At the close of the First World War, publisher John Long put an English translation on the market of the French book La culture physique de la femme: beauté et santé par la gymnastique rationnelle. Written by the French sports and physical health specialist Max Parnet, the book provides the reader with daily exercises she should do to stay fit and healthy. The Wellcome Trust estimate that the French edition was originally published in 1913. In its English translation, it was titled: Woman: Her Health and Beauty.
The bulk of the book consists of a weekly exercise schedule, which gives the reader six compulsory and one optional exercise for each day of the week. These exercises are accompanied by illustrative photographs of a woman in a bathing suit demonstrating them. The French edition, which contains the same photographs as the English edition, has been preserved by the Internet Archive. The exercises look familiar enough to anyone who has undertaken a fitness class, although they are all on the less vigorous end of the exercise scale. The book also spends some time instructing the reader in proper breathing techniques; this holistic approach to breath and movement can also be found in many twenty-first century approaches to fitness.
Before the book goes through the exercises, however, there are some 50 pages of text which set out a general argument as to why women should exercise. It is telling that John Long decided to publish the English translation immediately following the Great War. At a time when so many of the country’s young men had either died or been maimed, the book stressed the need for women to stay fit and healthy, explicitly linking female health to the health of the nation:
It is a service to the country and to humanity to make women understand the importance of physical culture, of which health is the principal aim.
Ten years before books like Sleeveless Errand exposed the mental toll to which young women who had survived the war were subjected, Woman: Her Health and Beauty encourages women to use exercise to improve themselves. However, it consistently couches the language of self-improvement in the context of becoming more beautiful. Rather than pursuing physical health as a goal in itself, women were assumed to want to be beautiful above all things.
True beauty depends especially on perfect health, that is to say, on the perfect harmony of the whole organism.
[we] do not aim at producing remarkable muscles which, in a woman’s case, would not be aesthetic, but only to acquire suppleness of the body and harmony of form.
A significant portion of the book’s introduction is devoted to arguing that high heels and corsets are bad for a woman’s form and health. If the French original was written in the early 1910s as suggested, corsets at that point had not yet been as fully abandoned as they would be in the 1920s. However, after arguing that wearing heels deforms a woman’s spine and corsets compress the chest, the book states that ‘civilization demands’ that women wear high heels and to suggest a woman should abandon the corset is ‘such a radical step [that] would bring ridicule upon us.’ Instead, women are advised to wear heels for as short a time as possible and not lace their corsets overly tightly. Women are instructed to adhere to the conventions of beauty over their own health.
This patriarchal tone pervades throughout the introduction, which states that
In consequence of her more delicate organism, certain exercises which are suitable to men, and even children, might be dangerous to women
women, as we have said, do not know how to breathe
The reader is also scolded for her perceived insistence to do things her own way and not follow the advice of the male experts:
The first requirement of rational and beneficial gymnastic exercises is to perform them in accordance with defined rules, and not according to the personal ideas of each individual.
The end result is a book that chastises women for not applying themselves sufficiently to the rational requirements of physical exercise, but at the same time holds out the promise that any woman can be ‘graceful and agreeable to look upon, provided that they take pains to suitably and completely develop their physical condition’. It gives women information about how fashionable clothes may be hurting them, but then tells them to keep wearing them anyway as it makes them beautiful. Ultimately, the book’s exercises are even presented as an inferior replacement for ‘real’ exercise such as horse riding:
Natural gymnastics are in reality the most salutary of all, and they alone are sufficient for health and beauty; but in our unnatural and civilized existence it is almost impossible for most people to indulge in them.
Woman: Her Health and Beauty is therefore a prime example of the type of self-help books that leave the reader feeling insufficient and at the same time offer up a path to salvation, gained through the rigorous adherence to, in this case, a daily exercise regime. It is not possible to trace how many women bought the book or followed its instruction (although there appears to have only been one edition of the English version published). The existence of Woman: Her Health and Beauty in the first place, however, gives an insight in how patriarchal structures created a space for women to be held personally accountable for the health of the nation following the war.
 Max Parnet, Woman: Her Health and Beauty (London: John Long, 1919), p. 19
 Ibid., p. 15
 Ibid., p. 22
 Ibid., p. 24
 Ibid., p. 27
 Ibid., p. 21
 Ibid., p. 35
 Ibid., pp. 29-30
 Ibid., p. 19
 Ibid., p. 49