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“Mentally superior children are born of physically superior people”: Bernarr Macfadden’s “Physical Culture” World and the Influence of Eugenic Thought in American Fitness Culture, 1900s-1930s

Olaf Stieglitz

Pages 241 - 264



This publication is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons License Attribution - NonCommercial - NoDerivatives 4.0. (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

This article analyzes U.S. fitness culture during the early decades of the twentieth century as a field of knowledge production and corporeal practice that helped to establish and normalize eugenics as part of popular culture within the white urban middle class. Using the widely distributed books and magazines from the publishing empire of Bernarr Macfadden as an exemplary case study, the article argues that fitness culture was effective and productive in transmitting the ‘science of eugenics’ into popular practices of self-management, combining ideas about life-long physical training with questions of marriage counseling, family planning, and health issues related to mothers and children. In relating the appeal of ‘scientific modernity,’ of university-trained experts and their insistence on efficiency as the ultimate ratio of an ordered society, to physical health and training as well as to citizenship discourse, the texts and images of fitness culture constituted a biopolitical ideal that operated against the backdrop of abject bodies that deviated from ‘normalcy’ in racialized, gendered, or sexualized terms or because of their supposed lack of physical capacity.

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