Strong, Beautiful and Modern

Strong, Beautiful and Modern

National Fitness in Britain, New Zealand, Australia and Canada, 1935–1960

In the late 1930s and early 1940s, a wave of state-sponsored ‘national fitness’ programmes swept Britain and its former colonies. Following revelations of the Nazi enthusiasm for government-backed sports and the organisation of mass leisure, the programmes quickly foundered. They probably laid, however, the foundations for the twentieth century’s obsession with fitness – a key facet of modern life.

In this highly original account, Charlotte Macdonald shows how governments became convinced that they must encourage citizens to be healthier and more active, and how these efforts reinforced the cultural ties of the Empire. Alongside these state-sponsored efforts was a growing emphasis from business, the medical establishment and popular culture on the importance of having a better body.

Strong, Beautiful and Modern explains the origins of the modern preoccupation with ‘the body’. And, at a time when government concern over public health issues such as obesity is once again on the rise, it offers valuable lessons as to why the first national fitness drive was ultimately a failure.

Drawing on extensive research, and written in vivid, lively prose, Strong, Beautiful and Modern is an historical investigation into the way that people and their governments think about their health and well-being, and how those historical views have shaped our modern life.

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Table of contents


1 Movement is Life: National Fitness in England and Scotland
2 Leisure and Democracy: Physical Welfare as the People’s Entitlement in New Zealand
3 Education or Health?: National Fitness in New South Wales and Across Australia
4 Fitness for War and a Changed World: National Fitness in Canada
5 Healthy Bodies, States and Modernity: A Twentieth-Century Dilemma

Print publication:
Ebook publication: Dec 2016
Pages: 240
RRP: $49.99
ISBN: 9781927131404
ISTC: A02201200002130D
DOI: 10.7810/9781927131404

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Listen to Charlotte Macdonald discuss her book with Kathryn Ryan on Radio NZ.


'A compelling history of modernity’s preoccupation with bodily improvement ... Balancing an impressive breadth of scholarly vision with deft readings of particular contexts, Macdonald also offers readers rich insights into the gendered dynamics of the modern preoccupation with fitness and bodily perfectibility.' Judges of the 2012 Ernest Scott Prize

'An outstanding book: fresh, original and panoramic.' Prof. Tony Collins, De Montfort University, Leicester

'... a careful, well-researched study of the shared fitness history of four imperial nations.' Caroline Daley, New Zealand Books.

'Strong, Beautiful and Modern is an engaging book covering an immense terrain, both conceptually and geographically. It is core reading for anyone interested in midcentury imperial culture, the history of British modernity, or sport and fitness in white settler nation-states.' Nadia Gush, Book Review, New Zealand Journal of History, 51.2 (2017), 141-142.


Shortlisted for the Ernest Scott Prize, 2012

The Ian Wards Prize, Archives and Records Association of New Zealand (ARANZ), 2012

The Australian Society for Sport History 2013 Book Award