on “Throwing Like a Girl”

[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.

She argues:

“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.


16 Responses to “on “Throwing Like a Girl””

  1. Deborah Says:

    She’s one of my all-time favourites. I heard her speak at the ANU some years ago, and last year, I got my students to read some chapters from Justice and the Politics of Difference. I’ve got a quote from her essay, “Breasted experience”, in my Friday Feminist series on my blog. The essay is one of the other essays in Throwing like a girl….

    Then there’s this bit from To Kill a Mockingbird:

    “Jem, please-”

    “Scout, I’m tellin’ you for the last time, shut your trap or go home – I declare to the Lord your’ gettin’ more like a girl every day!”

    With that, I had no option but to join them.

    I throw like myself.

  2. doctorpen Says:

    Hi Deborah – how wonderful to have been able to hear her speak! And thanks for linking to your post about ‘breasted experience’.

    Lovely quote from Mockingbird! I’ve been reading to read it again. 🙂

  3. Rachel @ Musings of An Inappropriate Woman Says:

    I remember studying this article in Gender Studies and loving it as well. It’s one of the articles that has most stuck with me – I think it articulates the sense of “not being able to do this” that a lot of women feel when it comes to sport really well, and I’m inclined to agree with Iris Marion Young’s suggestion that it might be because we tend to not trust our bodies and overthink our movement.

    I remember, shortly after reading the article, playing a game of “tenskitball” (basketball with tennis balls) with a friend, and trying to put Young’s arguments into action, focusing on what we wanted our bodies to accomplish rather than on how we would manipulate them to accomplish them. Similarly, when bowling with my partner and one of his friends last week, I noticed my game improved dramatically (from dismal to half-way respectable) when I started focusing on the pins I wanted to hit rather than how I was moving the ball.

    I can’t say I’m a fan of the amount of space some men take up on the bus, though! It’s one thing to be confident in yourself; it’s another to be entirely inconsiderate of your body’s impact on other people.

  4. Nadz Says:

    ‘You throw like a girl’ is a funny thing. I guess one of the things that really hits home with me is that girls cannot throw as fast or as hard as guys. Playing on a mixed bball team has really hit this home to me. Guys can belt it to you and when they are passing the ball, they often OVER estimate how fast a girl can move or how fast they can catch. One of the things I always tell my guys is that when passing to a girl, just notch it down a bit and don’t expect us to run/jump as fast. So while there may be the saying ‘You throw like a girl’, do people consciously think this when they are playing or interacting with girls? I’m not so sure! Guys I’ve played with always expect us to be able to catch and throw just like them until we tell them otherwise.

    “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).

    I find this comment really interesting. While I think some women/girls do not get told this there is also an element of what girls see as what they want. Girls often exercise to lose weight or be healthy. It is rare for a girl to say they are exercising to be faster or stronger. Our focus as women at the gym is generally to look a certain way. Girls are afraid of doing weights because they don’t want to look butch – when in all reality it is EXTREMELY hard to get big and it is not something that happens by accident.

    I know you are a big fan of Body Pump, a lot of girls are. I wish more girls would get involved and do free weights, because this is where you can really feel your body and test what it can do. But more than anything, I wish women would stop exercising because they want to lose weight. I wish women would get out there and exercise so they can be the best they can be.

    When I’m at the gym, I repeat to myself ‘I will be stronger, I will be better, I will be faster’ when I’m on the treadmill. I always say we should focus on what we want to become rather than what we don’t want to be. The motivation behind ‘I want to lose weight’ vs ‘I want to be stronger’ is the negative v the positive.

    When it comes to girls doing sports, girls are definitely less willing to give sports a go. When it comes to the weekends and I go to the basketball courts just to shoot around it is 99.5% of the time guys out there. Girls rarely go to each other, hey, let’s hang out and go play sport, kick a ball around. We rather go shopping, eat or if anything, go do a gym class together.

    I want to be as strong as I can be – I don’t want to be a dress size.

    • doctorpen Says:

      There are some great comments here. Thanks Nadz. 🙂

      I agree with you – there’s definitely a big difference in exercising to lose weight or look a certain way and exercising to get fit and strong. With the former, women are generally living up to the aspect of embodiment that Young talks about, ie. that women live their bodies as objects to be looked at.

      And interesting that the men on your team need to be asked to tone down their throws to the women. I suppose it’s good to know that they think women are just as physically capable as them. 🙂

  5. doctorpen Says:

    Yeah, it’s a great article. I’m glad it’s still in the reader. 🙂

    Ugh, yes, men often take up so much space on bus seats. Grr. The students talked about that in the lecture.

    I’ve experienced similar things with regard to throwing/sport. I tend to worry too much about how I’m doing it, instead of just doing it. Or, I also remember worrying about what I looked like (eg. will my belly show if I throw like that, or are my boobs bouncing too much) which is really not conducive to the getting the task done.

  6. Julia Says:

    I was discussing the concept of throwing like a girl with Steph the other day.

    Our dad is quite a feminist, and with three daughters he was very encouraging with regards to physical stuff and sports in particular.

    He tried really hard to teach us to run and throw and catch really well. To do that, you do need to take up a lot of space, and the space issue is one I’m so conscious of, both in that I try to minimise the space I take up AND that I’m aware that it’s stupid, gendered ideas that make me feel that way.

