Cover image for The frailty myth : women approaching physical equality
The frailty myth : women approaching physical equality
Dowling, Colette.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Random House, [2000]

Physical Description:
xxvii, 319 pages ; 25 cm
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HQ1206 .D683 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Can women be equal to men as long as men are physically stronger? And are men, in fact, stronger? These are key questions that Colette Dowling, author of the bestsellingThe Cinderella Complex, raises in her provocative new book. The myth of female frailty, with its roots in nineteenth-century medicine and misogyny, has had a damaging effect on women's health, social status, and physical safety. It is Dowling's controversial thesis that women succumb to societal pressures to appear weak in order to seem more "feminine." The Frailty Mythpresents new evidence that girls are weaned from the use of their bodies even before they begin school. By adolescence, their strength and aerobic powers have started to decline unless the girls are exercising vigorously--and most aren't. By sixteen, they have already lost bone density and turned themselves into prime candidates for osteoporosis. They have also been deprived of motor stimulation that is essential for brain growth. Yet as breakthroughs among elite women athletes grow more and more astounding, it begins to appear that strength and physical skill--for all women--is only a matter of learning and training. Men don't have a monopoly on physical prowess; when women and men are matched in size and level of training, the strength gap closes. In some areas, women are actually equipped to outperform men, due partly to differences in body structure, and partly to the newly discovered strengthening benefits of estrogen. Drawing on extensive research in motor development, performance assessment, sports physi-ology, and endocrinology, Dowling presents an astonishing picture of the new physical woman. And she creates a powerful argument that true equality isn't possible until women learn how to stand up for themselves--physically.

Author Notes

The author of numerous books, including The Cinderalla Complex, which has been in print since its 1981 publication. She lives in Woodstock, New York.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

Dowling, the best-selling author of The Cinderella Complex (1981), postulates that female physical development in the first half of the twentieth century was impeded by the Victorian view of women as frail beings who needed to channel all their energies into childbearing and child rearing. That historical precedent set, Dowling then draws on the latest research to challenge the belief that men are the "stronger" sex. Women respond to training as well as men, have shown more endurance, and are consistently closing the strength gap. And though Dowling focuses on athletic competition, the implications of her theory extend to society at large: men have used their bodies and their strength to intimidate women, but when the strength gap no longer exists, men will be forced to deal with a gender that is arguably their emotional, intellectual, and physical equal. This is an intellectually challenging and inspirational book that will resonate with women who refuse to acknowledge any limitations imposed by anyone other than themselves. --Wes Lukowsky

Publisher's Weekly Review

In analyzing the differences in physical performance and strength between the sexes, Dowling (The Cinderella Complex) asks not only what the effects of men's superior strength and access to physical activity have been, but whether men are, in fact, naturally physically superior in the first place. In her exploration of the still radical idea that the differences between the sexes have more to do with training, encouragement and cultural beliefs than inherent biological difference, Dowling argues further that the historical straitjacketing of women's physicalityÄwhat Dowling calls "learned weakness"Ähas elicited contempt from men, made women vulnerable to sexual humiliation and short-circuited women's willingness to take risks. Citing a mountain of contemporary research regarding women's athletic performance and its political and psychological ramifications, she defends her position with passion. But Dowling's argument that boys' performance advantages before adolescence are culturally induced is much stronger than her case that the same is true for men. She calls for a reevaluation of athletic contests on a pound-for-pound basisÄsuggesting that size, not sex, is the determining factor in athletic successÄand cites women's advantages in endurance and flexibility, but doesn't offer much more proof of men's and women's physical equality beyond that. Though Dowling builds a solid case for her view that the unnatural weakness of women is a public health crisis, and though she offers a heartening evaluation of how quickly the strength gap is narrowing in an era when women's sports are exploding, some readers may be left to wonder whether comparing men's and women's physical performance is, in itself, a trap. Agent, Ellen Levine. 6-city author tour. (Sept.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Dowling (The Cinderella Complex) says that women's physical equality is the last bastion in the fight to conquer sexism. A historical survey uncovers the century-old hidden agenda to keep women frail, largely in the name of reproductive health. Citing many studies of motor ability in children, she argues that women are slightly weaker and less athletic than men primarily because of lack of early opportunity. Ranging into social studies, she argues that women are disadvantaged educationally, socially, psychologically, and other ways because of the "effects of fear conditioning" and that self-defense and increased physical confidence can combat them. Unfortunately, many sound points are undermined by some sloppy logic, some awkward constructions, lack of focus, and a tendency to cite supporting studies while ignoring those that contradict her stance. Larger public libraries may consider. [Previewed by Prepub Alert, LJ 5/1/00.]ÄKathy Ruffle, formerly with Coll. of New Caledonia Lib., Prince George, BC (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

