Lotte Berk, Barre, and Your Flabby Thighs

Lotte Berk, Barre, and Your Flabby ThighsI’m a huge fan of barre. I even made my husband build me a ballet barre, something that isn’t totally necessary, but makes me feel hardcore (as hardcore as a ballet barre can make anyone feel). When I like something, I tend to overdo it. I also tend to research it, sometimes for no reason other than an odd fascination with how trends begin. This is how I came across the name Lotte Berk.

Before I talk about sad Lotte Berk, I should first define “barre.”

What is Barre

A lot of different brands capitalize off the “barre” name. Therefore, it’s not standardized, which is actually what I like about it. Lack of standardization means innovative and fun styles keep popping up. In general, the term “barre” refers to a mix of ballet, pilates, and yoga.

I’ve tried a few versions of the style, some focus more on pilates work, some accentuate the ballet moves. I was attracted to barre because my pelvic floor disorder requires low impact workout options, but I’ve stuck around because micro-movements burn in an awesome way.

That said, please be careful if you try any of the barre brands. Some pilates moves are not great for the pelvic floor unless they are modified, and many of the abdominal exercises will overload a postpartum tummy. Modify, modify, modify.

(Sidetone: I’m in no way affiliated with the brand Barre3, but their workouts are my favorite because they show modifications. It also happens to be one of least similar to the original Lotte Berk method. If you want to know my thoughts on some of the other brands, check out this issue from the newsletter archives.)

Who’s Lotte Berk?

When reading about barre, I came across many brands that advertised themselves as outgrowths of the “original Lotte Berk Method.” Indeed, the Lotte Berk Method© is copyrighted and still around.[1] My interest was piqued. Who’s Lotte Berk?

An internet search lacked heft, so I went straight to the source material— a used copy of The Lotte Berk Method of Exercise by Lotte Berk and Jean Prince.[2] After my Amazon package arrived, I made myself a cup of tea and prepared to be dazzled by barre’s foundational exercises. Instead, I got loss in an abyss of 1978 sexism.

The Lotte Berk Method

Be Tiny

Although I enjoy modern day barre exercise, sometimes I cringe when listening to instructors say things like “this is how you get a flat, firm tummy” or “practice this enough and you’ll get longer and leaner legs” (that’s not how anatomy works). Nevertheless, the workouts are good, so I make myself overlook some vapid body-centric language.

Conversely, The Lotte Berk Method of Exercise almost made me spit out my tea. Jean Prince and Lotte Berk make their goals very clear—to get women a youthful, SKINNY figure. Even if this type of language is implicit in many modern day fitness circles, the explicitness of the 1970s shocked me.

Ballet Beginnings and Biography

Lotte Berk’s biography is fascinating. She was a former (Jewish) ballerina who fled Germany for England during WWII. Through hard work and scrappiness, she re-built her dance career in England. She eventually left dance when her “need for love overtook her need for dancing” (i.e. because of a man).

The end of Berk’s dance career was the beginning of her fitness career, a career that would turn out to be hugely successful and influential. In the book’s “Introduction,” Prince describes Berk’s transformation from ballet dancer to exercise innovator:

with twenty years experience in modern ballet she dedicated her life to teaching women the art of obtaining a beautiful figure through exercise.

That sentence summarizes the book’s tone. The Lotte Berk Method = beautiful figure…even if this means depriving yourself.

How to Eat for Beauty

Berk and Prince emphasize deprivation in their advice about diet and nutrition. A blatant starvation diet is discouraged, but a blanket calorie range of 1000–1200 calories/day is un-ironically encouraged. That’s not many calories for the average woman. Indeed, Prince says this calorie range must not fluctuate, regardless of any energy exerted during exercise.

That’s insane.

To put this in perspective, I popped over to the Mayo Clinic Calorie Calculator to see how many calories I would need to maintain a body weight of 110 pounds at 5 feet 4 inches (I purposely chose the low end of my set weight point to give Berk the benefit of the doubt). I also clicked the “inactive” button to exclude exercise from the calculations. According to the Mayo Clinic’s calculator, I would need to consume at least 1550 calories to maintain 110 pounds! And if I changed my activity level from inactive to active, my calorie range jumps to 1850 calories/day.

I started to wonder who can actually maintain energy on 1000 calories/day. I played around with the Mayo Clinic calculator and couldn’t figure out how 1000/day was remotely feasible—even if I upped my age to 50 and lowered my weight to 100 (which would be scary skinny on my frame), I’d still need 1400/calories a day to maintain an INACTIVE lifestyle. Some women have very slow metabolisms. I get that. However, MOST women, even very small women, CANNOT live comfortably on 1000–1200 calories a day.

Furthermore, according to common sense, the more energy you expend, the more fuel (e.g. food) you must consume. Not so with the Lotte Berk Method. Prince writes, “Although Lotte burns up a lot of energy—spending every morning in her studio—she still keeps within 1200 calories a day to maintain her teenage figure.” Ladies, starve yourselves so you can look like a teenager. Awesome.

