Bloggers / Next Act with Lois Gross

Working Out, Fifties Style

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Whenever I hear about the latest incarnation of trendy gym wear, be it overpriced Lulumom or Kate Hudson’s new line of workout duds, I think how fortunate young women are today to have bypassed the scourge of our adolescent gym wear, the blue gym bloomer. I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean to bring up your worst teenaged trauma, but this is something all Baby Boomer females shared, i.e. the ugliest gym clothes that young women were ever forced to wear.

If you went to a Philadelphia public school in the 1950s or 1960s, you will know exactly what I am talking about. Blue gym suit bloomers were one of the unforgettable experiences of my adolescence. It would take electroshock therapy to burn that image out of my brain. I understand from friends who grew up in different parts of the country that no one was spared this fashion-backward piece of clothing, although the colors and particulars of style may have varied slightly.

The classic gym suit was a one piece garment, shapeless except for the fabric belt that buttoned around the waist. The top of our bloomers looked like a classic bowling shirt, but we had to have our names embroidered on the shirt part. Labeling the garment was supposed to assure that no one would steal the gym suit from our lockers. The only question is why would anyone want to? Embroidered names also discouraged you from sharing your gym suit with friends. I know that that sounds unsanitary, but if you forgot your bloomers you hustled to find one you could borrow. If you didn’t have your gym suit for class, you got the dreaded demerit.  Perhaps it even went on your permanent record.  Suzy Cream Cheese child that I was (look it up.  It’s a sixties reference), I never forgot my gym suit.  Well, almost never. I do remember borrowing a suit once from a classmate. My name had a total of nine letters. My locker partner was Sharon Saslofsky — clearly not the same number of letters. When I borrowed her gym suit, I had to also find a cardigan to wear over it, and hunch my shoulders a lot to pass inspection.

I had an additional problem in that my gym suit didn’t look exactly like everyone else’s bloomers. Now, this is gross. I had a hand-me-down gym suit. Actually, being a youngest child, I had a lot of hand-me-downs. The second hand gym suit and the Girl Scout uniform were points of contention. Both had significantly changed style by the time they made it to me because there is almost a decade difference between my oldest sister and myself.  Also, cool girls had their names machine-embroidered on their new suits while my mother hand stitched my nine letters on my second hand one. I was, in every sense of the word, a marked woman. Not only was I the biggest klutz in the class, I was also fashionably challenged which is hard to do in the least fashionable piece of clothing ever invented anywhere, anytime.

If you had first period gym, you wore your gym suit under your skirt to school and just zipped off your skirt before class. You were supposed to take the thing home and wash it at least once a week, but the majority of girls just stuffed it in their locker and let it ferment. By summer, the gym had a decided aroma. My gym suit was always clean and pressed because my mother saw gym suit maintenance as her mission in life. The same applied to my white canvas sneaks that were an off-brand, not Keds, and had to be polished every week to chalk white perfection.

Do you remember squat thrusts? Jumping jacks? Sit-ups?  All the subtle forms of aerobic torture that we were put through in the name of fitness I read, not long ago, that our gym instructors taught us to sit-ups incorrectly. You are not supposed to have a 150 lb. girl hold your feet while you struggled to get upright. That isn’t the only stupid thing that gym teachers taught us. Can anyone give me a good reason why we had to learn to vault a horse, or climb a hanging rope? Have you ever had to use these important skills in daily life? Short of becoming a fireperson (and in the fifties, there were no female fire people), I can’t think of practical applications for much of anything I learned in gym class, other than how to cope with total humiliation when you are the last picked for each and every team.

Frankly, I had a pretty good gimmick to get out of most gym class exercises. Do you remember dodge ball?  I see dodge ball as an early precursor to The Hunger Games. Standing on the outer ring would be the select predators, girls with a laser-like aim throwing a ball at their puny prey. I had a simple way out of all these games that pitted able girls against my tribe of girls from District Fourteen, the District of the Uncoordinated.  I offered myself up as a human sacrifice. I would jump in front of the first volleyball aimed at me and sit out the rest of the massacre on the sidelines.

Then, of course, there was always the ever popular, “I have my period” gambit .Oh, come on.  You know you did it, too. You would look pale and pained, hunch over a bit, and claim a visit from “Aunt Flo.”  I think that most non-athletic girls had their periods a minimum of three times a month and would have gone for four if the teacher couldn’t document month-long hemorrhaging.

Then, of course, there was the final humiliation of the communal shower. Today, the behavior of gym teachers towards girls in showers would be, at the very least, highly questionable. Our teachers actually prowled the shower stalls to make sure that you were totally naked, fully immersed, and not just sticking your pinky toe into the moldy stalls and declaring yourself clean. There was a technique to getting in and out of the shower without getting your hair wet or contracting athlete’s foot, but it took practice to do it right.  In retrospect, if I had practiced gym exercises as much as I practiced avoiding the shower stalls, I might have improved my grade.

Ironically, I now exercise five times a week by choice. The invention of gaming systems like Wii and PlayStation make it easy to turn a narrow strip of your living room into a good facsimile of an exercise class. I also live in an apartment building with a fully functioning workout room on the first floor.  I never use it, but I pretend that I will, someday. When I don’t feel like working out, I skip a day.  No one knows or cares, except me. Actually, the older I get, the more dedicated I’ve become to my workout routine because I don’t want to end up looking like Yoda as a result of osteoporosis. I will confess that I still can’t dodge even a virtual volleyball, but when I put on my Just Dance programs, I move like Jagger and “dirty dance” like Baby Houser .

The beauty of home exercise is that I wear what I want which is generally what I’ve slept in, and the only one observing me is my dog who is wonderfully non-judgmental. He doesn’t even give me demerits for showing up in my husband’s borrowed t-shirt.

After Fifty Living™ was founded by Jo-Anne Lema, a genuine Boomer and member of the 50+ generation. As she likes to say, “Our enormous generation is charting new territory – we’re healthier, better educated, and more financially fit than any other generation at this time. And, as we march through history, 110 million strong – unique, new issues are developing. It’s exciting to be a part of the development and growth of This is a historic solution for a historic generation.”

Jo-Anne spent many years in the financial and operations side of higher education after having received a doctorate in education management and administration from Harvard, and an MBA from Southern New Hampshire University. Launching out on her own, though, has been the fulfillment of a life dream. Jo-Anne believes that “AfterFiftyLiving™ will delight its visitors, catalyze its partners, and will significantly benefit those who engage it.”

Residing in New England along with her husband of 35+ years, she never ceases to brag about her two children and 4 grandkids!

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