A Celebration of Women Writers

"Harmonious Adjustment Through Exercise." by Mrs. Minna Gordon Gould.
Publication: Eagle, Mary Kavanaugh Oldham, ed. The Congress of Women: Held in the Woman's Building, World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, U. S. A., 1893. Chicago, Ill: Monarch Book Company, 1894. pp. 660-663.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

[Page 660] 




"Oh saw ye bonnie Leslie
As she gaed o'er the border?
She's gone, like Alexander,
To spread her conquests farther.
To see her is to love her,
And love but her forever.
For nature made her what she is
And ne'er made such another."

Nature made her what she was, and therefore she was beautiful. We all love beauty. Much of our joy of living comes from our delight in the beauties of nature. "Our heart leaps up when we behold a rainbow in the sky or dances with the dancing daffodils."

It must have been a part of nature's plans that it should be so. And surely the beauty of woman's form is no less worthy of admiration than any other manifestation of God in His creation. Indeed, by many it is considered the masterpiece of nature. Macaulay said that the most beautiful thing in the world is a beautiful woman; and I am sure many another man has thought so if he has not said it; and the wish all women have to be beautiful seems to me as natural as for birds to sing or for flowers to exhale perfume. It is part of their mission in the world. Beauty means harmony, whether in music, painting, sculpture, or in the mind and body of man. A beautiful body is one which is harmoniously developed in all its parts, whose organs are formed as nature intended, and which perform their functions according to nature's laws. Any deviation from this standard is deformity. An abnormal body is not beautiful because it is not harmoniously developed. We all recognize abnormal development in the fashionable woman, who compresses her waist by means of corsets, but we can also see lack of harmony in the figures of many women who do not dress unhygienically. Bad habits of carriage, such as standing or sitting with waist muscles relaxed, and a consequent settling of the body into the hips, a rounded back with hollow chest; indolent habits of inaction, which tend to the accumulation of too much flesh; hard work, as in the case of the blacksmith, whose right arm and shoulder are developed out of all proportion to the rest of his body–all these are illustrations of abnormal, inharmonious development. The same thing is seen in the case of athletes, who often injure their health by undue exercise of some muscles of the body at the expense and neglect of others, especially in failing to maintain the balance between the organs that supply and those that waste the vital force. [Page 661] 

Harmonious development of all the parts of the body seems one of nature's great laws, if we would have health and beauty. And so imperative are nature's demands for harmony that when one organ is raised to the proper pitch, the other organs are often brought up to the same key; or when one organ is dragged down from its place, all the other parts of the body suffer. To illustrate: We all know that a well-poised head and full chest and flattened back are desirable from the standpoint of beauty. To acquire a full chest the lungs must be developed by exercise, and increased lung power means of course more oxygen in the blood, and better blood means everything better–better appetite, increased vitality and the consciousness of ability to attempt great things. Upon the other hand, when one part suffers from being thrown out of nature's harmony, all the other parts are sympathetically affected. For instance: A woman who wears high-heeled shoes which are too small for her feet, will experience many aches and pains, besides the comparatively insignificant ones of corns and bunions. The muscles of the feet being rendered useless, the calves of the leg are not developed, and the springy motion in the gait, so characteristic of health and happiness, is conspicuous by its absence. The effort to maintain an equilibrium, caused by the high heels, throws many of the vital organs out of place and gives rise to an infinite variety of ills. Even injury to the eyes is said to be one of the results of wearing tight shoes. When we reflect that few, if any, see our feet, and that everyone sees and notes our walk, it seems strange that we would ever be willing to sacrifice the great beauty of a graceful carriage to the far lesser charm of a trim foot, even if no consideration of health and comfort induced us to respect the natural requirements of our feet, instead of treating them as pegs for balancing the body. There can be no one exercise more beneficial to the body–the whole body–than a brisk, animated walk, with all the muscles of the body participating more or less in the movement; but such a walk is absolutely impossible when the various parts are impeded by the clothing, and when to the tight shoes and corset is added the incubus of a muff to restrict the movement of the arms, or long, heavy skirts to be held up, the lack of free harmonious action is well nigh complete. The object of my paper is to emphasize the value of exercise as a means to harmonious readjustment. There is always a tendency to the normal in all diseased or abnormal bodies, and if the hindrances are removed, nature herself will do much toward readjustment. At a recent medical congress, an eminent physician made the statement that "very few, if any, drugs cure; that educated physicians hesitate before asserting that they have cured their patients; that at best they but guide their recovery." Doctors recognize more and more the immense power of self-cure by readjustment to nature's laws, and instead of loading the system with powerful drugs which may do more harm in certain directions than they do good in others, it is sometimes the part of wisdom to stand aside and let nature act. And nature acts through motion. All her forces are but modified forms of motion. At any rate, all organic bodies require motion as a means of life. I will not speak of the ceaseless motion of inorganic nature, but if a human being wishes to live he must keep moving. It is motion that gives value to exercise, and not the straining of the muscles by gymnastic appliances of heavy dumb-bells and Indian clubs, etc. The less apparatus one uses in exercise the better. Thus there will be very little danger of straining the muscles and organs, and the muscular development will be more symmetrical, and grace and suppleness will be secured more easily than when weight is added to motion as a means of development.

