The Frailty Myth

( 2 )


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 bestselling The 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 ...

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The Frailty Myth: Redefining the Physical Potential of Women and Girls

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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 bestselling The 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 Myth presents 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.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Rich cultures value thin women, and poor cultures fat women, but all male-dominant cultures value weakness in women. That’s why Colette Dowling’s The Frailty Myth is radical in its well-reasoned, readable, wise exposé of the reality, importance, and future of female strength.”
—Gloria Steinem

“Required reading . . . [a] strong argument against [the] ‘weaker-sex’ stereotype.”
Chicago Sun-Times

“In the twenty-first century, Americans are going to have to rethink the idea of the physical inferiority of women because of books like The Frailty Myth. Dowling overturns the old Victorian idea that women are the weaker sex. . . . This is a call to arms for female athleticism among girls and women of all ages.”
—Joan Jacobs Brumberg, author of
The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls and
Fasting Girls: The History of Anorexia Nervosa

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375758157
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 9/11/2001
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.75 (d)

Meet the Author

Colette Dowling is an internationally known writer and lecturer whose books have been translated into twenty languages. She is the author of numerous books, including Maxing Out, Red Hot Mamas, You Mean I Don't Have to Feel This Way?, and The Cinderella Complex, which has been in print since it was first published in 1981. Her articles have appeared in many magazines, including The New York Times Magazine, New York, and Harper's. She lives in Woodstock, New York.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

The Frailty Myth

A hundred years ago, women were pushed backward in a very particular way. Just as they were beginning to demand education and political and economic power, they were stripped of the power of their bodies. Just as they began to get ideas about fighting for justice, they were required, with all the persuasion of a moral movement, to cultivate frailness. Nineteenth-century women were given to believe that weakness was their natural condition. It was a total gaslight job. 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. That philosophy-some scholars have dubbed it "the frailty myth"-became the rope that restrained women from developing physically, restricted them to small half movements, isolated them in rooms hidden from the sun, and threatened them with the worst of all punishments should they refuse to comply: the loss of their capacity to bear children.

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. No option was offered in this matter. In the nineteenth century female confinement was considered a social necessity. Women owed it to the next generation, and the generations thereafter, to cultivate nothing but their fertility-not mind, not artistry, and certainly not body. This became known as "the cult of true womanhood." Educators, psychologists, churchmen, and physicians-particularly obstetricians and gynecologists-were its chief proponents. Men were certain that if women weren't controlled, the very species (or "race," as they called it then) was at risk. They drummed up a role for women, an idea called "femininity," an appropriate "character," an appropriate "look"-and with all of these, they persuaded women that their reason for being was essentially heroic and thus worth giving up a lot for.

For years my image of Victorian women was narrowed by stereotypes. I had been taught that women of the late 1800s were frail, overprotected creatures who didn't have much of a life. Everything they did seemed to require undue effort. As a young woman reading about Victorian "ladies," I could only imagine trying to swim in the ocean weighed down by wet bloomers and baggy blouses. The daily struggle with corsets and merry widows, the attempt to walk, much less run, in huge skirts and hats-it seemed, to my generation, pathetic. Those women had lived their lives according to bizarre rules, and courtesies, and restraint. Rags were used for mopping up menstrual blood. Sex was a joke because Victorian men didn't know the first thing about the parts of women's bodies that give pleasure. It was hard to see how the Gay Nineties could have been all that frolicsome.

Mine was, of course, a glib view of those times. To think about actual flesh-and-blood women living in that way-to contemplate the hard, merciless doctors' couches on which they lay, trying to make sense of their ailments-would have required more emotional imagination than I possessed. I chose not to relate. It was the same way I'd distanced myself from my mother's history, thinking of her life as too strangely different from my own for us to have much in common. Hers was another time; it might as well have been another country. I wanted to be safe from my mother's rural Nebraskan history, her fifteen siblings, her diabetes-ravaged mother, the farm that failed, she and her sisters were given to believe, because there weren't enough boys to do the heavy work. Because I preferred to think that my mother and I were not quite the same under the skin-just as I viewed those strange Victorian ladies-I lived for years without knowing important things, things that would have strengthened my appreciation of my own womanhood and allowed me to see myself as belonging to a family-not only a personal family, but the historical family of my gender.

