Reviewed by Eva Rincke: Review of Mensendieck’s “Body Culture for Women”
Title – Körperkultur des Weibes [Body Culture for Women]
Author – Bess Mensendieck
First published – by Bruckmann in 1906
221 pages (including 32 pages of pictures of exercises demonstrations)
Available – vintage bookstores (sometimes you can find a copy on Amazon)
[I couldn’t find an English translation of this book. Mensendieck’s book “Look better, feel better” published in 1954 in the US is very different, though also interesting.]
Bess Mensendieck’s book “Körperkultur des Weibes“ is an informative book about the body and it’s history, it’s an exercise book and also a manifest. The author is attempting to change her female contemporaries’ notion of the body.
The book has a theoretical part and a practical part explaining and illustrating the exercises the author has developed. In the first part of the book the author who has studied medicine is discussing notions of the body and body practice in history and the current state of affairs. She is very critical about the way women are treating their bodies and their lack of knowledge about it. The reasons for the bad state of most women’s bodies in her point of view are the Christian hostility towards the body, the way educated people value the mind much more than the body and nonsense dress codes that force women to wear a corset. For Mensendieck this is not only a health issue, but also a question of aesthetics. She’s promoting a new awareness of the body and a reform of physical education.
The 17 chapters of the theoretical part of the book contain many interesting thoughts – I’ll try to mention the most important aspects. In the second chapter which is called “Körperpflege in Amerika” [Body culture in America] in which she is giving a detailed account of Genevieve Stebbin’s work and her adaption of the Delsarte system. Delsarte’s principles of energizing and relaxation are important for her own work and the way she is explaining these principles and giving very specific examples is in my opinion one of the strong points of her book.
Mensendieck is referring a lot to body practice and notions of the body in ancient Greece. Throughout the book there are pictures of Greek statues as examples for good posture and beauty.
Another very interesting part of the book is the chapter about “Kraftersparnis” [Saving in Power]. On page 28 she is naming nine principles which are important for her own approach: 1. Saving in Power, 2. Controling one’s movement range, 3. awareness of space, 4. alignment, 5. rhythm, 6. Ladung [loading or charge], 7. breathing, 8. energizing, 9. relaxation
To explain her notion of “controling one’s movement range” she is giving the example of a running horse as opposed to a “cart horse from Mecklenburg”.
While many ideas in her book are still very interesting and inspiring to read although 110 years have passed since she wrote it – there are also some aspects of the book which are not timeless at all. For example: she is always referring to women’s obligation to produce children, and encouraging women to be healthy so they can fulfill this obligation and the “obligation of race”. She is talking about race a lot – though she’s most probably referring to the human race as a whole and not to the supremacy of any race. Still this kind of vocabulary keeps reminding the reader today that the book is a child of it’s time.
Then there’s the exercise section: Bess Mensendieck is giving detailed instructions how to perform her exercises and at the end of the book there are pictures illustrating some of the exercises. The pictures are very interesting, though unfortunately they are not sorted in the same way as the exercises making it difficult sometimes to find the matching picture for an exercise. There are exercises starting from a standing position, like stretches to the front, to the side, spine twists, leg lifting. Among the exercises on the floor there is a shoulder bridge exercise and leg circles. Bess Mensendieck is encouraging her readers to perform her exercises very slowly and not to over-exercise and get exhausted. Before starting any exercise, she writes, it’s most important to hit the stride position and concentrate, because like this the exercise will be more effective and injuries will be prevented.
There are several exercises which should be performed “von der Zentrale aus” [working from the center]. Mensendieck is introducing the notion of the “Zentrale” or “Zentralstelle” as she sometimes calls it on page 149 where she is explaining how to lift the legs. The muscles she’s referring to by the notion of “Zentrale” are explained more explicitly in her book “Funktionelles Frauenturnen” from 1923 on page 107: „Zentrale“ I called that part of the back, which comprises in regard to the sceleton the sacrum, the pelvis and the five lumbar vertebrae.”
I’m recommending to buy the book! Even if you can’t read German, you can look at the pictures and get an impression about Bess Mensendieck’s method.