Petrzela historicizes the post-9/11 consensus that exercise is imperative to full selfhood, even as opportunities to engage in fitness activities have become increasingly privatized, rendering wellness another marker of inequality in the modern United States. Moderator Jennifer Nelson will draw on her scholarship on health activism in the United States and abroad to contextualize the American examples we explore.

Papers Presented

It’s Not Working Out: Fitness and Inequality in the 21st Century

The attacks of September 9, 2011, shook faith in American ascendancy and wreaked havoc on the U.S. economy. Curiously, the fitness industry prospered. This paper argues that after 9/11, fitness, often rebranded as the more holistic “wellness,” was no longer considered a frivolous leisure pursuit, but a core requirement to full selfhood in an age of uncertainty. The apparent diversity of the fitness marketplace reflected the universalism of this assumption: once-marginal yoga that asked people to “let go” as a form of “self-care” surged in popularity. At the same time, tracking enthusiasts quantified every step and calorie. Gleaming boutique gyms opened in affluent zip codes, while Crossfit and its stripped-down, militaristic “boxes” attracted cops, cadets, retirees, and single mothers alike. Diverse as these offerings might seem, all championed cultivation of the body as a path to health, community, and success… and all were available for purchase in a private, consumer marketplace. This era did offer a glimmer of hope for a more inclusive, public investment in exercise as the Obamas made democratizing fitness a policy focus as had John F. Kennedy a half century earlier. Yet the Obamas differed in focusing their efforts on working-class people of color rather than affluent white suburbanites, signaling a shift in whose bodies had become problems to fix with a personal commitment to fitness that had become often difficult to access. Nonetheless, such policies unquestionably expanded the emancipatory aspects of exercise as for everyone and reinvigorated a public responsibility to ensure this right, though as the Obama years closed, fitness stubbornly remained another sign of growing income inequality.

Presented By
Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, The New School

Fit Bodies: Black Women’s Exercise and Public Health in the Early Twentieth Century

In 1929 Mary E. Williams, a black registered nurse, emphasized “diet, exercise, and air” while attending to expectant black mothers in Alabama. She used these elements of physical culture to “decrease the death rate of mothers and babies” and more generally, to encourage physical fitness in her patients. Williams represented one of many African American public health workers, physical education teachers, reformers, and athletes who used exercise to bolster the health prospects of black people in the early twentieth century. This paper argues that black women augmented their public health campaigns by integrating exercise into their health activism. Black women promoted exercise as not only a public health good but also a physical act with implications for real and imagined forms of racial competition and posterity. This paper describes, for example, how black girls and women who achieved fitness through exercise could better the race and secure its future existence during the era of physical culture. It shows how physical culture influenced racialized and gendered narratives of wellness, and posits that exercise is critical to the history of public health and black constructions of health.

Presented By
Ava Purkiss, University of Michigan

Good Adjustment? Negotiating Postpartum Depression in the Women’s Health Movement

In the 1950s and 1960s, discussions of postpartum mental illness were often shaped by psychoanalytic theory, and they blamed women’s frigidity and repressed lesbianism. By the 1970s, though, postpartum depression became a feminist issue. As the feminist women’s health movement grew, it had to strategically negotiate the medicalization of child birth and women’s suffering. In many cases this meant the rejection of the medical establishment and an embrace of midwifery and home birth. For postpartum depression, however, there was no consensus. Increased attention to maternal mental health, especially this new diagnosis of postpartum depression, meant attention to women’s emotional distress after birth—something women’s health activists desperately wanted. It helped some women get psychological help and occasionally even a legal defense. Yet the same discourses that could be useful for individual women risked reifying the idea of women as mentally unstable and ruled by their hormones, and risked naturalizing establishment ideas about maternal adjustment. It also complicated arguments about whether women’s depression should be understood as individual or societal, and what the threshold for mental disease was. In the 1970 Boston Women’s Health Collective described “what little research has been done” on postpartum depression as “heavy with male bias and conventional attitudes about motherhood,” but they still did not reject hormonal causes entirely. In the years that followed, activists increasingly embraced more medicalized interpretations. I engage with histories of medicalization, the antipsychiatry movement, and 1970s feminism to explain the early but incomplete embrace of the postpartum depression diagnosis in the women’s health movement.

Presented By
Rachel Louise Moran, University of North Texas

Session Participants

Commentator: The Audience

Presenter: Rachel Louise Moran, University of North Texas
Rachel Louise Moran is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of North Texas. Her first book, Governing Bodies: American Politics and the Shaping of the Modern Physique, was published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in 2018. She is now working on a book on maternal mental health in the modern U.S., tracing how changing psychiatric diagnoses of postpartum disorders have shaped and been shaped by gender politics. Moran has published on politics, gender, and health history in the Journal of American History and in several edited collections, most recently in Shaped by the State: Toward a New Political History of the Twentieth Century. Her work has been supported by a number of entities, including the National Science Foundation, the Miller Center for Public Affairs, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, and the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists.

Presenter: Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, The New School
Natalia Mehlman Petrzela is Associate Professor of History at The New School, where she researches and teaches about the politics and culture of the United States, with a focus on issues of gender, race, identity, and class in the postwar era. Her first book, Classroom Wars: Language, Sex, and the Making of Modern Political Culture (Oxford, 2015), explores the roots of the culture wars in American public schools, specifically amid heated battles over sexuality and bilingual education. Her current book project, FIT NATION: How America Embraced Exercise as the Government Abandoned It is under contract with University of Chicago Press. Her scholarly work has been supported by the Spencer, Whiting, and Rockefeller Foundations and has been published in journals, edited volumes, and academic online publications such as the Society for U.S. Intellectual History Blog, Notches, Public Books, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and the Chronicle of Higher Education. She is also a co-host of the Past Present podcast. Natalia frequently comments as an expert historian in diverse media venues such as Brian Lehrer TV, The History Channel, The Atlantic and the New York Times and her writing has appeared in publications such as The New York Times, Slate, The Washington Post, Refinery29,The Huffington Post and Well+Good, the national online magazine where she often writes about “fitness history.” She is co-founder of HealthClass2.0, an experiential health education program that bridges a wellness gap in public school education and connects university mentors with K-12 students. She holds a B.A. from Columbia College and a M.A. and Ph.D. from Stanford University, all in History.

Presenter: Ava Purkiss, University of Michigan
Ava Purkiss is an assistant professor in the departments of American Culture and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan. Her research and teaching interests lie at the intersection of race, gender, and health. Her book manuscript, titled Fit Citizens: A History of Black Women’s Exercise, 1900-1960, examines how physical exercise enabled black women to express both literal and figurative fitness for citizenship. Purkiss received her Ph.D. in history from the University of Texas at Austin in 2016 and is the recipient of the 2017 OAH Lerner-Scott prize for best dissertation in U.S. women’s history. She has held fellowships at the Carter G. Woodson Institute at the University of Virginia and the American Association of University Women.