In the past women were widely viewed as frail and are still seen that way by many people. It was believed, for example, that physical activity would jeopardize women's ability to bear children, and medical authorities claimed that pregnant women should severely limit their physical exercise. In 1870, Clarke, a Harvard medical school professor, thought that women should not receive higher education because their bodies were more "complicated." These views had adverse psychological effects on women, leading many to feel inferior to men. It has been a long and difficult struggle for women to overcome the frailty myth, to deal with sexual harassment and discrimination, and to feel comfortable with their bodies as they have strived, with frequent success, to do the same things that men do, such as climb mountains, run marathons, play football, etc. This is Dowling's argument in this informative but scattershot, book-length essay containing her own experiences and those of her daughter. She includes descriptions of attitudes and behaviors at earlier times; summaries of research; references to music, movies, and other essays; and quotes from coaches, parents, and celebrities. General and undergraduate collections. D. Harper University of Rochester



Introduction Not long after I began work on this book, my daughter Rachel came home from the office one night to discover that her boyfriend's father, a thug in disguise, had rented a truck with the intention of removing her belongings from his son's New York apartment and taking them to a small studio I keep in the city. His son was too young for this relationship, Dad believed. He felt he was losing control over his son and he needed someone to blame. Recognizing that something out of control was going on, Rachel phoned up a place that rents storage units and asked the meddlesome father to deliver her furniture there. He refused. "There's no room in my mother's apartment," she told him. Too bad. Rachel was waiting in front of the building with a couple of girlfriends when the truck arrived. The father opened up the back doors and flagrantly dropped her television on the sidewalk. His turncoat son was with him. Rachel told the doorman to call the police. Then she jumped an the back of the truck with her arms outspread to prevent the man from destroying any more of her possessions. She held her stance until she heard the police car's siren. For me, the image was powerful. The bold physicality of Rachel's moves implied a belief in both her strength and her rights. But the belief in her body was crucial. Her strength allowed her to not only defend her rights, but to experience them in the first place. Within minutes the NYPD Blue arrived, and they escorted the truck, driving Rachel in the car with them, to the storage place and waited while father and son, oh so carefully, removed her furniture from the van. What does it take to jump on the back of a truck and prevent two angry men from entering it and dumping out your furniture? What, physically and mentally, is being accomplished here? I have no doubt that a connection exists between Rachel's leap to defend herself against aggression and her experience, beginning in childhood, with competitive sports. Rachel was one of the millions of girls who began breaking new ground after Title IX, a section of the Educational Amendment Act of 1972, mandated equal funding for girls' sports. They didn't get equal funding for years (and often still don't), but change was in the air. Billie Jean King, after all, had accomplished the presumably impossible at Wimbledon, in 1971, when she beat Bobby Riggs. As female athletic stars gained in visibility, girls around the country began pioneering the breakdown of the frailty myth-the belief that women are physically incompetent--on a grassroots level. The first broke into heretofore "boys" sports: soccer, track and field, wrestling, and even football. The very first did it by becoming the only girls on the team, as Rachel had done in high school soccer. The payoff for breaking the cultural mold would be big. By the time Rachel jumped on the back of the truck to defend her belongings, she'd grown into a woman who had internalized a belief in her strength and her ability to defend herself. Because of her physical competence,  she has a sense of her body's power that eludes most women of my generation. For us, the greatest physical boldness had been walking down the middle of a city street if we got caught in a dicey neighborhood at night. We had swallowed whole the halfbaked syllogism of our generation and that of many generations of females before us: Men have strength, agility, and endurance; women don't, and therefore women need