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March 2015: Strong, Beautiful and Modern: National Fitness in Britain, New Zealand, Australia and Canada, 1935-1960

Reviewed by: Katie Pickles, University of Canterbury

Charlotte Macdonald, Wellington, Bridget Williams Books Limited, 2011. 240. pp. NZ$ 49.99 (paperback).

Health and fitness are at the heart of the history of the British world. Strong, Beautiful and Modern ambitiously focuses on the national fitness movement in Britain, New Zealand, Australia and Canada, exploring the connections, similarities and differences between these places. While it looks back to the beginning of the twentieth century, and also offers glimpses of what happened at the end of the century, the focus is on a distinct historical mid-century moment, where a focus on the body and national prowess were sharply and deliberately defined.

The unifying history for this book that would be missed by studying each nation in isolation is that between 1937 and 1943 Britain, New Zealand, Australia and Canada all passed legislation to encourage physical fitness beyond the school years. It was popularly called ‘national fitness’ and ‘physical welfare’.

It is Macdonald’s intention to firmly situate her study within a British world framework. Indeed, she argues that the national fitness movements were ‘part of a connected whole, one that can be fully understood only by reference to its empire-wide frame’ (p. 20).

Macdonald clearly and effectively explores the construction of national fitness, using the group of transnational legislative acts as her scaffolding. This structure allows her to feed in a wide variety of historical material, and to reveal much about the history of sport, leisure and fitness in the 1930s and 1940s.

Chapter five offers the breathing space to broadly analyse ‘Healthy Bodies, States and Modernity’. It is an excellent and substantial chapter where the issues canvassed in the preceeding chapters are brought together and analysed.

The first four substantial chapters of the book focus on the principal characteristics of the national fitness campaigns in each of the nations where they were introduced. With keeping up with Europe as an incentive, England and Scotland were first with the first Physical Training and Recreation Act (1937). Throughout the book, Macdonald balances the ideology with the pragmatic financial side of national fitness, exploring where funding for the programmes came from.

While the first four chapters are split by nation, comparisons between nations are offered throughout. For example, at the end of the New Zealand chapter the presence of a strong masculine culture in the country’s sport is tantalizingly suggested. In the Australian chapter, eugenics and the perceived perils of urbanization loom large. The Canadian chapter views national fitness as defending local culture from American influences. It relies heavily on the ‘Pro-Rec’ (Provincial Recreation) Movement. The work of Jan Eisenhardt features in this chapter. An example of the tentative and controversial associations of national fitness, he suffered persecution in the Cold War climate. Chapters maintain a focus on the prominent men in the movement in each country, such as Gordon Young in Australia.

Indicative of the challenge of writing transnational history, investigation of the development of national fitness in each included nation would have been enough to examine. An immense amount of research has gone into this deep and thoughtful book. Macdonald has visited archives in the three countries. She draws on legislation, films and audio and books and articles from the time. Her secondary sources are likewise extensive and the footnotes are helpfully expansive.

There are useful illustrations throughout the book that serve to emphasise Macdonald’s argument that national fitness as national ideology was largely dropped as a state strategy due to its association with similar methods in Nazi Germany. With hindsight, the posters and images of national fitness are largely staged and come across as haunting propaganda. Images of the Berlin Olympics appear hauntingly throughout the book.

It is Macdonald’s longstanding expertise in feminist history that enables her to make a sophisticated contribution to scholarship. Gender analysis is hardwired into and mainstreamed throughout the book. For example, in England, the Women’s League of Health and Beauty with Mollie Bagot Stack at its head was important. Macdonald argues that a feature of the modern moment was a focus on both boys and girls.

Macdonald is fascinated by how the personal was political, arguing that ‘To be strong, beautiful and modern became a personal as well as a collective endeavour’ (p. 10). That endeavor had much to do with notions of imperial unity that had been fermenting since at least the beginning of the twentieth century. Indeed, there are echoes of muscular Christianity, voluntarism, environmental determinism, the advance of indigenous peoples and eugenics throughout the national fitness programmes. What situates the study in the 1930s and 1940s is the modern moment and the state’s desire and ability for mass exercise as never before. For example, the broadcast of fitness exercises on the radio represent ‘a convergence in the history of states, bodies and modernity’ (p. 10).

Strong, Beautiful and Modern is a fine example of writing the history of the British world. It is thoughtful, complex and resists celebrating the national fitness movement. It also resists dogmatic treatment of a British world in favour of a deep and broad transnational view of the past. Meanwhile, it subtly leaves readers to ponder the importance of personal and national fitness right up to the present day.

 

 

 

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