Old habits die hard. In tracing the frailty myth back to the nineteenth century, I found myself at first wanting to gloss over what I was starting to see: an inevitable connection between the women at the end of that century and women of our day-a continuum of actual physical oppression in which all of us had been kept down. I wanted to be able to name the final decades of the nineteenth century as the flowering of the frailty myth and move on. But as I began to dig further into the journals, and studies, and diaries of those women, it became clear that something fundamental to growth and development had been taken from them and that the loss was not only theirs, but ours. More and more I began to see that the frailty myth hadn't died, it had only wedged its way a little further underground. I wanted to comprehend the forces keeping women from their bodies, their physical strength and spirit.

The Frailty Myth is about the social domination of women's bodies. It is about girls' and women's restricted physical development. It is about the attempt to keep them feeling as doctors, educators, and even religious leaders have intended them to feel: physically limited. Unable to run long distances. Unable to play five sets of tennis. And even more important, unable to raise a barn or (once it was invented) fix a car. Unable to go for a walk in the woods unaccompanied. Unable to exist, in short, without the muscular heft and presumed physical assistance of the other half of the species.

For centuries women have been shackled to a perception of themselves as weak and ineffectual. This perception has been nothing less than the emotional and cognitive equivalent of having our whole bodies bound. The myth of women's frailty has been so systematically entrenched that it could fairly be called a hoax. But a hoax is a conscious deceit, while myths are believed in as truth. What propels them is complicated and invisible. The frailty myth was driven by men's repressed wish to preserve dominion. To make the myth viable, society constructed elaborate ways of keeping women cut off from their strength; of turning them into physical victims and teaching them that victimhood was all they could aspire to.

Before Frailty

Historically, strength has been encouraged in women only when the economy needs it-during wars, while the men are away, or when helping to pioneer new lands. But as feminist scholarship in the past quarter century has uncovered, women in fact lived far more complicated and demanding lives over the course of the first millennium than you might imagine if you looked at the picture of "true womanhood" to which women were restricted in the nineteenth century. It was striking to learn, when it was first published in the late 1990s, that in Paleolithic times women weren't sequestered in caves, sweeping up stone dust and suckling their infants, as male anthropologists had always suggested. That particular view of Ice Age females' physical ability was the result of certain questions not being asked, according to Olga Soffer, one of the world's leading authorities on Ice Age hunters and gatherers. Soffer's research and that of other feminist scholars in the 1990s led to the discovery that Paleolithic women were strong and physically active, and provided up to 70 percent of family nutrition. And they weren't just gathering nuts and berries. Paleolithic women hunted small animals with bows and arrows and used nets to trap larger ones. Even the children participated in these hunts. Women and children "set snares, laid spring traps, sighted game and participated in animal drives and surrounds-forms of hunting that endangered neither young mothers nor their offspring," reports Heather Pringle in an article in Discovery, "New Women of the Ice Age." "They even hunted, on occasion, with the projectile points traditionally deemed men's weapons."

The new research opens to question the idea that women and families, from the beginning of human time, relied on male strength for their survival. Even the much vaunted killing of very large animals for meat, long associated with Ice Age man's superiority, was rare, owing to the sheer difficulty of slaying a six-thousand-pound pachyderm with a short-range spear, Soffer explains. "If one of these Upper Paleolithic guys killed a mammoth, and occasionally they did, they probably didn't stop talking about it for ten years."

