Monday, April 27, 2009

Why is gymnastics feminine?

Why is gymnastics “feminine”?
Julie Ermoloff
Gymnastics is viewed largely as a feminine sport. How did this belief originate and what is it about gymnastics that makes it feminine? Different aspects of the sport constitute it as a female sport such as the leotards, apparatus, and competition style. Gymnastics is seen as gender appropriate when evaluating a sport as masculine or feminine. Therefore, gymnastics is considered feminine because of the structure and aspects of the sport itself.
In 1912, many people were against women playing sports because they believed it was destroying femininity and negatively impacting females. The overarching belief was that “athletics are making girls bold, masculine and overassertive; that they are destroying the beautiful lines and curves of her figure, and are robbing her of that charm and elusiveness that has so long characterized the female sex” (Sargent 1912). Sports resulted in women with broad shoulders, narrow hips, and muscular arms, back, legs, and chest; all masculine characteristics (Sargent 1912).
Gymnastics combats this movement toward the masculine female in many ways. Gymnasts’ attire clearly depicts the female body and emphasizes aspects of the body that are characteristically female. Leotards are tight fitting and show the shape and almost every curve of the female body. Interestingly, gymnasts wear long sleeve leotards for competition; the purpose is to cover up the gymnasts’ muscular arms which is viewed as masculine. Meanwhile leotards strongly accentuate the hips, buttocks, crotch, thighs and legs, which are viewed as beautiful feminine characteristics. Therefore, gymnastics fights the fear of the masculine female in gymnasts’ attire emphasizing feminine characteristics. Also, gymnastics combats the fear of females loosing the charm and elusiveness defining femininity. The sport of gymnastics is all about showing charm. Beam and floor routines involve putting on a show in that successful gymnasts will smile and show that they are having fun. Dance is a crucial aspect of a gymnasts’ floor routine and overall gymnastics involves striving for perfection with perfect form and pointy toes and executing skills naturally, easily, and beautifully. Therefore, the feminine aspects of charm and elusiveness are expressed through gymnastics.
During the same time period, people believed that men’s athletics should be modified to meet the requirements of women because women cannot endure mental or physical strain like men can (Sargent 1912). When comparing men’s and women’s gymnastics, men’s apparatus involves strength and muscular endurance while women’s apparatus focuses more on dance, balance, and grace. Women’s floor routines involve dancing and coordinating with music, while men’s floor routines focus on tumbling. It seems that women’s gymnastics is modified men’s gymnastics in that men have more strength apparatus and more events (6) while women’s gymnastics involves less physical strength and only 4 events. Because women’s gymnastics involves less strength, this indicates the underlying belief that women cannot handle physical strain as well as men and that women are inferior physically.
A code of conduct was implemented into women’s sports during the 1940’s-50’s that set standards for women’s athletics. One rule involved women’s appearance and dress during play: “boyish bobs are not permissible and in general your hair should be well groomed at all times with longer hair preferable to short hair cuts. Lipstick should always be on” (Lesko 2005). This code of conduct is clearly seen in gymnastics. Women ensure that their hair is in place and looks neat and very presentable. Hair is usually tied back tightly and secured with hairspray without flyaways and her ponytail is controlled and neat. Women also wear makeup and sparkles during competition; especially the women’s Olympic team. This follows the code of conduct and how the rule still stands in gymnastics.
In the early years of women’s sport from 1865 to 1920, many prevailing standards and beliefs about women’s roles were challenged as a result of the beginnings of women in sport. The Victorian standard of women involved “women must at all times remain in control of their actions and behavior…physical contact challenged accepted conventions for women” (Davies 2007). Control of skills and safe execution of skills is essential in gymnastics. Successful gymnasts show control of their bodies in terms of executing skills and perfect form. Also, physical contact (which is seen as a masculine trait) is absent in gymnastics; the sport is individual and does not involve contact between two individuals. Therefore, gymnastics does not challenge standards of women’s roles in society.
The 1970’s involved the quest for equality in women’s sport and “gender appropriate” sports involving “not appropriate” vs. “wholly appropriate” views were seen. “Not appropriate” sports included “any attempt to physically subdue the opponent by bodily contact and direct application of bodily force to a heavy object” (Schultz, 2007). “Wholly appropriate” sports involve “attempts to project the body into or through space in aesthetically pleasing patterns and utilization of a manufactured device to facilitate bodily movement” (Schultz, 2007). Gymnastics is clearly viewed as a wholly appropriate sport in that gymnastics involves performing skills with excellent execution and with beauty and ease. Also, the apparatuses aid in the performance of skills and gymnastics involves performing skills on the bars, beam, floor, and vault to execute skills. Gymnastics does not involve bodily contact or bodily application to a heavy object; therefore, gymnastics would be considered a completely appropriate sport for women.
During the same time, the public viewed women’s athletics in a certain light and equated certain sports with women. “The public almost invariably thought of women’s athletics in terms of the presence or absence of ‘femininity’, they tended to equate women’s sports with expressions of beauty rather than strength…football and boxing as men’s sports and water ballet and rhythmic gymnastics as appropriate women’s sports” (Rader, 2004). Clearly, gymnastics is viewed as feminine in that the sport involves expressions of beauty instead of emphasizing strength.
All in all, gymnastics is viewed as a feminine sport because of the structure and different aspects of the sport itself. Gymnastics combats the belief that sports are making females masculine by ruining the female body and feminine charm because leotards emphasize feminine characteristics and gymnastics involves showing beauty and charm. Women’s gymnastics can be viewed as modified men’s gymnastics; this implies female’s inferiority to males. Gymnastics abides by the code of conduct originating in the 1940s and 50s. Gymnastics is considered a “wholly appropriate” sport because it involves aesthetically pleasing body projections and using a device to help movement. Gymnastics is seen as a women sport because it shows the presence of femininity from beauty.

