If you have three minutes and 43 seconds to spare and want to learn everything you need to know about the 1980s, look no further than Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical” music video. Complete with bubbly synth, polished gym equipment, and the starlet herself in an ultra-saturated (and highly impractical) workout getup, the number-one hit did more than shake Newton-John’s Grease-given good girl image. The video encapsulated a glossy, inescapable, near-fetishized cultural obsession that would go on to define the era for decades to come: fitness.
Fast-forward to 2020, as COVID-19 racks the globe and inhibits in-person social interaction, group fitness is one of the first luxuries to go. Hiking trails, pilates studios, and gyms of every echelon are closed for the foreseeable future, leaving their patrons scrambling to maintain a fitness regime with little more than a yoga mat and a few square feet of living room floor. While fitness YouTubers and personal trainer livestreams are ramping up views, many fitness buffs are digging through the archives for the grainy escape of ‘80s and ‘90s workout tapes. In one of the first weeks of quarantine, Outdoor Voices founder Ty Haney posted a video of herself wrist-rolling to OG workout queen Jane Fonda, complete with a baby blue leotard. Celebrity stylist Mellany Sanchez filled her Instagram stories with clips of a 1992 Cindy Crawford, stretching on a rooftop in Air Jordans and a teased hairdo.
Decades before smartwatches compared mile times and gym memberships differentiated income levels, the act of exercising was less calculated. Fitness of the 1980s and ‘90s, particularly that was geared towards women, was aerobics-based and lighthearted. Getting a workout in could mean as little as some neck rolls and breaking in a new leotard, in the comfort of your own home, to a soundtrack of encouragement from the era’s hottest celebrities. But before social media exposed exactly when, where, and with whom our favorite celebrities were exercising with a few taps of a smartphone, releasing a workout video was a star’s chance to crack a window into their routine.
As gym culture grew and VHS bit the dust, workout tapes faded from the norm by the early ‘00s—although many of their stars remain as recognizable and toned as ever. However, the tapes’ impact on the fitness industry, pop culture, and even feminism would prove to be as indelible as their sweat-glistened starring perms.
There were key ingredients to a successful and culturally enduring workout tape in the ‘80s: a perpetually color-coordinated, ultra-fluorescent rainbow of leotards, tights, leg warmers, and headbands bounced around a sterile, geographically ambiguous studio. The precise kitsch level varied depending on the frontwoman and intensity of the exercise, but the bar seemed to rise with every high-caliber celebrity.
There was the titan herself, Jane Fonda, who debuted her post-acting career in 1982 with a low-budget workout video that went on to sell over 17 million copies and launch a lasting empire. Jane Fonda’s Workout all but introduced the increasingly extravagant wardrobe norms of the era’s exercise films—the actress successfully stretches, squats, and jigs in a belted lavender leotard and matching leg warmers. Two years later, Raquel Welch followed suit. In the 1984 Raquel Welch Total Beauty and Fitness Program, the actress demonstrates how to achieve her lauded bombshell frame by doing yoga, mostly sans-mat, in a spaghetti-strap zebra print bodysuit.
In 1991, Cher busted the door open with her very own, very Cher take on the workout tape. CherFitness: A New Attitude revolves around one of Cher’s legendary dance routines, featuring very little spoken instruction and the songstress herself in her iconic “Turn Back Time” costume (an all-black, sheer mesh sequined leotard, with a built-in thong and garter-style thigh high legwarmers). For the step portion of the video, Cher tones it down with an apparently cardio-friendly corset leotard and belted tutu.
The “Supermodel Workout” genre emerged along with the role of the supermodel itself, as newcomers like Cindy Crawford and Elle Macpherson turned on the cameras and shed light on their career-defining body regimen. Crawford swept the supermodel workout genre in 1992, releasing Shape Your Body just as her star status began its global ascent. The nearly two-hour video cuts between Crawford wearing a sports bra and running shorts in a gym, doing arm circles on the beach with a slick bathing suit and flawless blowout, and finishing the workout by lunging in acid wash cutoffs.
At first glance, a thong-sporting glamazon seductively whispering how to lunge your way to a smaller dress size may not seem like a feminist message. However, the meteoric rise of at-home workout videos in the ‘80s were in fact a subversive attack on what was largely a male-dominated industry.
In 2015, Fonda re-released her iconic Original Workout on DVD. Before the 1982 tape rolls, present-day Fonda strolls on screen and credits her videos’ success to the fact that in their heyday, “most gyms were primarily for men.” She’s right—before pioneers like herself and Jazzercise’s Judi Misett came along, fitness culture catered to body-building machismo and not much else. Exercise in general was deemed unfeminine, with little opportunity beyond meek physical-education class requirements and little representation beyond groomed professional athletes.
When female-led workout tapes exploded in the early ‘80s thanks to the likes of Fonda, they not only allowed women to exercise in the privacy of their own homes, they also made it an unapologetically feminine experience. With every ounce of camp, every swipe of chalky eyeshadow, every bedazzled leotard, every perfectly coiffed perm, the saccharine tapes pushed women further into the fitness industry without a trace of imposter syndrome. The videos were never about fitting into the preexisting male mold of what exercise looked like, but about carving a new mold—a mold for women who wanted to break a sweat without bench-pressing, chugging protein, or losing sight of their feminine identity—and having genuine fun in the process. Even today, as gyms remain genderless and swanky boutiques replace at-home aerobics, studios like 305 Fitness mimic the carefree fun of ‘80s workouts while disregarding competition and performance-based metrics.
Even if most of the world’s VHS collection currently resides in attics or landfills, the candy-coated aesthetic of retro fitness will seemingly never stop echoing through pop culture. Cher and Ty’s Clueless makeover scene would be incomplete without a Buns of Steel cameo (not done sporadically, of course). Eighties-themed workout garb is a go-to theme for frat parties and birthday bashes alike, peppered with scrunchies and leotards, doused in nostalgia for an era that the participants likely weren’t yet alive to see. American Horror Story: 1984 first introduced its characters with nothing less than a full-blown jazzercise class, featuring a hip-thrusting Billie Lourd and pastel-coated Emma Roberts. The sugary hues and theatrical synchrony of retro workout tapes are a recurring character in countless music videos, covering all genres from Best Coast’s “Feeling Ok” to Kanye West’s “Fade.”
Through a modern lens, the effectiveness of retro workouts themselves are questionable—aside from updated personal training regulations that nix many of the bouncier moves, who can really break a sweat in a tutu? However, in this oddly dystopian time, the search for routine within parents’ fuzzy VHS tapes provides a welcome dose of solace over calorie-burning. The chipper videos are an entertaining time capsule, a news-free escape, and a rightful return to the women who bravely paved the way for modern fitness. Whether or not this isolation-fueled nostalgia bubble will survive after quarantine ends is uncertain. But, for every post-quarantine woman walking into the gym or strapping into her SoulCycle shoes, there may just be a new layer of respect for the leotard-clad ladies who made it all possible.END
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