In Victorian America, women were discouraged from being physically active. The generally accepted belief of the day was that women were naturally frail. Too much physical (or intellectual) stimulation would upset the delicate balance of their bodies and lead to physical illness, infertility, “nervous” diseases, even insanity. Women who were judged by the society to be overly liberated or overly interested in physical or mental pursuits were sometimes subjected to the “rest cure.” They were confined to their beds for weeks at a time and not allowed to have visitors, read, sit up or use their hands. It was believed that this “cure” would calm women’s bodies and minds and make them acceptably compliant and pleasingly frail. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s story The Yellow Wallpaper describes one woman’s experience of this treatment.

“Rich cultures value thin women, and poor cultures fat women, but all male-dominant cultures value weakness in women.” Gloria Steinem

Although our society no longer expects girls and women to refrain from strenuous physical activity, Colette Dowling in The Frailty Myth argues that girls in the U.S. are often discouraged from fully developing their muscles and sporting skills, and are rewarded for having small, weak, delicate bodies.

For example, according to Dowling’s research:

  • Studies show that parents routinely reward boys for active play, but reward girls for passive and quiet play; and schools encourage more large muscle skill development for boys than girls (Dowling 2000: 51-55).
  • Girls start playing organized sports an average of two years later than boys (Dowling 2000: 53) and drop out at 6 times the rate that boys do.
  • By age 4, boys perceive themselves as stronger than girls, and girls perceive themselves weaker than boys (Dowling 2000: 86).

When girls and women are discouraged from developing healthy, strong bodies, they lose out. Research shows that compared with girls who don’t play sports, girls who participate in organized sports as teens:

  • have higher grades and better self-concept,
  • do less drinking and smoking,
  • are less likely to experience teen pregnancy,
  • and have higher graduation rates and higher rates of college entry.

Later in life, physically active women have a lower incidence of osteoporosis and heart disease (Dowling 2000: 77-83). 

But standards are changing! Girls’ and women’s participation in sports has increased dramatically since the 1970s. The development of professional leagues such as the WNBA (Women’s National Basketball Association) and the WUSA (Women’s United Soccer Association) have given girls and women new, strong and active female role models.

Ask Yourself

Why would a society encourage women to be physically weak, vulnerable and powerless?

Why are girls and women in our society encouraged to reduce their size of their bodies, while boys and men are encouraged to build up their bodies to be bigger and stronger?

Why are boys encouraged to play contact sports such as football and hockey, while women are encouraged to take up sports such as tennis, figure-skating or gymnastics?