Recommended Readings:
Meier, M. (2008). Gender Equity, Sport and Development. Swiss Academy for Development (SAD). Retrieved March 7, 2009, from http://www.sportanddev.org/learnmore/sport_and_gender/promoting_gender_equity through_sport/index.cfm?uNewsID=65.
(1894, August 20). Outdoor Sports for Women. New York Times. Retrieved from http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=9807E5DB1730E033A25753C2A96E9C 94659ED7CF.
References
Davies, R.O. (2007). Sports and the emergence of modern America. In R.O. Davies, Sports in American life: A history (pp. 83-108). Maiden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.
Lesko, J. (2005). All American Girls Professional Baseball: League Rules of Conduct. Retrieved March 7, 2009, from http://www.aagpbl.org/league/conduct.cfm.
Rader, B.G. (2004). The quest for equity in women’s sports. In B.G. Rader, American Sports: From the age of folk games to the age of televised sports, 5th ed. (pp. 330-343). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Sargent, D. S. (1912/2007). Are athletics making girls too masculine? In J. O’Reilly and S.K. Cahn, eds. Women and sports in the United States: A documentary Reader. Boston: Northeaster University Press.
Schultz, J. (2007). Topic 15: The 1970’s Quest for Equity in Women’s Sport and One Day in
September. Lecture presented in KNES 293. University of Maryland, College Park, MD.

2 comments:

crankygymnast said...

It is really only in North America that gymnastics is viewed as a girls sport, in most other countries people are smart enough to realise that it is an equal mens/womens sport and in some countries it is considered a mans sport. Inherently the attributes of mens gymnastics are very masculine - strength, power, toughness, courage. Womens gymnastics has been modified to make it not so masculine, but mens gymnastics is very masculine and most of the arguments above dont apply to mens gymnastics. And some arguments are just silly - eg no contact. Many sports such as running and swimming dont have any contact and that does not make them feminine.

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