How many times have you heard a bunch of guys verbally jousting until one of them crosses a line and says something like “you play ball like a girl!” and then all hell breaks loose? Chances are you’ve seen some variation of this exchange on television or in real life. In fact, this good ol’ sexism was put to celluloid in the 1993 film, The Sandlot, where a young male protagonist will stand for being called a “butt-sniffer,” but not a girl. Never a girl.
When did playing ball like a girl, or throwing or running like one become synonymous with being weak and incompetent? And what does it mean when we throw around these phrases like Christmas presents from the patriarchy?
“It sounds like a bad thing. It sounds like you’re trying to humiliate someone,” said one of the girls in an ad campaign by feminine products company, Always. And it’s true, calling someone a girl is possibly the most effective way of telling them theyre not capable of achieving something. Heck it’s even done to motivate people to achieve something. And the reason it works so well is because of the idea that women are biologically, inevitably weaker than men are. Aside from some random burst of adrenaline in car-lifting super-moms, women are time and time again shown to be physically weaker. But is this a natural fact? One shouldn’t be so quick to jump to that conclusion.
Yes, there are physical distinctions between bodies assigned male or female at birth – such as bone structure, musculature, body fat distribution and the appearance and function of reproductive organs. But do these differences point to some inherent weakness in those of the female persuasion? Caitlin Constantine, author of the Fit and Feminist blog has written that “three months of a three-times-a-week resistance training program” can strengthen the muscle groups needs to do consecutive pull-ups in any woman. All it takes is some commitment to exercise. And indeed, women’s bodies are just as capable of stunning physical feats as men’s. What else would explain the fact that women like Serena Williams and Martina Navratilova have dominated the arena of Tennis? Or that Bev Francis, Australian shot put champion, became “the first woman ever to bench-press more than 330 lbs”? And if you thought physical prowess among ‘female folk’ is twentieth century, you’ve obviously never heard of Josephine Blatt and Laverie Vallee, who went by their stage names Minerva and Charmion, two Victorian era strongwomen who would have scoffed at today’s school-ground displays of bravado.
But is it enough to talk about these ‘exceptional’ women who have ‘risen above their circumstances’? Despite this, we continue to perceive women as the weaker sex, and there is another reason for this that has little to do with biology. It isn’t so much the absence of some breed of ‘She-Hulks’ in our society that we should be addressing. Constantine identifies the problem in the creation of a culture that abhors female strength. Women are, in effect, disabled by a culture that values hypersexual, hyper-feminine bodies, all of which is only a supplement for hyper-masculine strength. She writes: “Women are told it is unfeminine and gross to have muscles and to cultivate strength, which in turn leads them to actively avoid doing things that will build muscles and strength, which then makes them even less capable of doing things that require strength, which the critics then use as proof of women’s inherent physical frailty.”
This frailty, so desperately required of ‘feminine’ bodies is part of a vicious cycle instituted by our old friend the gender binary. Not only does it map frailty-as-desirability onto feminine bodies, it also expects physical strength from men for the sole reason that they were assigned male at birth. Women aren’t supposed to do the heavy-lifting. Assign all the backbreaking work to men. It’s a division of labour (and therefore not a sharing of labour) that is just plain harmful to all sexes.
Despite the fact that many urban cultures lay great emphasis on health and fitness routines, men and women have some very different agendas when they hit the gym. The expectation of women’s bodies is slim, lithe and nubile. The expectation of men’s bodies is one that exudes physical power. You’ll notice that this division of body types also have incredible commercial value. Advertisements, sporting goods and fitness companies have been able to establish a need for these body-types among their consumer base. In fact, they’ve even used this need to create their consumer base. And here’s the thing, the need for physically powerful female bodies has never been created. The need for a toned ass, on the other hand, has.
“Female bodybuilders often find themselves subject to negative reactions from the general public, even being labelled as ‘freaky’ or ‘weird'” (The Sport Psychologist’s Handbook), and with that, we come back to the image of the strongwoman as a freakshow, an idea that persists even today. It is precisely this idea that needs to be addressed in how we perceive bodies.
It is very difficult to prove that women’s bodies are just built to be weaker, when there is so much evidence to the contrary. So, to conclude, women are not by any physical or rational means the weaker sex. Society just benefits from them being seen that way. And it’s probably best we drop this charade now.