men for protection. It took years of watching my daughters develop strong, agile, competent bodies before I began recognizing that something new was happening: a further stage in the emancipation of women was under way. At seventeen Rachel took a semester-long trip, sleeping in snow caves, rappelling, telemarking, learning how to avoid "boxcar" whirlpools (so named for their size) while piloting a kayak alone through white water. She came home, split up with her boyfriend, and went back to school. There was a whole life out there to be lived. In the wilderness Rachel had discovered things I had simply never learned: that in survival situations, males and females are equally important; that she was better at some physical activities than the boys; that she could counter unwanted sexual approaches from a male counselor without help from someone older. I was proud of her when she returned from the trip a stronger, more confident, more socially flexible person. It strikes me as odd, looking back, that I never once wondered what my daughters' physical experiences might have done for me at that age. It was as if my daughters and I had grown up in different worlds. And we had, more than I ever realized before beginning work on this book. And yet I'd never actually been weak. When I was a teenager I may not have liked the routines of school gym classes, but I had always liked moving. I used to link arms at the skating rink with a line of boys my age, ice hockey players on their school teams. We'd charge past the Saturday skaters, forming a mighty whip as we made the turns. It amazed me-I'd forgotten this-that I wasn't afraid. "You could play hockey!" one of the boys marveled once, and I could have burst from the thrill of it, and from the pleasure of my own strength and movement. I felt unusual, though. No high school girl I knew liked doing athletic stuff with boys. Then I went away to school to learn philosophy, and English literature, and the decorum required of Catholic girls coming of age in the fifties. I gave up my beloved tennis and ice-skating. The thrilling and strenuous use of my body came to a stop, not to be enjoyed again for another thirty years. But my daughters never did that, never gave it up. When my older daughter, Gabrielle, left college and came to New York to begin work, she plunged into the study of seito karate. By then I wasn't surprised by her roundhouse kicks, the "guys' push-ups" she did until her knuckles bled. Hadn't she, at thirteen and fourteen, twisted and flipped her body in the air, leaping from one high bar to another in gymnastics competitions? My heart would be in my mouth whenever I watched her perform, but she had a different experience of it. She was exhilarated by her physical prowess and becoming practiced in learning to trust her body. When, in her thirties, she put on her first pair of in-line skates and began learning to spin, jump, and spread-eagle, I thought, Of course. She will do this sort of thing all her life. It is part of who she is. What did surprise me was my own desire surging up, suddenly, in my fifties, to take up skating where I'd left off. Then it had been ice skates. Now I wanted to do, with in-line skates, the same figure skating routines I'd done as a girl. I probably wouldn't have tried had it not been for Gaby's encouragement. "Come on, Mom," she said, luring me to a beginner's class at Chelsea Piers, a huge sports complex on the Hudson River. "You can do it!" Miracle of miracles, I wasn't the oldest person in the class. And I not only survived the hour-and-a-half lesson, I triumphed, learning to slalom between two rows of orange pylons on my very first try. After class there was a free-skate session with the music of James Brown pumping out over the PA system. We were outdoors, with the Hudson River a few yards away and a bloodred sunset in the sky. I was back in my sixteen-year-old body, feeling the strength in my quads and the thrilling pounding of the rhythm propelling me around the oval rink. This was not a "new me"; it was me taking back the body I'd been born with but had given up on, as I mimed what I thought were the required, if restricted, behaviors of adult femininity. It was never even clear just what was required of young women of my generation, but I can tell you this: Being a "true woman" in the sixties had nothing to do with playing tight end on a football field. Today a girl can actually tackle boys to the ground and not be considered a freak of nature. On the contrary, she can still be popular and considered sexually attractive, as were two placekickers on their high school football teams who were also crowned homecoming queens. And as can the thousands playing tackle football, ice hockey, and soccer. These new young athletes are dramatically proving that physical competence doesn't compromise femininity. In fact, a belief in the competence of one's body is essential-for mental health, for physical safety, for fulfillment in relationships and success in the workplace. Yet for centuries women have been shackled to a perception of themselves as weak and ineffectual. In the 1990s it became clear that attitudes toward physical strength and competence were changing when women's ideas about physical appearance began to shift. The vast majority of first-year college women, in one study, considered ideal a mesomorphic physique, with the kind of upper body muscularity that doesn't happen without substantial amounts of physical exercise. Shame about having hips and breasts and looking like sexual, grown-up women began to recede. Female athletes were helping to spearhead the change. Florence Griffith Joyner, the greatest woman runner in the history of the world, had a body to die for and no problem flaunting it. 