Thursday, November 13, 2008

Book Review: The Frailty Myth

I have been athletic for the great majority of my life. In high school, I participated in multiple sports and it was then that I first started strength training. After training diligently for a year or so, I was finally able to proudly place 25-pound weights on each side of the bench press. When I had successfully completed a few reps at this weight, a middle-aged bodybuilder-type man walked up to me and instructed me to lighten the amount of weight I was lifting. The reason being, he informed me, was that the point of lifting weights for girls is to just get toned, not to get big and strong like him.

That's really almost word for word what he said to me.

When he told me this, I remember feeling guilty, like I had done something wrong that day in the gym. By progressing beyond the light "girly" weights that other girls lifted, I had broken some unspoken code in the weight room. If you've ever lifted weights at a public gym, you know what I'm talking about. Weights are divided into "his" and "hers." It's much more likely that a man will lift weights that are too heavy for him than his ego will let him use the "hers" weights. When I venture down to the heavy end of the weight spectrum, meanwhile, I always feel somewhat apologetic.

Looking back I can see that the muscular man was, on some level, threatened by me- a skinny 15-year-old girl. See, there is a myth in our society that has been perpetuated and maintained for many years- the myth that women are weak and men have a monopoly on physical strength and ability. When women expose this myth for what it is, some men become threatened. This myth is what Colette Dowling explores in her book The Frailty Myth. (All quotes in this review are from The Frailty Myth).

1. History of the Frailty Myth

Despite what some overly-defensive MRA-types will tell you, Dowling states outright that there was no concerted conspiracy to make women believe that weakness was "their natural condition." Dowling writes, "There wasn't a plot. No single group could be held accountable. What made the concept so powerful was the influential mix- the various groups whose interests came together into a single compelling philosophy about woman's purpose on the planet" (3). Rather, the frailty myth was maintained and perpetuated by various physicians, educators, psychologists, clergy, and others.

What was the frailty myth?

"The theory behind the frailty myth was this: Women could not be allowed to follow their own pursuits- physical or mental- because every ounce of energy they could generate was needed for maintaining their reproductive processes" (4). If you think about it, what better way to keep women out of the public sphere than to tell them that the future of humanity requires them to forego their every ambition? You know, I've written about how anti-feminism and anti-gender-equality ideologies are really affirmative action programs for men since their end goal is to keep women at home, where they can't compete with men for jobs. That's why you should be wary of people who still, to this day, insist that women's motherly duties prevent them from following their ambitions or pursuing careers. They're likely just out to maintain special rights for men in the public sphere.

For instance, physicians in the middle of the 19th century had a handy-dandy panacea for virtually any symptom a woman presented with: the "rest cure" (19). First off, the mid-19th century was notable in America because women were beginning to make some inroads into the public sphere. Yet, because of their ovaries, uteruses (uterii?), and vaginas, it was still believed that women weren't up to the task of living full lives. This myth became a self-fulfilling prophecy for physicians during this time. You see, what the rest cure "treatment" entailed was that a woman "was sent to bed and not allowed to sit up, use her hands, or read. The 'treatment' lasted up to eight weeks" (Ibid. emphasis added). How was this treatment considered in any way logical? Well, the theory at the time was that virtually every problem a woman faced was attributed to "the greater freedom they were beginning to gain." Therefore, the reasoning went, they should concentrate solely on domestic life (20). As an aside, this myth played an important role in the life of Jane Addams. Despite being placed on the "rest cure" for part of her life she endured these stereotypes and had a quite successful public life.

In the late 19th century, physicians re-framed this argument into a new scare-tactic. This threat, perhaps since it is the one thing that separates men from women, involved telling women that if they exercised too much, they would lose or harm their reproductive capabilities. (Oh, and as a note to self, doctors also advised against female cycling as "friction from the saddle would cause ladies to masturbate") (27).

Basically, as Dowling recounts in pretty good detail, "anything and everything was used to 'prove' that women couldn't cut it physically" (29). The running theme for much of our nation's history was that, unlike men, women were too weak and fragile to fully participate in physical activity. Even today, we have remnants of this type of thinking, as my bodybuilder friend reminded me when I was a mere 16-years-old. More broadly, men have excluded women for much of the modern Olympics. What I didn't know before reading The Frailty Myth was that women were allowed to the participate in the Olympics only in small, sport-by-sport increments during the 20th century. It wasn't until 1964 that the first team sport for women (volleyball) made its debut in the Olympics (169).

Today, despite remnants of the frailty myth, the top female athletes in some sports compete at levels comparable to that of men. The stronger, better, and faster that women get, the more this threatens men (192). To slow the advance of women, men have taken steps to deflect attention away from the fact that males and females actually are very similar (Ibid.). For one, even though there are no good reasons for having men and women compete separately in sports like fishing, bowling, shooting, and darts, some have insisted on keeping men and women separate in these sports.