Women's strength was appreciated and made use of in later societies as well. In the Minoan civilization on the Greek island

of Crete (this flourished between 6000 b.c. and 1450 b.c.), bull vaulting was popular among aristocratic youth. Only recently have we learned that men and women worked as bull-vaulting teams. They actually took turns, one grasping the horn of a bull to steady it while the other somersaulted over its back. "The equal partnership between women and men that seems to have characterized Minoan society," Riane Eisler wrote in The Chalice and the Blade, "is perhaps nowhere so vividly illustrated as in these sacred bull-games, where young women and men performed together and entrusted their lives to each other." It may sound apocryphal, but many urns and other artifacts show women's participation in bull vaulting. Yet we never heard about these Amazonian women until recently.

In ancient Greek and Roman times women hunted, rode horseback, swam, ran, and drove chariots. In Sparta, whose social organization was not typical of Greek city-states, men lived apart from women in military barracks until they turned thirty. Forced to live on their own, females became thoroughly independent. Not surprisingly, young females were encouraged to develop strength. Spartan girls were taught to foot-race, wrestle, and throw discus and javelin.

In the Middle Ages women often showed athletic courage. They jousted at one another with lances, on horseback. Some were fine archers. Others competed in a forerunner of the modern game of darts that involved throwing eighteen-inch projectiles. But however skilled they might become, they never got to the elite levels of competition. Occasionally they were invited to keep score. Often they made awards presentations. Sometimes they were the awards. But they could never know the thrill of victory because any important contest was closed to them. Even at the tournaments, so central a part of medieval life, women were "little more than cheerleaders for chivalry," as two sports historians have put it. This exclusion of women whenever big athletic competitions were organized continued up to and including the modern Olympics.

But left to their own devices, women happily threw themselves into the competitive fray. Roberta J. Park, who's written widely on the history of sport, says that women in the eighteenth century had prizefights with one another. In an odd kind of marital minuet, husbands and wives staged fights against other couples, using swords or quarterstaves and competing for cash prizes. Even wrestling had the odd female combatant. Margaret Evans of North Wales was reported to be such a powerful wrestler that even at the age of seventy, "few young men dared to try a fall with her," Park tells us.

In the 1700s the most popular activities of women were running and racewalking. In 1765 a young woman completed seventy-two miles from Blencogo, Scotland, to Newcastle in two days. It was worth a mention in Sporting magazine, in 1806, that a woman racewalker in her forties was "victorious" over a younger man. In fact, in hindsight, women had begun to mark their turf as champions of endurance marathons. Women's individual achievements at the time included walking for a month with less than ten or fifteen minutes of continuous rest, walking and running more than four hundred miles in six consecutive days, and defeating all men contestants in endurance marathons.

Women's walking races were "significantly more frequent than those for men," according to one researcher. In the 1820s British and Scottish girls and women between the ages of seven and eighty-five were gaining money for their families and public notoriety for themselves with pedestrian races. During the 1850s women in New York and in the Midwest performed exhibitions in saloons, walking back and forth for hours along wooden planks measuring fifteen to thirty feet. In the late 1800s the sport gained even more in popularity as media coverage of women athletes increased. Between 1876 and 1881 women's walking and running events took place on sawdust ovals in major cities throughout the United States. Reports Dahn Shaulis (University of Nevada), who made a study of nineteenth-century women's endurance efforts, "In music halls, indoor arenas, and national guard armories around the country, women walked against men, participated in multi-day women-only races, and sometimes walked solo, to break endurance records." Paying crowds of hundreds, and sometimes several thousand, watched and gambled on the women walkers. Journalists noted that to gain large crowds, women athletes were forced to attempt increasingly difficult feats, such as walking four hundred meters every fifteen minutes for thirty or forty consecutive days. Religious preachers publicly condemned pedestrian sport as "evil" and "coarse." In 1879 the Brooklyn Women's Temperance Union protested against both women walking on Sundays and the alcohol and tobacco use and gambling that took place among their spectators. These races were soon ordered closed by the New York City Police Department. By 1880 the "pedestrian industry" had all but collapsed. Schools and universities forbade females from endurance walking and running. And the modern Olympic Games excluded women from running events until 1928.

