Thursday, September 25, 2008

Recommended Read: The Frailty Myth

When the Olympics were on, the Boyfriend and I were sitting on the couch (most likely in our underwear, as per usual) watching the rowing competitions. Suddenly I had a revelation: There were no women on the rowing teams. Gender segregation in sports has always bothered me, but this suddenly seemed especially ridiculous. There isn't even any contact in rowing! Just some folks, sitting in a boat, pulling those oars with all of their might. Why aren't more women in the boats?

So I pointed this out. Boyfriend offered that perhaps women, possessing less muscle mass, are simply not able to row as quickly as males. Maybe if we could see women row, he suggested, we would see that their times don't match the men's, leading teams to recruit only men.

As if on cue, the women's rowing competitions started up. Sure enough, the women, although equally muscular-looking and impressive, were pulling longer finishing times. I can't remember what specific rowing competition we were watching, or the specific team winners and times. But for comparison purposes I went to and looked up a few: In lightweight women's double sculls final A, the final winning time was 6:54.74. In lightweight men's double scull's final A, it was 6:10.99. In the same competition, the slowest women's time was 7:04.61; the slowest men's was 6:19.96.

This is obviously not a scientific sampling, and there are a lot of other races to compare, and I'm by no means claiming to be doing something scientific here (stand back! I'm going to try science!)
But seeing these results really irked me, because I wanted those girls to pull equal times. So that got me to thinking: Really? Are we really weaker? Those women must train SO HARD to be there, I'm sure as furiously as the men train. And they still don't pull even times? That's a lot of cognitive dissonance for me, because I'm a firm believer that the only "natural" difference between men and women is that women have hoonannies and men have willy-wankers and everything else is societally constructed.

So, like I always do when I feel conflicted, I googled it. And I found this really great book, The Frailty Myth: Redefining the Physical Potential of Women and Girls, by Colette Dowling. And I ordered it. And I love it and I think it should be required reading for everyone, and should be taught in gym classes across the nation.

I'm not quite finished with it yet, because I'm also reading Anna Karenina and The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster at the same time. But so far it's banishing the nagging, itchy, dirty feeling of doubt in my head that women really are the weaker sex and there's nothing we can do about it. It's also making me feel guilty about being skinny, never exercising, and never participating in sports (I've always been ridiculously uncoordinated, and I think that plus the whole gender divide thing has always turned me off to sports and exercise in general). Basically Dowling explains a lot about the history of women and physical exercise (don't move when you have your period! Don't ride bikes, it will cause you to accidentally masturbate!) , how we've been conditioned to believe that frailty is more feminine and that physical strength is undesirable, how this harms us and what we can do about it.

I'm glad I found the book because it helped me clarify my feelings on a number of sports-related issues that have bugged me since youth: Powder puff football (once a year we get to "be like the boys"?? And there's NO TACKLING??) ; lack of gender integration in various sports; only allowing women to play softball instead of baseball (I wanted to try the baseball team, damnit); lack of parental encouragement in sports/general physical activity for daughters (Dowling points out that in a co-ed tee ball game, most of the girls don't even own their own gloves); teachers asking for the boys in the class to do some sort of heavy lifting (I remember one scrawny boy in particular being asked to do some heavy lifting over much stronger girls); media apathy towards professional female sports (did you know that there is a Pro female football league? I don't see you covering that, ESPN); among other things.

Dowling's book was also surprisingly optimistic about the progress women have made in the physical realm, often pointing out the differences between her generation and her daughter's. So, rather than leaving me feeling only angry and cynical, it also left me feeling a little better about the prospect of change (however gradual it may be). So, maybe someday, the elementary school on my block that has gender-divided recess on my street will pull out the basketball hoop for the girls, and the jump rope for the boys (I'm not kidding. They put the hoop away when the girls come out and give them all jump ropes. I haven't seen a single jump rope on the ground at boys' recess). And maybe I'll have a daughter, and she'll want to play baseball, not softball, and everyone will be totally cool with that. And we'll watch Olympic rowing together, and the co-ed teams will pull record times. One day.


Michelle said...

I don't mean to counter the psychological uplifting I'm sure that book is intended to bring, but it IS a biological fact that men find it physically easier to build muscle mass. If a boy and girl did all the exact same activities through their lives, by the time they're adults, the male would still be stronger if there were to be a "competition".

Just sayin'.

Phoebe Caulfield said...

Michelle, you bring up a good point. I'd like to see the study/studies that you are referring to, and to see how they conducted their research (nerd alert here). What is interesting is whether or not those studies are able to control for socialized differences between males and females (and how would such a thing be accomplished if socialization begins from infancy?) Since we aren't raised in a vacuum, I'm curious as to whether a body of research addressing "ease" of building muscle mass has ever even attempted to control for these effects. You may very well be correct in saying that biological differences exist...I just don't want to accept it on blind faith.

Lucy said...

I have a daughter who loves sports and her goal is to be the first woman to coach a NBA team. She wanted to play baseball in grade school and since she was not allowed she chose not play softball at all. She currently plays basketball at her highschool, varsity. She is the point guard, barely 5 foot and when she was told she should stick with soccer because of her height she said "Nope, I love basketball and I am not letting my height stop me, I will get around it." She has worked her butt off and made Varsity her sophomore year and she can't wait for this year, Her Junior year because she will be starting!!!
I am getting her that book!

Phoebe Caulfield said...

Ah, Lucy, that is AWESOME! I have total confidence that your daughter will do something great for other women. And I still think she should go out for the baseball team :)

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