[image source: AlphaPsy blog.]
Feminist writer and philosopher Iris Marion Young once wrote a rather influential essay called Throwing Like a Girl*. It was originally published in 1980, but I first came across it in a gender studies course I did at university about ten years ago. I remember it striking a chord with me, and as it is still a text used in gender studies courses today – we read it this week – I thought I’d share some of it on my blog. I still have the original dog-eared course ‘reader’ from my undergrad days, so I pulled it out recently to see which bits I had highlighted and what sort of comments I’d written in the margins. There are quite a few asterisks, exclamation marks and “yes!”-es scribbled in the pages, alongside Young’s words, attesting to the excitement I felt when I encountered this essay for the first time.
I remember being struck by how much of it rang true for me, particularly Young’s description of the ways women tend to be self-conscious and cautious about their bodies, leading to a feeling of incapacity within themselves. Beginning with the different ways girls and boys throw a ball, Young’s essay is a philosophical (and phenomenological) investigation of embodiment; of how we live in our bodies.
“We often experience our bodies as a fragile encumbrance, rather than the media for the enactment of our aims. We feel as though we must have our attention directed upon our bodies to make sure they are doing what we wish them to do, rather than paying attention to what we want to do through our bodies” (146-7).
Young is making a generalisation about Western women and obviously there are exceptions to her claims, but in her words I could (and can) see myself. So often growing up I mistrusted the ability of my body to do things. “Oh, I can’t lift that, I’m not strong enough”, or “I won’t be able to get the ball in the net”, or “I might get hurt”, or “What if I look stupid doing that?”. A self-imposed “I cannot”, is how Young describes it. These are also things that women are taught about their bodies by society. For example, “sit with your knees together”, “that sport is for boys”, and the fact that “you throw/run like a girl” is an insult. These rules and ideas about what’s appropriate and inappropriate for the female body have implications.
Iris Marion Young argues that by looking at the different ways men and women embody their bodies – the way they live in them, move them, sit in them, understand them, how they take up space, etc. – we can get some insights into the way gendered differences play out in our society, to the detriment of women.
“Typically, the feminine body underuses its real capacity, both as the potentiality of its physical size and strength and as the real skills and coordination that are available to it” (148).
The quote above is one that, on first reading ten years ago, I underlined and asterisked. “Yes!”, I realised, “this is how I live my body”. In fact, it is only in recent years that I have begun to truly appreciate and make the most of the capacities of my body. In 2008 I trained for and completed a half-marathon, which was something I never even dreamed I’d be able to do. I was a complete non-runner before I began. I hated sport and anything resembling exercise, largely because I mistrusted my body’s abilities. So it was quite a revelation to discover that, in fact, my body could run, and with training, it could run long distances. Similarly, by attending “Body Pump” classes, where I lift weights on a barbell to music, I have noticed myself feeling stronger and more confident in my body’s abilities.
But it’s not just lack of physical training that leads to women under-utilising their bodies, according to Young. She argues that it is also manifested in the way women sit and take up space. This is easy to observe in daily life. Check out the different ways men and women use their bodies. Public transport is a good place to do this. Men take up more space when sitting, they generally take longer strides when walking. Women tend to sit cross-legged and hold their hands and arms close to their bodies.
Young attributes these differing modes of movement and use of space to a number of factors. She argues that women are conditioned by sexist society to limit their bodily capacity. For example, she says that girls play games that are largely sedentary and enclosing, and that they aren’t encouraged to develop bodily skills in the same way boys are.
But her key argument is that women are trained into fragility and self-consciousness because they are objectified.
“the fact that the woman lives her body as object as well as subject. The source of this is that patriarchal society defines woman as object, as a mere body, and that in sexist society women are in fact frequently regarded by others as objects and mere bodies. An essential part of the situation of being a woman is that of living the ever-present possibility that one will be gazed upon as a mere body, as shape and flesh that presents itself as the potential object of another subject’s intentions and manipulations, rather than as a living manifestation of action and intention. The source of this objectified bodily existence is in the attitude of others regarding her, but the woman herself often actively takes up her body as a mere thing. She gazes at it in the mirror, worries about how it looks to others, prunes it, shapes it, molds and decorates it.
This objectified bodily existence accounts for the self-consciousness of the feminine relation to her body and resulting distance she takes from her body” (155).
She goes further than this to suggest that women in contemporary society experience a constant tension and contradiction between their subjectivity and their existence as a passive bodily object, an object of the gaze, a sexual object. Here she is discussing philosophical ideas of immanence (being-in-itself) and transcendence (being-for-itself), and drawing upon Simone de Beauvoir’s discussion of these terms. For Young, the way women move – the way they throw a ball – can be explained with reference to the “tension between transcendence and immanence, between subjectivity and being a mere object” (144) that women experience.
“To the extent that a woman lives her body as a thing, she remains rooted in immanence, is inhibited, and retains a distance from her body as transcending movement and from engagement in the world’s possibilities” (150).
Young also points out that as well as the threat of objectification that women live with, “she also lives the threat of invasion of her body space. The most extreme form of such spatial bodily invasion is the threat of rape. But we daily are subject to the possibility of bodily invasion in many far more subtle ways as well. It is acceptable, for example, for women to be touched in ways and under circumstances that it is not acceptable for men to be touched, and by persons – i.e., men – whom it is not acceptable for them to touch. I would suggest that the enclosed space that has been described as a modality of feminine spatiality is in part a defense against such invasion” (155).
One example I can think of here occurs quite frequently when meeting new people. Often, I find, when men are greeting one another, a handshake will suffice. But when greeting/meeting women, a kiss on the cheek is the norm. I don’t always find this offensive, but it is sometimes alarming when it is presumed okay to kiss me when I’m meeting you for the first time! Get out of my space, person I don’t know! Does this happen to anyone else? Someone told me the other day that I should just insist on a handshake by offering my hand assertively. I think I’ll give it a try. But I think it’s a useful illustration of the way women’s bodily space is considered different to men’s.
There’s probably a lot more I could say about Iris Marion Young’s essay – perhaps something about how I don’t think women are rooted in immanence in the same way as they were before feminism came along – but I’ll leave it there for now. Please share your thoughts about gendered differences in bodily comportment. Would love to hear your experiences. Do you throw like a girl?
*Iris Marion Young, “Throwing Like a Girl: A Phenomenology of Feminine Body Comportment, Motility, and Spatiality”, in Throwing Like a Girl and Other Essays in Feminist Philosophy and Social Theory, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1990.