Just before the last Olympics, I wrote several articles about The Problem of Gymnastics. The articles dealt with the numerous injuries that seem to plague the gymnasts. The very real danger that the gymnasts face makes it difficult for me to love the sport unconditionally.
And yet, I have always felt drawn to the sport, ever since I was a girl, though I fortunately never took a class. After all, gymnastics was one of the only sports that girls were allowed to like. (Figure skating was the other.) Why does gymnastics appeal to me?
I think part of this has to do with the possibility of having a different relationship with the body.
I say this cautiously because I am well aware of the history of the pressure that female gymnasts feel about their bodies. Gymnasts have died from eating disorders. Even so, I still see, in gymnastics, the possibility for girls and women to develop a different relationship with their bodies.
What kind of relationship?
Dr. Caroline Heldman hints at this relationship in a TED talk I stumbled upon a few years.
At the end of the talk, she says, “We raise our little boys to view their bodies as tools they use to master their environment. We raise our little girls to view their bodies as projects to constantly be improved. What if women started to view their bodies as tools to master their environment? As tools to get you from one place to the next? As these amazing vehicles to move through the world in a new way?” I see her point.
Granted, men throughout history have also had “body projects.” However, their projects are not the same as the “body projects” of women. Men’s “body projects” have the benefit of improving the function of the body, not purely the consumption of the body by others. There is a very important distinction between practicing fighting techniques to become stronger for war and the foot binding tradition of China.
Of course, problematic ideas are not isolated to imperial China. Aristotle also hypothesized that women were misbegotten men. His view would be passed down to St. Thomas Aquinas who wrote as follows in his Summa Theologica:
As regards the individual nature, woman is defective and misbegotten, for the active force in the male seed tends to the production of a perfect likeness in the masculine sex; while the production ofwoman comes from defect in the active force or from some material indisposition, or even from some external influence; such as that of a south wind, which is moist, as the Philosopher observes (De Gener. Animal. iv, 2) ST Part 1, Question 92, Reply to First Objection
Note that the Philosopher that he mentions is, of course, Aristotle.
This way of thinking continues on into almost our own time. A few years ago I read a biography of the Grand Duchesses of Russia, as well as their parents and brother. In the late 19th and early 20th century, a doctor gave advice to Tsarina Alexandra, who had given birth to four girls and desperately needed an heir to the Russian throne. He explained that unripe eggs bring forth girls, and that ripe eggs bring forth boys. In his hypothesis, we have the echoes of Aristotle’s idea of women as misbegotten.
A few years ago I found myself listening to a podcast called “Feminist Mormon Housewives.” (Full Disclosure: I am neither Mormon nor a Housewife.) In one of the episodes, the host, Lindsey, described how a friend confided in her that she had been raped. When the host found that difficult to believe, her friend countered, “Lindsey, Women are made to be raped. Our bodies are made to be raped.” Lindsey replied, “Well, yes, that’s true.” Lindsey went on to say that she had internalized this message for some time. She stated that “For a time I thought, ‘God must think that we are less, because He made our bodies less. He made women not only to experience these things, but to deserve those things.”
I think about Lindsey’s belief about women’s bodies being “less”, and Aristotle and Aquinas’ view of women as defective. And I can’t help but wonder. Do you think Simone Biles believes that women’s bodies are “less” or “misbegotten and defective?”
Fuck no. 🙂