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 do and skaters used to have to do; instead, they made the sport accommodate their growing bodies. "There's something very freeing about it," twenty-year-old Shana Sundstrom told the readers of a women's magazine, speaking about the way she and her sisters, all speed skaters, felt about their bodies. "We're not trying to have bodies for society, like Kate Moss. We have big butts." The social skeleton look had vanished. The athletic look had arrived. But the change indicated more than a trendy fashion statement. Muscularity-and a body that consumes enough nutrition to sustain it-became the expression of a new understanding of what it means to be "feminine." Physical competence was becoming central to female self-esteem. As champion volleyball player Gabrielle Reece wrote in Big Girl in the Middle , the only statement women used to be comfortable taking over the top was "I'm sexy." "Why not say, instead, 'I have a big intellect and bold spirit-and I can kick your ass'?" she asks. Why not indeed! Young women of the nineties watched, thrilled, as old physical stereotypes were smashed and pioneers of female bravado like Reece demonstrated striking confidence and physical prowess. Girls began following their new, athletic role models the way groupies used to follow rock stars. Warming up to pitch a game for the Duluth Dukes, Ila Borders, the first woman to join a pro men's baseball team, prompted the chanting of thousands of girls in the stands: I-la, I-la, I-Ia." "Ila is my favorite, no question," a thirteen-year-old girl told a New York Times reporter, "because she shows you can just do it." Shows, that is, that you can do it even if you're a girl. Women in erstwhile men's sports are coming to be seen not only as "normal," but as a source of pride. "Ila is going to make the big leagues," said the owner of Ila's team, the Duluth Dukes, whose own daughter wrestled on her high school boys' team. "She's going to be like Jackie Robinson being the first black man to play in the majors, or Chuck Yeager being the first to break the sound barrier." Today's young women are developing ways of standing up-with their bodies, if need be-for their rights. It isn't brawn that allows them to do that, but something far more important: a psychological stamina that comes from physical self-esteem . Female strength, courage, and competitiveness are providing women a new way to live in the world. We are shedding timidity and learning to stand up for ourselves. We are accomplishing a new way of feeling secure that's rooted in our own agility, timing, and physical strength. When she first began in-line skating on the streets of Manhattan, Rachel told me of a technique she used for seeing what the traffic coming up behind her was doing. She constantly checked the sideview mirrors sticking out from trucks. "I'm learning to take my space, Mom," she said. The very idea of her zinging through city traffic was disturbing; still, I thought I knew what she meant by taking her space. Just walk down any busy street during the work week if you don't think men are determined to dominate public spaces. The veering to one side as a man and a woman are about to collide on a crowded sidewalk is nearly always done by the woman. Men in the streets will not move out of the way to prevent collision; they expect women to. Presumably it's a badge of their superior status. "One thing is clear: woman's body language speaks eloquently, though silently, of her subordinate status in a hierarchy of gender," feminist scholar Sandra Lee Bartky has written. And so it was for my generation, and those before me. Today, however, women are communicating with a more aggressive body language. One woman in her twenties told me that when she walks around the streets of New York, "I've stopped getting out of men's way. I just let them bang into me if they're going to." The woman in such a scenario will be jolted, but so will the man. "At the last possible moment, most men will move," the woman reported. "But some don't." Is women's becoming more socially and economically powerful the reason men are playing the bully more flagrantly than ever? It's as if, in the anonymity of the city's canyons, men feel free to push women around, whereas they may not be able to dominate at home or in the office. Navigating city sidewalks, in any event, has become like coed ice hockey without the protective equipment. A defensive backlash is occurring among men whose power is threatened by the increasing legal and economic independence of women. It can be seen in men's growing "football mentality" and their homophobic response to strong female athletes. Yet there are signs that men's subtle, and not so subtle, physical one-upping of women doesn't have the same power over us it used to. Women of Rachel's generation are developing ways of standing up-with their bodies, if need be-for their rights. And getting them! Our new understanding of what women are physically capable of challenges old ideas about the very nature of men and women-ideas that have been used to establish, and maintain, a belief in men's physical superiority. That physicality was supposedly what made men self-sufficient-and women not. It was what made men necessary to women, not just for love and intimacy