The Frailty Myth: Women Approaching Physical Equality

by Colette Dowling

Published by Random House

304 pages, 2000

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Donning Sensible Shoes

Reviewed by J.M. Bridgeman


Not so long ago, I was part of a small band of women pushing our way into a previously all-male workplace. We were called, as a group, "the women in sensible shoes." This was, of course, a euphemism. It meant "manly women," women who, by rejecting the stereotypes of femininity, were supposedly signaling our lack of interest in men as sexual partners. The men, trained since childhood to know that the best defense is an offense, were quick to point out how un-feminine and unattractive we were. It was the greatest insult they could think of to show us their disdain, to impress upon us just how much we were not welcome there in a man's world. The Frailty Myth: Women Approaching Physical Equality explains the origins of such attitudes and how our male-dominated society has conspired to keep women weak, submissive and in need of protection. It goes on to challenge the "myth" and to outline the necessary changes in perspective and posture that ensure greater equality for women.

In The Frailty Myth, Colette Dowling defines physical equality as: "equal opportunity to become physically educated; equal opportunity to compete in sports; equal opportunity to develop muscular strength. Last but not least, I mean equal opportunity to learn how to defend ourselves." Her definition highlights the limits of this book, alerting readers that the thesis itself seems to be missing something. "What's stopping you?" would be my first question; the access issues seem rather basic. But she concludes that definition by adding: "If women should ever demonstrate that they're just as strong, agile, and enduring as men, the whole game would be up." By the time Dowling concludes, in the last chapter, that "Physical equality ... puts an end to domination .... By making themselves physically equal, women can at last make themselves free," this reader is not convinced. By this logic, "physically challenged" individuals are destined to live a life without freedom, dominated by others. This is a "might is right" argument. What planet are we on here? Who says it's a game?

Indeed, before I even got into this book, I was already arguing with it. The Frailty Myth. Right, it is a myth and no longer affects self-directed individuals. Physical Equality? Men and women are physically different. Equality seems to imply that we want to be physically like men, that we can be physically as strong as men, that size means nothing. I am not convinced. If Dowling had chosen as her title "Physical Self-Esteem," I would be more comfortable. Self-esteem comes from within; each individual can achieve her own potential. But "physical equality" implies an external measure in a sport (life) that does not sort participants according to weight and size.

Dowling has published seven previous books in the self-help/ Women's Studies genre. Indeed, her 1981 work The Cinderella Complex: Women's Hidden Fear of Independence is still in print. The Frailty Myth corrects The Cinderella Complex's impression of woman-bashing by celebrating pioneer and high-achieving female athletes. However, the cover photograph, a beautiful shot of a female pitcher, reveals more than it intends. The photo suggests that "throwing like a man" is the ideal, the norm and thus, the goal. Here is visual evidence that Dowling has "bought into" the "male dominance myth" and argues that women's success means doing things the way men do them -- playing with "the best of them" and beating them at their own games. This "male wannabe" attitude is already outdated. In the 20 years since The Cinderella Complex was first published, this approach has been recognized as the "Daddy's girl" syndrome. Women who idolize their fathers and want desperately to win male attention and approval strive for high achievement on previously masculine turf, especially in academics. Their work tends to be "mother absent," suggesting that they have not yet come to terms with their mother issues and thus with their feminine selves. Such women tend to denigrate the female way of doing things, repeating the pattern of their fathers who taunted them to please Daddy by "being more like a man." The problem with this approach is that its unquestioning acceptance of masculine ideals results in a disregarding and/or disparaging of the feminine.

This kowtowing to male-dominated society is the hidden agenda of The Frailty Myth. The unquestioned assumption is that, for women to succeed, we have to twist and contort ourselves into behaving like males. The minority (female) culture is evaluated based upon dominant (male) cultural norms. The absence of two important words tweaks reader concern. Nowhere in all the discussion about rape and assault and self-defense does the term "testosterone" appear. It does not fit the writer's conviction that everything is "culture, not nature." And nowhere does the writer admonish women to be assertive. Everything is aggression. Indeed, she uses the phrase "embracing the violence." This book fails to question the possibility that "dominance" itself is the myth that distracts our attention from many more important issues. Dowling buys into the pathology of "the dominance myth" and encourages women to "go for it." This book is an argument still tottering in stiletto heels. Dowling foregoes the sensible shoes, using the money from her matching handbag to buy a gun instead.

The Frailty Myth, in accepting male values as society's norms, is far too conservative, a defense of the status quo. Dowling does not question the inadequacy inherent in the strut of dominance, the reality that men who resort to abuse and violence are cowardly and weak and act out of impotence. Nor does she analyze the values -- the "not being good enough" -- which lie beneath competitiveness. Her argument does not question entitlement; it merely demands entitlement for females too. Moreover, she equates physical achievement with organized team and competitive events, ignoring the many noncompetitive approaches to physical well-being. Dowling also fails to look at the connection between physical activity and leisure, although she does mention that the first women in the Olympics were rich golfers who just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Finally, Dowling does not forward the debate between the "victim" feminists and the "power" feminists. Blaming systems and society for imposing the frailty myth upon women, Dowling sounds like a "victim" feminist trying to change her spots, to daub on a camouflage of "power" and walk as if there is nothing to be afraid of. Of course, confidence is important, but it cannot be detached from common sense.

To discourage anyone from any pursuit by negative thinking, by subtle or overt verbal or physical abuse is wrong. Being able to pursue physical power dreams is a legitimate goal. However, where self-defense instructors stress the importance of prevention, of anticipating and avoiding danger, of using the head and the feet first, to run away, for both male and female trainees, Dowling says "learn self-defense and get a gun." This jumping into the fray, embracing gun violence, is ultimately neither sensible nor self-empowering. Demanding access to the status quo rather than imagining alternate better worlds, this argument diminishes us all.

The Frailty Myth: Women Approaching Physical Equality does document how far we have come and reminds us of how recently discrimination against women was rampant. The Frailty Myth sketches the history of attitudes towards and gains made for women athletes. Furthermore, it draws a picture of undeveloped physical potential in all women and of the negative social consequences of choosing to be frail -- lack of confidence, fearfulness, timidity, avoidance of risk-taking, dependency. Finally, it points out how people in authority, including parents, can help effect positive change. You'll want to give this book away when you finish reading it. Pass it on to your daughters, to your friends who have daughters, to teachers, coaches, school administrators, recreation directors, legislators. There is valuable history here, and much else to initiate impassioned discussion. | December 2000


J. M. Bridgeman is a contributing editor at Suite 101 as well as January Magazine.