Not all physical feats were pursued for recreational purposes. In America in the 1700s, women performed backbreaking labor in helping to pioneer a new country. Many "became part of the movement to stake out new farms and towns in the western back countries," writes historian Nancy Struna, "and this meant clearing trees and planting fields and few neighbors." In the South, developing plantations required of women efforts that often were equal to men's. Mrs. Francis Jones, who with her husband carved a plantation out of the wilds of Virginia, stunned the official auditor of property boundaries when he saw how strong she was. Yet, he put in his records, she still retained that lovely female daintiness men so feared strong women would lose. Though she showed "nothing of ruggedness or Immodesty in her carriage," the auditor wrote in a 1710 report, Mrs. Francis Jones not only worked in the field, but would "carry a gunn in the woods and kill dear . . . catch and tye hogg, knock down beeves with an ax and perform the most manfull Exercises."

Following the shift from agrarianism to industry that formed

the Industrial Revolution, millions of women and children moved to the cities, where they performed menial and frequently dangerous tasks in factories and mills. Again, and notably, these were times when women's physical capacities were valued by the economy-especially in light of the fact that they could be paid a fraction of what men got for doing the same work.

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Table of Contents

1 The Frailty Myth 3
Before Frailty 6
Behold the Cult of Invalidism 12
The Masculinity Crisis 22
Out of Confinement 26
Shattering the Menstrual Myth 36
2 The Incredible Shrinking Woman 42
Becoming Feminine: The Gender Effect 44
Learned Weakness 51
Throwing Like a Guy: The Mystique of Innate Ability 59
Comparisons (or, Are We Fated to be Weaker?) 66
Shrinking Bodies, Shrinking Brains 76
3 Getting Them Out of the Doll Corner 84
Perceived Physical Competence 85
The Coaching Factor 89
The Dad Factor 97
Crossing the Swinging Rope Bridge: Programs for Change 103
4 Endangered Bodies 113
Shrinking Self-Image 116
Adolescence: The Crisis Years 121
Entering the War Zone 126
Double Bind 140
5 Can I Play?: The Struggle to Get into the Game 151
Title IX, or, the Fight for a Physical Education 152
Suing for the Right to Play 156
Admission into the Ultimate Game: The Olympics 161
Winning as We'd Never Imagined 169
The Abominable Sex Tests 173
Media, Marketing, and the New Female Contender 180
6 Closing the Strength Gap 190
Men's Fear of Women's Strength 195
The Myth of the "Mannish" Woman 198
New Ways of Assessing Performance 204
The Backlash 208
The Estrogen Effect 212
The New Physical Woman 216
Going the Distance 218
7 Physical Equality: The Final Stage 225
Physical Assault: Keeping Women Down 228
Trauma: Freud's Little Detour 233
Dangerous Lessons in Passive Resistance 241
Fighting Back 249
Unlearning Passivity 253
Epilogue 261
Notes 267
Index 305
Reader's Guide 319
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Reading Group Guide

The Frailty Myth is definitely a consciousness-raising book. It is also an empowering book in that it will encourage you to think about yourself in new and more active ways. It will affect your ideas about women’s (and girls’) health and well-being, and what schools should be teaching that they aren’t. It will affect the ideas of parents.

And if you want to set off a bomb at the next dinner party or barbecue you go to, just bring up the idea of “closing the strength gap.” Drop a few of the facts about women’s strength and endurance that few people know about (and few men want to know about).

For book clubs and reading groups, below are some topics to get your discussions going. You’ll find that each topic corresponds to a particular section of the book listed as a subchapter in the table of contents.

1. Learned Weakness
1. Is there such a thing as “learned weakness”? How does it happen, and what are its effects in girls? In women? Do girls “naturally” prefer dolls to active play? Is this a myth, or something we teach them? What other so-called gender-appropriate behaviors do we encourage in girls that might contribute to their fear of exercise and eating? What is “perceived physical incompetence”?