Prince details Berk’s diet. She consumed warm water, coffee, and toast for breakfast. She ate fruit for lunch, more coffee in the mid-afternoon, and a light protein meal with salad for dinner. Indeed, Lotte would invite people for lunch and present them with a single bowl of fruit, proclaiming the lunch “marvelous for the figure.” Without getting into the ins and out of nutrition science, it is clear that her diet lacked calories and protein. This was not healthy. I’d even say the book encourages a border line eating disorder.

Although I was already becoming concerned about the contents of my new book, I pushed ahead. Sadly, I exited the nutrition section of the “Introduction” as unpleasantly as I began:

Slimming, like exercise, is hard work. It needs determination, but those who learn to say ‘no thank-you’ find that all the effort is well-rewarded. For losing weight means more than just being able to wear a belt or tucking in your blouse, it can give you that intangible, but so exciting something which is so valuable—CONFIDENCE.

Reading Lotte Berk’s method of maintaining her “teenage figure” made me put down my tea and eat some real food, immediately. Constant hunger, too little protein, and an obsession with being thin do not stand in for confidence. I wonder how many women read this book and felt bad about their totally normal bodies. I wonder how many women started eating only fruit for lunch.

I was only half-way through the book’s “Introduction,” and I already felt profoundly sad for my mother’s generation.

How to Exercise for a Body Image Disorder

The “Introduction” got worse. According to Prince, dieting can make you thin, but it can’t shave the right inches. She writes, “with the exercises in this book you can improve your figure—cure bulging thighs, sagging stomachs, drooping bottoms and shapeless waistlines.” That sentence is a perfect example of body shaming. Instead of telling us how the exercises will help us physically, we are treated to a list of all our supposed flaws.

I put down my tea and suddenly realized why the language of modern day fitness irks me so much…because they are the more PC descendants of the explicit body shaming of earlier generations. We like to frame things as positives now. Instead of saying “get rid of drooping bottoms,” we say “firm your butt.” Instead of saying, “cure your sagging stomach,” we say “flatten your stomach.” Exercise isn’t something to do because it makes you feel good or because it improves your overall physical fitness. No. Exercise is meant to contain your overflowing flesh. Food is meant to be avoided, and slimness is the ideal.

The introduction ends with an admonishment to do the exercises every day because “a regular daily session is most important if you want to have a super figure.” Sigh.

So this is the program that started a fitness revolution… I don’t think I’ll ever look at my hardcore barre the same way.

Normal Vanity Versus A Body Image Disorder

What’s so bad about The Lotte Berk Method of Exercise? Isn’t concern about our appearance and weight normal? Shouldn’t we want our workouts to result in pleasant physical changes?

Sure.

Watching our bodies change is fun, and I consider it a nice perk of exercise. However, describing female readers as “flabby” and “lazy” is a form of body-shaming.

Still don’t believe me? Let’s take a look at the “Legs and Thighs” section of the book. Berk suggests we figure out if our flabby thighs are the result of too little muscle or too much fat. She tells us to pinch the flesh on our thighs. If we can pinch more than an inch we “are overweight and must start dieting.”

Why I’m Sad

I’m sad for the women of the 1970s who read this book and diligently tried the exercises in an effort to slim their “pudgy” midsections, firm their “flabby” thighs, or cure their “sagging” butts. I’m sad for the women who simultaneously cut their calories to 1000/day and dragged their fatigued and deprived bodies to the mirror where they diligently pinched their thighs to see if Lotte Berk thought they were fat.

And I’m sad for any women who do barre classes today with the same thoughts and goals circulating through their minds.

I’m also sad for the daughters. For example, Lotte Berk’s daughter—Esther—felt the full critique of her mother throughout her life. In a 2010 article for the Telegraph, Esther said, “I can’t get away from her. She haunts me every time I look in the mirror.”

She also haunts her readers. I’m ashamed to say I pinched my thighs to see if I passed her test. The result…I came to my senses and let go.

Why I’m Happy

But I’m happy for the women of the 21st century who have decided to reject the image of exercise and diet as a means to thinness and perfection. I’m happy for the women who have learned to accept their bodies. I’m happy for the moms who have learned that a woman’s worth is not determined by the size of her waist. And I’m happy for our daughters who get to see their mothers accept their forms, lead healthy lives, and delight in our bodies without succumbing to starvation, without unreasonable demands, and without a single-minded obsession with how small we can get our bodies.

Healthy is as healthy does. By that measure, the Lotte Berk Method of Exercise was a disaster for women’s mental health. But the methods of today can redeem barre by keeping Berk’s moves… and tossing her mindset.

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  1. My critique of the 1978 book is NOT a critique of the current copyrighted Lotte Berk Method©. I’m not familiar with the current brand and can’t speak for or against it.  ↩
  2. Lotte Berk and Jean Prince, The Lotte Berk Method of Exercise, London: Quartet Books Limited, 1978.  ↩

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