A perfectly normal body, like that of a healthy young child, needs only the amount of exercise which his animal spirits secure for him. Such a one does God's will, and knows it not. But when unhealthy habits of dress or unhygienic habits of living have cramped the body and rendered useless certain organs, special exercise of those organs will aid them to regain their normal power in the quickest and best way. Since health depends upon motion, the clothing should be adapted to that need, and should conform to the shape of the body rather than that the body should be fitted to the shape of the dress, as our present fashion is. But while women are [Page 662]  afraid of ridicule for being odd, and are slaves to fashion, no amount of argument from an æsthetic or even hygienic standpoint will affect them. In vain you may tell them that beauty and fashion are not synonymous, as anyone can see by looking at the hideous grotesqueness of the styles of the past; that some of the most celebrated artists of today will not paint a woman's portrait until she has removed "those disfigurements," as they designate corsets, etc.; that the most noted house in London will not make a gown fashioned upon the abnormal, inartistic lines of the corset; that hundreds of the most intelligent women in this country and in England are striving for something better for themselves and their children in the way of healthful and artistic clothing. It is useless to refer to such other mistaken ideas of beauty as that which induces the women in some countries to insert a round piece of wood in the lower lip, and then gradually increase the size of the wedge and so enlarge the lip that it projects far beyond the place that nature gave it. A wedge two inches in diameter was in accord with the requirements of fashion, but four inches was the mark of an extremely stylish savage.

These arguments seem to fall for the most part on "stony ground," and the "thus saith" of fashion is as potent as ever with a large majority, even though obedience to her commands entails agony and deformity. "Oh Lord, make us all stylish," was the fervent prayer of a little girl I once heard of, and this, doubtlessly, is the sum total of many a woman's aspirations. So they cramp and distort their bodies, force their hands and feet into coverings much too small for these members and which destroy all semblance to the exquisite beauty nature shows in the perfect hands and feet of an infant, and make them almost useless. All this abuse of the body seems to be the result of a perverted notion that the female figure is not properly constructed and needs making over. But women are beginning to awaken to the fact that a large portion of the sideaches, backaches, headaches, nervous prostrations, etc., are nature's warning against the violation of her laws. I believe exercise and the consequent ability of relaxation to be the chief factor of health.

The other requisites of health are sleep, nourishing food, fresh air, clean linen and peace of mind. But exercise comprises in itself all the beneficial qualities of the others. Sleep has been rightfully called "the chief nourisher in life's feast." Loss of sleep and lack of nerve-control are among the most serious maladies of the present day. We are in such a hurry, and live at such a high pressure of nervous tension during the day, that we lose our ability to sleep, and thus fail to recuperate the nervous forces at night. Well-directed exercise which draws the blood away from the brain will give a much more healthful and refreshing sleep than that which is produced by narcotics.

We must also have nourishing food in order that we may have health; but no amount of nourishing food will help the body whose organs of digestion and assimilation are ruined. And what good will fresh air do one whose lungs are unable to perform their functions? But exercise, that gives health to the muscles, aids digestion and quickens the action of the heart and lungs. Peace of mind is impossible without that harmony of the nervous system which a healthy body secures. Thus we see illustrated the story of the old woman getting her pig over the stile. As soon as the fire began to burn the stick, the stick began to beat the dog, the dog began to bite the pig, and everything started in the way in which it should go. So, too, if you exercise, your appetite will be increased, your digestive organs will do their duty and nourish you. A well-nourished body demands sleep, sufficient sleep secures nerve-control, and so "a sound mind in a sound body" is the result. Health of mind, on the other hand, is necessary to health of body. We see plainly enough, in extreme cases of idiocy and insanity, that a diseased mind usually accompanies, if it does not result in, a diseased body; so, then, a diseased mind deranges the health, and as doctors can not minister to a mind diseased any more than they can to a sick body, with drugs simply, then here, too, harmony with nature's laws is the price of health and beauty. We reach the highest beauty of all when we attain the beauty of expression. Beauty in its highest manifestation does not consist in any one part, but in the harmony of the whole–mind, [Page 663]  body and soul. A face may sometimes be faultless in contour and coloring, arid yet fail to satisfy our idea of beauty, owing to a lack of expression. Expression is the painting and sculpture of the soul made manifest by the body, the radiation of character through the channels of expression. Physical exercise will fill those channels of expression when they have become choked by habits of stiffness and self-consciousness, and will restore the graceful suppleness, if not the unconscious grace, of childhood. A harsh, unmusical voice and awkward body can not well express sentiments of affection and sympathy; neither does a shrinking, bashful carriage denote courage and self-respect and kindred attributes which we value in our acquaintances. A fine bearing is a valuable letter of recommendation to any position, because of the qualities of mind supposed to underlie and to be expressed by this means.

When men and women study to know themselves and nature's laws working in their minds and bodies, and when they are ready to obey those laws as confidently as the chemist obeys the laws of chemical affinity, then shall we see mothers watching and guarding their children against the sins of the body as well as the sins of the soul. Our body, the temple of the immortal part of us, will not be considered bestial any longer, but will be sculptured into Divine beauty by the Divinity within. The lofty carriage and high courtesy of manner will reveal the noble tenant within.

[Page 660] 

Mrs. Minna Gordon Gould was born at Brockton, Mass. Her parents were Andrew McKeown, D. D., a Methodist clergyman, and Lina B. (Pease) McKeown. She was educated at Roxbury and Cambridge, Mass., and at Vassar College. She married Allen W. Gould, at one time instructor of Latin and Greek at Harvard College, and at present secretary of the Western Unitarian Association. Her special work has been in the interest of physical culture and improved dress for women. Her profession is that of public reader and teacher of elocution, physical and vocal culture, for which she is eminently qualified. In religious faith she is Unitarian. Her postoffice address is No. 175 Dearborn Street, Room 94, Chicago, Ill.


Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

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Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom