Random House, 2000
Reviewed by Kym Lambert (copyright © 2004 Kym Lambert, all rights reserved do not republish anywhere)
This is a very exciting examination of the societal conditioning that has created the myth that women are by our nature physically inferior to men. In the past few years, women and girls have made great strides in sports, many in sports considered impossible for female athletes to compete in, let alone exceed. Even with these breakthroughs, most people still hold the belief that women are smaller, weaker, frailer, and more vulnerable than men. Either they ignore the evidence or see these athletes as somehow different than other women and girls (at the same time not seeing a difference between top male athletes and the average man).
Dowling takes this assumption and examines where we have come in history, especially since the Victorian era, and how we raise children to show why this "natural" frailty isn't born but created. She shows how women's institutionalized sports and physical education have long been devised to reduce women's athletic development, rather than build it. She notes that young girls and boys test much the same physically, until about the age of 12 when many girls become less active and boys start to become better trained. That girls "throw like girls" only because they are not taught to throw correctly and that boys throw "like boys" because they are taught to. And when girls are taught how to throw, the CAN. And that this lack of training is found in all the areas that males are seen as being superior, once girls and women learn how to use their bodies we can. But we can't learn it, as she puts it, "in the doll corner."
Sports has been a "men's club" and the majority have not been happy about having women invading it. And women in our society often work to keep the next generation in line, as well, shown by issues with female physical educators for the majority of the last century. Women who have excelled have often had to face accusations that they are not in fact women or that they must be using male hormones, with humiliating testing at the Olympics and other sports institutions forced upon them.
The cultural ideal of women being thin has played a role in our created frailty as well. Starving weakens the body, after all. Even in "feminine" sports such as gymnastics, we see a push towards extreme thinness which is keeping girls behind in developing the strength that would actually help them be more skillful (that such pressure is on boys in some sports now too, shouldn't be ignored...again, male or female, sports should NEVER include damaging the body in such a way). Women's muscle has more recently become seen as attractive and even fashionable, as long as it't not "too much."
Dowling also explores how the pressure to be small, to be frail, to not excel in sports contributes to teenage girl's issues with self-esteem and even their safety. Learning that they are weaker than boys, of course, also teaches girls that they are naturally victims of boys and at the same time need them to "protect" t hem. And they must, of course, be properly feminine ...that is small and weak...to win a "protector." She notes that involvement in a good sports program (that is one that does not involve abusive, sexist coaches or a push towards starvation) builds girls' sense of self and belief that they are powerful. And that girls involved in sports are less likely to engage in self-destructive behavior.
I can't recommend this book enough, not only for women who are interested in the warrior path, sports, or physical fitness and their place in the feminist movement, but also for any parent of a young girl. And I'd love to force many who assume that the Frailty Myth is actually a reality to read it. It is a wonderful and inspiring book.
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Copyright © 2004 Kym Lambert, all rights reserved. Do not post anywhere and that means YOU!