    In the end, I think that those influences ended up being stronger than my dad’s, which is a shame.

    • doctorpen Says:

      That *is* a shame. I think it’s a pretty common experience though. I also have a theory that the onset of puberty relates somehow to a girl’s loss of self-confidence and the onset of “I should take up as little space as possible” paranoia. Perhaps this could be the basis for another blog entry. 🙂

      Thanks for commenting. Sorry I took so long to approve the comment. I’ve been rather flat-out these last couple of weeks. I can tell I haven’t updated or done anything with Pondering Postfeminism for a while, because I forgot my bloody password. Ha.

  7. Global Feminist Link Love: April 26 – May 2 « Gender Across Borders Says:

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  8. katie Says:

    When I first learned to throw a punch my martial arts instructor explained that throwing a punch really is the same body mechanic as throwing a baseball. All the men in the class were nodding like ‘OK, I get it’, and the women were all looking blankly like ‘Whuh?’. It turned out none of the women had thrown a baseball before.

    But I’ve practised a lot since then and while I still don’t know how to throw a ball, I can punch bloody hard.

  9. Katherine Says:

    Interesting. I don’t think the “taking up less space” is always intrinsically linked to the “I don’t feel like my body can do anything”. Because of my upbringing, I never got indoctrinated with thoughts that I couldn’t do anything. I frequently overestimate what I can lift, how hard I can punch or how far I can cope with walking/running.

    But I do still try to take up as little space in public as possible, which is only polite as there are other people in public. I constantly have to deal with people being totally unaware that no-one can get past them or fit next to them because they have no idea how much extra space they are taking up simply through positioning themselves badly or sitting/standing in such a way that it seems they are deliberately taking up twice as much space as they need.

    Might just be that I’m strange though.

    One other thing is that you don’t get taught how to throw/kick/punch/run at school unless you join a sports team, which you only do if you can already throw/kick/punch/run reasonably well… Wish they taught people to be aware of their surroundings and how little space they should take up in public though.

  10. Throwing Like A Girl | A Body's In Trouble Says:

    […] This is the title of an essay by Iris Marion Young that looks like it might be relevant to embodiment and gender issues. I am trying to get hold of a copy. In the meantime there is this review: On Throwing Like A Girl” […]

  11. Paul Says:

    An interesting read. I came across this site whilst looking for an answer to whether girls couldn’t throw because of a difference in biological/physical make up from men that I didn’t know about. An under developed muscle or some difference in the function of the arm? Whilst this article hasn’t answered that question it does raise some interesting psychological reasons for differences in the genders, and extra comments.

    I think it is a shame that there seems to be a general trend with women to develop an increasing lack of confidence in themselves as they grow up. I witness it first hand with my wife, who if I didn’t know better could be being described in a number of the comments above: she goes to the gym to do classes with the mantra of “I want to lose weight”, loves body pump/combat, looks like she is holding herself in as tightly as she can with arms always tucked in close to her chest, and despite wanting to “lose weight” seems to hate all sport – to the extent that she won’t even watch it as a spectator. Unfortunately it seems to be the same with most women I have met growing up, the ray of light I suppose is the slowly increasing coverage of womens sport on the TV, and some of the noticeably different attitudes to life you see from women mostly from Australia and USA.

    To defend/explain some male traits highlighted in this blog, I’d like to say that I consider myself to be quite accommodating on public transport, and that I haven’t noticed either men or women being particularly space-greedy (excluding the unfortunate people of a larger persuasion, or any undesirables who tend to linger in the back seats of the bus). This could be a anomaly due to where I live or the specific buses I tend to take, but I’d rather believe it is a general trend towards a more considerate society? I do find that the worst pavement hoggers are by far women though, since it was brought up by Kathrine, and that it is indicative of the female attitude if you think that you have to be good at something before you can join a sports team at school. I was put in a “Rugby school” when I was a young teen after living out of the country for all my life. I had never even heard of the word rugby let alone played the game, and resented that the school did not have a football team to join instead. However I learnt the game and worked at the skills involved, and by the time I left school had played for our top team and consider rugby to be one of my favourite sports.

    Finally as far as getting a kiss on the cheek as a greeting goes, all I can say is that as a bloke is, that is the most unsure and tense moment you will have. Do I: shake hands, hug, kiss or a some combination of the three, will she be offended if you do, will she be offended if you don’t… There has been a change in society which means that your actions as a male are under bigger scrutiny then anyone else. This leads many men to ask the question of what they can and can’t do? I think most men wait to see if there are signs of the woman leaning in during the initial hand shake, before they dare to attempt the old peck on the cheek. I know I do!!

    Apologies for the long winded post, hope it has at least one interesting point in it!

  12. Do ladylike values clash with the norms of sports performance? | Fit, Feminist, and (almost) Fifty Says:

    […] and self-consciousness because we are objectified. You can read more about Young’s views here at the blog Pondering […]

  13. The Psychology of Gender Stereotypes | Theory Games Says:

    […] as gender typing, gender stereotypes and objectification theory. And after reading Iris Young’s, Throwing Like a Girl, I found many connections between her essay and and material from my psych […]

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    […] Young’s “Throwing Like a Girl” highlights the issue of gender roles in our modern society and how these issues manifest in how […]

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