2. Is there a connection between women’s bone fragility in later life and learned weakness? Do women make themselves vulnerable to chronic diseases (i.e., osteoporosis, osteoarthritis, heart disease, mood disorders) by underexercising? Are physically weak women more passive?

3. Why do women with a sports background rise higher in their careers?

2. Body Image
1. Are females still being influenced to “stay small”? How, and by whom? Are girls afraid of developing muscle, lest it be a turn-off to boys?

2. Are today’s elite female athletes making a dent in girls’ preconceptions about what’s normal and appreciable in a female body? What do you think is normal and appreciable in a female body?

3. Bone Loss
1. Are all females vulnerable to bone loss? At what age does it start? How early in life do females have to begin bone-loading exercise if they want to avoid osteoporosis? What is the role of estrogen in preventing bone loss?

2. Do women need testosterone? In what ways, and why? Do females ever have a testosterone spurt the way boys do at puberty?

4. What Parents Are Teaching Girls about Strength
1. What ideas about gender might skew the way parents teach girls about physical activity? Are parents still (even subtly) encouraging girls not to go “too far” in developing their bodies, or in being physically active?

2. With proper training, can girls actually throw as far as boys can? Do you “throw like a girl,” and if so, why do you think this is the case?
3. Are our ideas about what puberty does to strength in boys and girls exaggerated, or even wrong?

5. Are Schools Conspiring?
1. Is there prejudice against girls in school phys ed programs? Are boys and girls in your schools given the same fitness tests? If not, why not? What is your own view of this double standard, which is condoned in most schools?

2. Should boys and girls have integrated gym classes? Are girls getting an even shake in most after-school athletic programs?

3. What about female coaches? Are they better for girls and women? Do phys ed teachers unwittingly discriminate against girls? How?

6. Harassment
1. Do boys’ and girls’ ideas about girls’ strength affect the amount of harassment girls experience? Should girls be able to defend themselves, physically, against boys? Do girls have exaggerated ideas about boys’ strength that influences their ability to defend themselves?

2. Should martial arts classes and/or self-defense classes for girls be available in our public schools? Should they be a standard part of the phys ed curriculum?

3. Can women defend themselves against rape? How?

7. Physical Development and Self-destructive Behavior
1. Are girls who exercise less vulnerable to drugs, dropping out, and early pregnancy? Why would this be? What is the connection between fully developed bodies and self-esteem? Ability to do school work? Optimism about the future? Are women who exercise less vulnerable to addictions? Street crime? Abuse on the job?

2. Do women have an exaggerated fear of men’s strength? Are they afraid to defend themselves physically? Is this realistic or misguided? What have we learned about women’s fears from teachers of self-defense programs?

8. Closing the Strength Gap
1. Are women really weaker than men? How do you know?

2. Why are women, in general, stronger than they were fifty years ago? Are they as strong as they can get? Why is that?

3. Why have Olympics officials segregated some sporting events after women have beaten men? Do you think there should be more Olympic events in which men and women compete against each other directly?

4. Are there sports in which women do as well or better than men? Do women have an endurance advantage? Do female hormones confer any advantage? Why have women who appear strong been taunted for being unfeminine, or “like men”? What prejudices or societal pressures are behind these taunts? Does this prejudice influence you or anyone you know?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 18, 2008

    A reviewer

    The Frailty Myth took my brain out of my skull, spun it around a few times, and dropped it back in. I think that should sufficiently explain the extent to which this book challenges the social norms we are so quick to accept. Dowling addresses such standards as femininity and masculinity, 'throwing like a girl,' and the overall attitude that women are physically incapable. Her recurring theme throughout the book is physical empowerment. In the process of realizing our physical potential, women are leading happier and healthier lives and are further along in truly becoming men's equals. I would recommend this book to everyone, women and men alike, wanting a new perspective on social male-female dynamics and their psychological effects. Caution, this book will make you want to go on a ten-mile run.

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    Posted March 5, 2011

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