Stuck in the minors

A new book says that women will soon equal men at sports. If only it were true.

By Emily Jenkins
September 19, 2000 12:56AM (UTC)
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In the 1990s, "Tinker Bell gymnasts were no longer praised for their tininess. Developing figure skaters talked openly about devising changes in their technique to address the shift in balance produced by growing breasts and hips. They didn't make their bodies stop growing to accommodate the sport, as gymnasts and skaters used to have to do; instead, they made the sport accommodate their growing bodies ... The social skeleton look had vanished."

So writes Colette Dowling, author of "The Cinderella Complex," in her entertaining feminist argument about women's strength: "The Frailty Myth: Women Approaching Physical Equality." "By making themselves physically equal [through exercise and self-defense training]," Dowling writes, "women can at last make themselves free."


I loved this book. Dowling describes the achievements of the first woman to play men's pro baseball, the girls' soccer team that beat all the boys' teams in the 1993 Ohio games, a 10th-grader who made the all-state Georgia football team. Katherine Switzer dodged irate officials to compete in the all-male Boston Marathon. Bev Francis changed the face of women's bodybuilding by refusing to limit the size of her muscles to appropriately feminine proportions. Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs. These stories are so inspirational that I would like to believe every word Dowling says -- but some of her argument is just wishful thinking.

As anyone who has lately opened a fashion magazine knows, the social skeleton look is alive and well, and to her credit Dowling later tempers her joyous proclamation that we are a nation of happy mesomorphs with a section on the much-publicized crisis in adolescent body image. Also, as anyone who watched skater Tara Lipinski win the Olympics can see, tiny bodies still earn gold medals in the most visible of women's sports. And as Joan Ryan attested in "Little Girls in Pretty Boxes" (and as Dowling later acknowledges), many competitive gymnasts and skaters suffer from severe eating disorders.

Dowling argues that by closing the strength gap women can gain social and political ground, and her central point is excellent and well-documented. However, I have two problems with her belief in the power of sports for women. First, many of the values of the current exercise boom are still very much in sync with the values of traditional femininity. And second, the sports we play are almost all designed for men.


When I arrived at college in 1985, the fitness craze was in full force. Jamie Lee Curtis flaunted her physique in the health club movie "Perfect." Madonna flexed her muscles on MTV. Jane Fonda sold millions of books and workout videos, and sexy bodybuilder Rachel McLish strutted her stuff in commercials, reminding women: "Before you primp, you've got to pump." Exercise was in -- and to me, it seemed like a feminist revolution.

I signed up, did aerobics every day and miraculously became a jock when I had always been a feminine weakling.

Back in the schoolyard, I was a girls girl. At recess, I skipped rope and played house under a favorite tree. My friends and I braided one another's hair. My mother, caught up in the rush of the emerging women's movement, the sexual revolution and the dawn of the New Age, did not intentionally teach me this traditional role. Rather, I clung to it in response to a world that was quickly changing. Living with a single parent in a communal household, my life emphatically did not correspond to the ordered, clearly defined lives I was seeing on television and in storybooks. Being feminine was a way of normalizing my childhood.


Back then, I felt that boys were different from me -- stronger and more physical. They seemed magically initiated into the use of their own bodies: They could throw, catch, run fast, fight duels. As a girl, it never occurred to me to play the way they did. I knew it was allowed, but I didn't have the physical skills I needed to participate and couldn't see how to go about acquiring them. Boys just seemed to know how to play ball, do karate or climb a tree. I did not.

In my imagination, though, I played those boys games all the time. I fought battles and ruled the land as king. I was the pitcher on the winning team. I ran races faster than anyone. And always, in these imaginative victories and achievements, I was male. Maleness, I felt, was the ticket to daring adventures, and also the ticket to the physical confidence one needed to embark on them.


I felt I was a member of the weaker sex. I did not strive for victory on the playing field. I cowered when it was my turn at bat in gym class. Unsure of the rules of the game, and the smallest kid in my class, I was always picked last for teams. "Bunt," the teacher told me, noticing my panic. And so I did, never once trying for a home run.

Like so many other little girls, I took ballet. I was thrilled to get to use my body in a way that didn't challenge the notions of femininity that were so central to my sense of self. Dancing, I could be graceful, small and flexible. I would not have to be powerful or strong to succeed. I could imitate the only female sports heroes I had ever heard of -- ballerinas like Margot Fonteyn and Suzanne Farrell. I dreamed of performances, flowers and sparkling tutus. I would be a princess, and I forgot my dreams of being a king.

Aerobics -- and the fitness movement in general -- offered me a way out of what Dowling calls the "frailty myth": the notion that women are inherently delicate and that, even if they aren't, being a jock is inherently masculine. Whereas years of daily dance classes had taught me about my limitations, because my feet would never arch beautifully and my legs would never be long, cardiovascular exercise offered me a physical goal -- endurance -- that I could actually achieve. For me, this was a new concept. It promised to make me strong when I had always felt weak.