and friendship, but for their very survival. The weakness of women was the rationale for a belief in their total inferiority-physical, mental, emotional. The good news is that women are beginning to appreciate their bodies for their superb functionality and for the pleasure they provide. They are beginning to feel stronger in the streets and on rural country roads, able to defend themselves, and as a consequence live lives whose horizons are broader. They are experiencing a sexiness that comes not from being viewed as an object but from physical vitality. But there are changes that have to take place if women and girls are to become strong, powerful, and physically self-confident. To this day, girls are being kept from developing their full physical potential by teachers and parents who do not recognize the harm that is being done them. Many girls are shrinking their bodies-avoiding physical development-in their effort to be "feminine" and acceptable to boys. By the same token, most adult women still keep themselves unnaturally weak and thus physically vulnerable-victims of men's presumed greater strength. The price they pay for clinging to an old model of femininity is great: with dwarfed development and unnecessary dependence on men, women hang back from physical freedom, constrict their lives, and sometimes even lose them! This book is about freeing our minds of unnecessary fear and taking our space in the world, and about the history of constraint that has made this so difficult to accomplish. It is about a hidden agenda of keeping women in their place by keeping them believing in their weakness. And it is about the unrecognized backlash taking place as women have crashed through one barrier after another erected against their opportunities for physical development over the last century-until, like the fact of the emperor's nudity, the suspicion begins to arise that maybe, when all is said and done, there is no appreciable strength difference between men and women. Maybe, like the erstwhile difference in men's and womens' intellectual capabilities, it has all been a question of unequal access to opportunity and training. New methods of performance assessment, which I write about later in the book, are clearly raising this possibility. But this much is certain: the concept of female frailty, with its roots in nineteenth-century medicine, has had long-term damaging effects on women's health, and on their social and professional status. Drawing on studies in motor development, performance assessment, and sports physiology, I will show how, by keeping themselves physically undeveloped, girls and women have fulfilled the myth of the weaker sex. Until women are able to experience strength, endurance, and pleasure in their bodies, whatever social freedom we achieve will be limited, We will withdraw from physical challenge, coddling ourselves in a misguided belief in our frailty. As adolescents, we will begin the retreat from our sexuality, hiding from it out of fear of being harmed or exploited. We will live out our lives as if our bodies needed protection. And haven't we done that, while our bones turned porous and our fear of male physical power grew to delusional proportion? The psychological effects of the frailty myth are more compromising, even, than the physical. It was recognizing this in a gut way that made so many women cry when they watched the World Cup soccer finals on television, in the summer of 1999. It wasn't just the physical brilliance of the players that stunned us, although certainly that was thrilling. Here were women who had not allowed themselves to be compromised-women who had stopped the frailty myth in its tracks-headed it, as it were. When I watched the semifinal game between the United States and Brazil, I was at home with my daughter-in-law and my thirteen-year-old grandson. Everything about this spectacle was mind-blowing, including the Monistat advertisement blinking on the scoreboard high above the bleachers. A treatment for vaginal yeast infections up there for all to see: to me, this said everything about the changed view of women's bodies. The huge crowd, the thousands upon thousands of young girls, the dads in the stadium cheering just as hard as their daughters-it was almost too much to take in. But it wasn't until the final game, the following week, against China, that the full impact of what was going on hit me. That game with Brazil was no fluke. These women, who'd been training and playing together for almost a decade, were representative of a change that was culture-bending: women were being given recognition-international recognition-for their physical prowess. For their ability to outthink and outmove the opposition. For their speed, agility, aggression, endurance, and grace under pressure. Then it came to me as a kind of physical shock and thrill: I never thought I'd see this in my lifetime. A revolutionary freedom has charged the lives of my daughters and their peers, and they are causing the rest of us to look at our lives and bodies differently. Women of all ages have begun trading in the crimped "femininity" of the past for a bold new female bravado. Today, women in their eighties are running marathons. As the different beliefs supporting the frailty myth shatter, one after the other, the change will not be trifling. It will alter the way women walk on the earth. Excerpted from The Frailty Myth: Women Approaching Physical Equality by Colette Dowling All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.