By Rae Pica
For a number of years, as I've traveled around the country on airplanes, I've been acutely aware that men demand more space than women. Not only are they typically larger in size, but also they have a tendency to take up more than their "allotted" space. If I happen to be seated next to a man on a plane, I can count on not using the armrest on the side on which he's seated because he'll have appropriated it, along with the one on his other side. And, if I have the great misfortune to be seated between two men, I won't get an armrest at all and will have to settle for having elbows tucked into my sides throughout the flight.
In the past, I've always attributed this male tendency to simple lack of awareness. But, since reading an article entitled "Throwing like a Girl" by a researcher whose name didn't appear on my copy I've come to realize there's a lot more involved.
According to this article, girls are taught to take up less "space" than boys. Eventually, one of the effects of this is that girls do not use their whole bodies to throw just the arm, and sometimes only the lower part of the arm.
Additionally, research has shown that girls and boys receive other, very different messages as children. Girls are not only taught to be caring and nurturing (while boys discover aggression receives attention), but also girls are kept closer to home, given fewer physical challenges, and are made to feel more fragile. Boys, on the other hand, are encouraged to explore, compete, and assert themselves. They're later more willing to take risks to participate in displays of "bravado" regardless of their level of skill or coordination.
Are females more fearful? Do we actually "approach a physical engagement with timidity, uncertainty, and hesitancy"? I know I do. I also recall I wasn't always like that.
When I was a young girl, we lived in a house with a very high set of front steps. At the top of the steps, which were made of concrete, it was possible to climb onto the top of the "banister," which was actually more like a platform. From there you could jump off the side and down to the cement below approximately a distance of 10 feet. The neighborhood kids and I used to dare each other to do it and I met the challenge more often than anybody! While still living in that neighborhood (which we left when I was 13), my favorite carnival ride was a thriller called the Wild Mouse, I learned how to do cartwheels down the middle of the street, and I chased a neighborhood boy a quarter of a mile with a snake in my hand.
Later recollections are of an adolescent girl participating in physical education class, who ducked whenever a ball came hurtling her way, did everything she could to avoid the field hockey sticks being brandished about, and positively balked at the idea of climbing the rope. Today, I would ride the Wild Mouse only in exchange for a million dollars, and even after years of dance training, I'm still unable to do a double pirouette for fear of falling!
What happened to my bravado? Why, in my early teens, was I so sure I couldn't possibly get up that rope? Had I heard too many admonitions to "sit like a lady?" Had I spent too many years witnessing my splendidly tall aunt slouching so as not to appear so tall? Had my father placing books on my head and instructing me to walk with proper posture negatively as well as positively affected me? (I knew it meant he cared about me and I'm grateful for it but he never put books on my brothers' heads, despite the similarities in postures.)
As "Throwing Like a Girl" points out, there are, of course, exceptions and my friend Patti appears to be one of them. She's fiercely competitive, plays church-league softball with mostly men, and runs up and down stairs while I step daintily so as not to fall. In other words, Patti doesn't approach any physical task with a lack of confidence or fear of getting hurt. And when she throws a ball, her whole body is involved! As she told me, she's always made every effort not to "throw like a girl."
Why the difference between us? As the article indicates, much of the typical "female comportment" can be explained by "lack of practice in using the body and performing tasks". Patti had no such lack of practice. The oldest of five children, she grew up on a dairy farm and was fully expected to perform a number of physical chores on a daily basis. She rode horses often with abandon. And her closest friends and playmates as she was growing up were her male cousins; anything they could do, she was determined to do better.
However, I suspect the greatest difference between us was the validation she received specifically from her father and favorite grandfather for her physicality and "tomboyishness." The article's author states, "Insofar as we learn to live out our existence in accordance with the definition that patriarchal culture assigns to us, we are physically inhibited, confined, positioned, and objectified". The patriarchs in Patti's "society" treated her as no different from her male cousins, and later from her brother. When she climbed a tree, her father urged her to go higher. When she returned home from church and changed from her dress back into her jeans, her grandfather smiled and said, "There's the Patti I know."
Of course, "Throwing Like a Girl" was first presented in 1977. Certainly, girls today are participating in sports in greater numbers. Members of the U.S. women's volleyball and hockey teams are venerated, offering today's girls role models such as I never had. And the opportunities for women continue to grow. My hope is that, soon, "femininity" will no longer be a delimiting term.
I think there may even be hope for women of my generation. Now that I'm past my forties, I find I've begun to resist some of that early "training" at least as far as my spatial "consumption" is concerned. At this point, I may never throw a ball with the force of my whole body, or attack a volleyball or badminton birdie with the aggression of a male. But I do take every opportunity to not sit like a lady. When seated on the aisle on a plane, my outside foot is often perched on the back of the armrest in front of me. When addressing my class at UNH, I usually sat cross-legged atop the desk.
In general, I find I'm more willing to open my body "in free, active, open extension and bold outward-directedness". Perhaps this newfound freedom is partly a result of my dance training. Perhaps it's the result of 24 years spent giving presentations before an audience. Or perhaps it's simply "post-adolescent" rebellion! But, regardless of the reason for it, I hope today's generation and future generations of females find this freedom a lot earlier in life!
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