But being able to jump up and down in an aerobics class for two hours and execute a series of pushups didn't completely solve the problem. Looking back, I recall myself -- my "fit, athletic, liberated" self -- cheering girlishly on the sidelines at softball games in which I had been invited to play. I remember going bowling in short skirts and laughing flirtatiously as my ball ran into the gutter. I remember feeling too awkward to play Frisbee or hackeysack on the campus lawn and watching my male friends' pool games because I didn't know how to shoot. I would cheer my lovers' sports teams on to victory.

I was fit, true -- and I felt a strength in my body that was undeniably liberating. But I was also still firmly entrenched in a number of embarrassingly typical feminine behaviors. (Another example of how self-empowerment through fitness fails to launch women out of traditional roles: Patti Davis, daughter of former President Reagan, overcame profound fears and childhood insecurities by learning to lift weights. Unlike dressing up and other kinds of body care, fitness did not remind Davis of her mother. She rhapsodized about exercise in a 1992 conversation with Gloria Steinem, saying she felt proud of new muscle in a body that used to be fragile; she no longer felt weak. But after more than nine years of exercising every day and weight training several times a week, where did Davis' personal empowerment through exercise land her? On the cover of Playboy in June 1994.)

I'd venture to say that although sports have been a vehicle for women's liberation in the past (the invention of the bicycle, for example, started women wearing pants), this end of the 20th century fitness craze developed alongside '70s feminism not because it was part of it but because it was part of a backlash against it. That is why it gained massive popularity in the 1980s, when much of the women's movement lost momentum. As other feminist critics have noted before me, the present economy is dependent on the continued underpayment of women. Fitness (as opposed to sport) helps perpetuate that inequality by reinforcing the notion that women should be noncompetitive -- and very often unhappy with our bodies because so much value is still placed on appearance instead of accomplishment. Dowling's failure to differentiate between in-line skating and ice hockey, jogging for health and running races, is a serious blank spot in her argument.


So it would seem that the solution is simply to get women into competitive sports. The problem is not physical weakness, it's cultural conditioning. Take girls to soccer practice, watch Women's National Basketball Association games with them on television, teach them they are just as good as men. Get them developing their physical skills from toddlerhood on through high school, abolish "girls rules" and enforce Title IX. Then watch what Dowling calls "learned weakness" disappear. This idea is the core thesis of "The Frailty Myth," and it's certainly a valuable one. As sports historian Mariah Burton Nelson writes, "baseball and other manly sports are more than games. They constitute a culture -- the dominant culture in America today." Learn to compete, girls, and the world is yours. Prove your body is just as strong as a man's, and men will have no reason to think of you as inferior. Certainly, female sports participation can lead to vital personal and political changes.

But on the other hand -- and this is something Dowling doesn't address -- this plan isn't much good if women limit themselves to the sports based on skills at which men will always excel. Games that depend on upper-body strength will be dominated by the sex that has a stronger upper body, and as long as we are weight lifting, sprinting and high jumping, we are trying to do sports designed on a male model, sports that demand height and muscle that men tend to have more of than women do. Even in sports that are thought of as women's -- gymnastics and figure skating, for example -- men do higher jumps and more rotations in the air. In one way or another, these are almost all men's games.

And as much as I hate to say it, men also beat us at speed, height and lower-body strength. On average, they are 10 to 15 percent taller than we are. Their times are simply faster. Truth is, women's bodies do not measure up in the primary ways we measure physical power in this society. Dowling asserts that we might indeed measure up if only given a real chance, and she may be right -- but she is still measuring achievement against the male yardstick.

Women live longer, withstand cold better, sweat more efficiently, have a low center of gravity and float really well. But right now there are very few sports that stress these abilities. Distance sports do, and women have consistently excelled at them. (Shelley Taylor-Smith holds the record for swimming around Manhattan; Seana Hogan beat the men's record by almost an hour cycling 400 miles.)


The problem is, these sports are not popular, and these superiorities are not ways we measure strength; they don't hold much currency. The recent controversy over John McEnroe's claim that he or any decent male player at the college level could beat either of the Williams sisters at tennis proves that sexism is alive and flourishing, even in sports where women have achieved unbelievable feats. What we need are new sports and more media coverage -- not just of the sports that women excel in but of the ones in which we can actually beat men. Yes, it'll be a long haul to get "Monday Night Football" fans to tune in to distance swimming, but people are watching the WNBA, the World Cup and all that tennis, so there's certainly an audience for female athletes that no one would have believed 15 years ago. And many of these sports we so revere have only been around for 100 years. We can invent others; we can shift our attention; we can remake a cultural institution that was built on the basis of the male body.

It's great to play with the big boys, but demoralizing if you always lose to them. Women's physical equality will never be acknowledged until we change our sports -- and our definition of strength itself.

Emily Jenkins

Emily Jenkins is the author of "Tongue First," "Five Creatures," and a forthcoming novel: "Mister Posterior and the Genius Child."

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