"Another tactic has been the creation of minor differences in the rules, which makes it harder to compare men's and women's increasingly similar abilities" (193). Dowling, for instance, gives the example of archery, in which men shoot at 30, 50, 70, and 90 meters and women shoot at 30, 50, 60, and 70 meters. Personally, I've always wondered why girls have grown up playing softball and boys have grown up playing baseball. It just seems so arbitrary to change the rules of what is essentially the same game and then have boys play one and girls the other. In some sports that rely on strength and endurance, such as ultra-long distance running and long-distance swimming, women actually outperform men (219).

2. Becoming "Feminine" and "Masculine"

Dowling also treads into gender theory territory. She first notes that "so much gets determined by a concept [gender] that is basically 'socially constructed' or made up" (44). Basically, we don't know "what differences, if any, there are between the essence of what it is to be female and the essence of what it is to be male" (45). You know, I've asked anti-feminists and anti-gays what these essential biologically-based differences between the sexes are and no one's been able to hand me a list of man-traits and woman-traits. When I ask, for instance, what specific characteristics a man brings to parenthood that a woman just isn't capable of, the best I've gotten is "a man brings his fatherhood." Okay, but what specifically does this "fatherhood" entail and why couldn't a woman bring it just as well? It's just all very circular and, even though it's just "common sense" to some people that man = father, the rest of us are just left scratching our heads like "how is that a logical argument?"

Anyway, what we do know is that these gender "differences" are often used to deny rights and opportunities to certain groups- usually women and LGBT folk. For,

"Without difference you cannot have heirarchy, or one up, one down. You cannot have better and worse, strong and weak, superior and inferior. Heirarchy is how social inequality is maintained, and 'masculinity' and 'femininity' are about heirarchy. Supposedly 'natural' differences between men and women are used to validate the differences in the amount of social power they hold" (48).

For as much as some like to insist that masculinity and femininity are "complementary" and, thus, equal, we all know that isn't really how the world works. Stronger is better than, more than, weaker. And unfortunately, women are taught to be weak, rather than strong. "'Emphasized femininity' begins in the cradle, and it is something girls are taught (51). Studies show that parents raise boys and girls very differently. While boys are encouraged to be active, explore, and are left alone to play, girls receive negative reactions for running, jumping, and climbing (Ibid.). To summarize, these parenting trends continue through childhood and adolescence significantly affecting the physical competence and athleticism of girls. So, what often appears as boys' "natural aptitude" for athleticism and sports, is often really nothing more than the fact that they, when compared to girls, have been much more encouraged and taught to be athletic, coordinated, and good at sports.

Thanks to Title IX, athleticism is becoming an expectation for girls. Dowling writes "The mystique of innate ability has been penetrated and the truth revealed: high performance for women is eminently achievable" (76). Yep. One of the last bastions of hyper-masculinity- is being integrated. That's probably very threatening to some men and I have no doubt that's why they mock us. If you're a female athlete, I have no doubt that your "femininity" has been attacked at some point in your life. Such ridicule is meant to humiliate us so we'll crawl back with our tails between our legs back to our proper place in life.

3. Integration of Sports

Many men have fought desperately, almost to ridiculous levels, to keep women and girls out of sports. Dowling reminds us of the Little League Baseball "controversey" in which "Little League officials spent almost $2 million fighting to keep the girls out.... and where teams eventually voted to suspend activities rather than allow girl players. Whole families marched on the state capital in protest against the hideous possibility" (96). The fear here, of course, is the prospect of little girls being better at a "boy's game" than a little boy. That would shatter some very important myths in our society- namely that (1) there are Big Differences Between Boys and Girls and (2) that masculinity = stronger = better than femininity.

What has been key to the integration of women into sports, and what will remain key, are parents who encourage and support their daughters in physical activity.

Boys, you see, have already learned that they are entitled to sports and to the power that sports and physicality bring them. In fact, "in boys (and in boys only), athletic team participation has been linked with 'identity foreclosure,' or stunted identity- that is, psychological development that comes to a premature halt" (137). As I think back on the hyena-pack-like abusive natures of some of the male athletes I went to high school with, I can agree with that conclusion. Frankly, it sickened me to see these homophobic, entitled, and malicious boys glorified by the school, the town, and the local newspapers.

In conclusion, I greatly enjoyed reading this book. I grew up in the 1980s and 1990s and even then I felt, in the words of Doris Murphy, like a "weird girl, or a strange girl because I could play" sports. I grew up during a time before women had professional sports and before female athletes were shown on TV all that much. Yet, even then, I was cognizant of the unfairness of it all. I see now that I'm not weird, strange, or unnatural for being a good athlete and for wanting more than society was ready to offer me. Rather, it is those who have tried to hinder me along the way who were stunted and scared.

As I get older, I continue to play organized sports with other women and men and I enjoy being able to use my body in this way. I can't imagine a time in life in which I won't be active. Even when I really do become frail and of hip-breaky age, I'm sure I'll be in a pool somewhere with my Cocoon buddies. I have no doubt that being physically strong and interacting with other people on the field has contributed to success in my academic and professional life. That women have endured and thrived, in spite of myths that still often tell us it is our "feminine" destiny to remain weak and frail, shows just how not frail we are.

No comments: