Vol. 1 - #5
|Redefining the Body
by Jean Clough
Think about the human body for just a moment. Form a picture in your head.
Okay, so what does it look like? Is it a man? A woman?
Chances are, you formed a picture of an adult male to go with the phrase "human body." If so, you've been brainwashed -- like the rest of us. The male body is almost always depicted as the generic human body. If you look at any anatomy textbook or anatomical chart, you are shown the male body to represent "human body." The standard Anatomical Chart Company posters of muscles and skeletons that grace the walls of massage clinics, doctors offices, and high school biology classrooms are all of male figures. Oh, the illustration of the skeleton does have a dotted line faintly superimposed on the male pelvis to outline a female shape (which is quite a bit different from the male). But that doesn't amount to fair representation.
When I was in massage school, I actually counted the illustrations in my anatomy and physiology book. Ninety three percent of the pictures where a gender could be detected were of males. Luckily for us gals, the authors couldn't escape having to depict a female in the reproductive system chapter.
The teacher of the class could not figure out why I ranted about this. I tried to explain to him that this tradition of depicting humans as male is unbalanced, incorrect, and harmful to women. But the "human equals male" equation runs so deep in our culture that he, and even the other women in my class, had trouble seeing any problem with it. People so often overlook this kind of sexist representation because, like fishes uncomprehending of water, we swim in it. Human body equals male body.
The inaccurate depictions in our textbooks is just one of the many ways women's bodies are marginalized and erased. The inequity is also reflected in a medical tradition in which scientific studies have been conducted with male research subjects only. It is reflected in the shoe industry, which has traditionally created shoes for women based on the shape of the male foot, shrunk down in size. And significantly, competitive sports have a tradition of misrepresenting and trivializing women's bodies.
This brings me to the subject I mean to write about: making a new claim to our bodies through sports.
The human body: picture woman. A most amazing creation of nature. Entirely replenishable, we recreate every one of our cells in a matter of months. Extremely repairable, we can heal nearly perfectly from a broken bone, a muscle tear, a cut, a bruise. Exceedingly adaptable, we can, with just a few months of training, go from a sedentary state in which we huff and puff up a flight of stairs to having the strength and stamina to run a marathon.
We have this capacity. Picture woman.
Women were not always given room to think of ourselves as being physically capable, or to glory in the strength of our bodies. Such thoughts would have been very unladylike. We come from a tradition, a brainwashing, that women are not strong, our bodies inferior.
Women were once considered incapable of sustained athletic activity. Quite a bit of controversy surrounded the inclusion of women's distance running events in the Olympics. Authorities thought women were too frail to run more than sprint distance. The first women who ran the half-mile were convinced of their frailty, too -- several of them collapsed to the ground as they neared the finish line. Today, women running the equivalent distance handily beat the men of that era.
The gap between men's and women's times is narrowing in running events -- especially long distance. In the ultra events -- those crazy super-long marathons--the gap is disappearing altogether.
The entire world's understanding of women's bodies is changing. And the understanding women have of our own bodies is changing. We are redefining what were are capable of. It's a wonderful, exciting discovery process.
I am in the midst of discovering what my own body can do. My particular mode of exploration is triathloning -- racing through swimming, biking and running.
This is a brand new area for me, but it is perfect: It isn't overly focused on one sport, and it requires an overall fitness and strength rather than proficiency in one activity. It is a chance to look at what am made of, and to find my limits and see if I can surpass them.
Interest in triathloning seems to be exploding these days, especially among women. Simultaneously, and without having previously discussed it, several women in my group of friends and acquaintances decided to try our hand (or rather, our bodies) at triathloning.
Initially, we were all inspired by the Danskin triathlon, which is held in various cities throughout the country and is for women only. It is a relatively accessible event -- 1/2 mile swim, 12 mile bike ride and 3.2 mile run. This particular triathlon was borne out the desire to promote women's health concerns, specifically breast cancer. It brilliantly combines the two sides of the story about women's bodies: illness and wellness; women's health issues and women's athletic achievement. Judging by the huge popularity of the Danskin triathlon, this focus strikes a chord with women all over the country. Women are inspired to try. To try to tri. All kinds of women in all kinds of shape, including many survivors of breast cancer, undertake this triathlon.
I think we all know somehow that we are capable of far more than we have ever done. And with proper training and by taking the appropriate steps, we could accomplish amazing feats with our miraculous bodies.
It's about achievement. It's about redefining what we can do. The challenge is the same whether it's going back to school to get the degree we always wanted, or starting our own business, or creating a newspaper. It's about setting a goal, and then making it happen. It's about breaking through limits that have been set for us -- limits we have often internalized and believed to be true, unquestioningly.
Now I question: can I swim, bike, run? Can I make it further than I ever have before?
I remember the first televised triathlon, the 1982 Hawaii Ironman. Julie Moss, the woman who had been in the lead after swimming two miles, biking 112 miles and then running almost to the finish line, began to walk and then crawl when she was only a few hundred yards from the end. Many people have retained this image of triathloning -- the agony and suffering of an insane undertaking. But Moss was quoted saying "I felt so good when I crossed the finish line." She moved beyond her limits.
She recovered and she redefined what women's bodies can do.
The human body. Picture woman. Truly amazing. Now, I've got some running to do!
Copyright © 1999 Jean
Clough - All rights reserved by author.
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