Sculpting An American Self: Wellness Culture in the Postwar United States

Today, a fascination with fitness is everywhere. The White House hosts children’s yoga on its sprawling lawn, legions of ever-busier Americans daily take time away from their families and jobs to sweat through spin classes in darkened rooms, train for races to raise funds for medical research, or to master dance-fitness routines or punishing “WODs” in a proliferating number of studios. Upscale gyms routinely raise millions in private equity investment, and “athleisure” has gained such widespread acceptance that even the nearly half of Americans who do not exercise might show up to dinner or grocery shopping in “yoga pants,” a modern staple of casual fashion virtually unknown until the 21st century. (A slew of new fitness-themed reality television shows also enables a more passive participation in modern exercise culture). The last sixty years have witnessed the emergence of a veritable “wellness revolution” in the United States, as a wide range of citizens and consumers devote remarkable attention and resources to self-improvement through the cultivation of their bodies, but also of their minds, hearts, and spirits. My newest research locates the modern origins of Americans’ energetic and expensive pursuit of “wellness” in the 1950s — though the word itself was still a rarity in the late 1970s — and explores the promise and problems of these body projects until our current day to understand how  these apparently physical pursuits have become inextricably intertwined with attaining not only a sculpted body but also self-fulfillment, moral authority, and fitness for citizenship.