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How Pilates Became ‘Feminine’ (and Why It’s Not Really)

John Howard Steel, author of ‘Caged Lion’ and one of the last living students of Joseph Pilates, on how Pilates went from a spartan gym class to ‘looking like a beauty parlor’

In Caged Lion: Joseph Pilates and His Legacy, John Howard Steel reflects upon the history of the fitness regime and the life of its creator. As one of the last living students of Pilates himself, Steel has witnessed the development of Pilates as an exercise empire nearly from its inception. But while Pilates today has thousands of chic studios and a largely female demographic, the regime itself was invented by Joseph Pilates as he was imprisoned with fellow German citizens during World War I, and was later developed into a spartan gym program. I recently spoke to Steel about the transformation of Pilates over the last century, and why more men should return to the practice.

In your book, you present a history of the Pilates movement that contrasts greatly with what Pilates looks like today. How do you think contemporary Pilates became feminine?

The feminization of Pilates, I think, occurred after or around the same time that Ron Fletcher became involved in L.A. in the mid-1970s. Up until then, it was very asexual, but it was also slightly masculine. Joe referred to it as a gym — he was quite masculine in his teaching technique. You sweated a lot in it. There were none of the, what we might erroneously call “feminine” attributes. Women all had to wear the same clothing — it was just leotards, and it had to be plain. There was no effort to look good or anything like that.

When Romana Kryzanowska became manager and chief instructor, she introduced ballet dancers as her helpers who were mostly young women. That started to feminize it in subtle ways. Ballet dances are amazing dressers. When they’re off-duty and you could see them around the city, they just had a sort of — it wasn’t grunge, but it was a very free way to dress. That’s how they started to dress in the gym, and the women who came there started also to spice up their outfits. 

When Ron Fletcher opened a studio on Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills and attracted Jane Fonda and Raquel Welch, it became what I thought of as feminine. The women who he attracted were extremely feminine, and other women were attracted to Ron Fletcher’s because of those women, because of Fonda and because of many other celebrities. It started to look like a beauty parlor — the reception area, the woman behind the desk, a receptionist taking appointments and ushering people into changing rooms. The attraction for women became kind of social in a way, it was like SoulCycle. The people would talk to one another a lot before and afterwards, and sometimes during. None of that happened during Joe’s period. 

It gradually just became something that women became more attracted to than men. At the same time, women became attracted to teaching it and owning studios. If you go on the internet and look for Pilates teachers today, you have a bit of a struggle to find men. But men are coming back to it in droves. One of the reasons is that they’re all becoming aware of how inflexible they are. They’re also coming back because their girlfriends, their wives or their daughters are saying, “You really have to do this for your long-term health.”

I notice at the studio I go to, there are even men’s classes and men’s groups, and many men take private lessons. The men that do come back to it, even though they’re an older demographic, they really stick to it. They’re very devoted to it, just as there were men devoted to it back when Joe was alive. I’m very encouraged by that.

Do you think the physical practice of Pilates has transformed much over the last few decades? How closely does it resemble the Pilates that you were doing as Joe was introducing it?

It’s hard to answer that in a clear, distinct way, but it needs to be addressed and answered. The Pilates of today is visually, if you see it in action, very different from the Pilates of Joe Pilates’ time. The studio doesn’t look anything like Joe’s, and the people in the studio don’t look anything like the people in Joe’s. And there are 10,000 American teachers, all of whom add their own self to the instruction. So you would think, Wow, it’s got nothing to do with the old Pilates

But the simple fact remains that it is the old Pilates. The equipment, for example, is functionally identical to the stuff Joe started to develop almost 100 years ago. The reformer is functionally no different than the reformer he made in 1928 or 1929. It’s the same exactly — it has maybe a more colorful upholstery. It may have more alternatives — you could have five different springs instead of four of the same spring, three positions on the foot bar instead of just two — but it works exactly the same. That, of course, is the primary piece of equipment. The mat is also pretty much the same, it’s all adhering to the basic principle of Pilates of getting in touch with motion, how it works, what makes things happen in your body when you try the move and thinking about it. It’s consistent with this concept that Joe had. 

So the answer to the question is, yes, it’s very different, and thank heavens for that, because it was a failing business! What Joe had, it was never really a business; it was his personality and charisma. It failed with Romana. When Ron got involved — Ron Fletcher and celebrities — that’s where it changed and became this open system. It’s succeeded remarkably. So yes, it’s very different, but it’s still the same. The changes have made it a viable business that millions of people do and enjoy and benefit from. So they’re all wonderful, in my opinion.

How do you think men, in particular, could benefit from taking up Pilates?

Pilates has nothing whatsoever to do with gender. I was a college tennis player and squash player and then afterwards, I played competitive team squash in New York, which is a very tough environment. I was always in what I thought was good shape, until I went to Joe. A lot of sports, especially golf, are one-sided sports. Basketball, maybe not, although you talk to any pick-up basketball player and they’ll definitely tell you they’d rather shoot from the right side, they’d rather take to the left, whatever. But the point is, the attraction for Pilates for everyone is that it straightens you out. It makes you symmetrical, and you have to be symmetrical to do it. You get out of a session of Pilates, and your shoulders are back and down, because just an hour ago, you did the exercises that made it feel better.

All of this happens without you having to take notes or remember it or anything. You walked out of that session, whether you’re a man or a woman, and your body says to you, “Wow, that helped. It worked.” Men tend to become lazier as they get older. They tend to sit more, they move less. Pilates reverses all of that and starts to create a flexibility in their body. No, they’re never going to be able to bend down and put their elbows on the floor, but they will be able to touch their toes and do their toenails and tie their shoelaces and do all kinds of things they couldn’t do before. They feel better about themselves, too. Physically, they start to look better. Their clothes look better. They’ve become sexually both more attractive and more vigorous. 

I can tell you there’s a ton of basketball players, football players, tennis players and many golfers that do it religiously. They have reformers in their home. Their body becomes more fluid and moves better. They’re more conscious of it. That’s the attraction. It’s work and it takes time out of their day, but it’s worth a try. I think men can find it very rewarding. It’s merely about getting a horse to water.