Strong but dainty

John Protevi on body dimorphism in gymnastics.

…a glaring instance of gender inequality is with the sport that is usually said to get the best TV ratings, women’s gymnastics. The difference is in the disciplines. The men do 6 disciplines: floor, vault, pommel horse, high bar, parallel bars, and rings. The women do floor (but with music, which the men do not have), vault (but with the horse placed horizontal to the runway, whereas it is longways for the men), uneven parallel bars, and balance beam.

The resulting difference in demands produces a striking body dimorphism, with women gymnasts being very small and thin in the upper body compared to the men.

Indeed – also very young; also very small all over as well as in the upper body; also very made-up and with sparkly stuff in their hair. They’re part athlete part dancer part showgirl. It’s seriously weird.



  1. says

    …and this year, they’re wearing Disney princess, bubble gum pink and I just wanna HURL! pun intended. We need more butch gymnasts! Without eating disorders! Who’ve sprouted some pubes. What we have now is damn near lolicon

  2. says

    Really. What they do requires a huge amount of strength as well as balance and speed and all the rest of it – why aren’t they allowed to look like athletes? Why do they have to look like ballet dancers? Ballet is extremely athletic too but it is at least dance, so you can see why it looks like dance. But gymnastics? Women’s gymnastics only? Nuh uh.

  3. otrame says

    I quit watching “women’s” gymnastics about 20 years ago, when I realized the dedication required to be a world class athlete in the sport. “School and gym”–absolutely nothing else, for years. In the old days this regimen started when they were still too young, but were old enough that you could kid yourself that it was what they really wanted. That was back when the world records were held by 17-19 year-olds. Now the process gets serious when they are 7 or 8, sometimes younger.

    It’s child abuse.

  4. julian says

    What we have now is damn near lolicon

    It’s definitely creepy.

    Which isn’t to say I don’t think a girl shouldn’t look like that if she enjoys it. But the entire sport seems to be selecting for it for no legitimate reason.

    It’s child abuse.

    For some reason people are hesitant to call “pushing” a child towards “success” child abuse.

  5. says

    Yes; they’re way too young. When did that start? Was it Comaneci?

    And it’s so dangerous. The beam scares the hell out of me, especially the dismount. There was that one gymnast who broke her neck…

    I like watching the athleticism though.

  6. says

    I get kind of annoyed with all the posing and musical routines and stuff. Look, if I want to watch dancers, I’d watch dance. Gymnasts? Are LOUSY dancers. I’m watching athletes; give me the athleticism and don’t insult my intelligence or their abilities by assuming I won’t watch without glitter, makeup, music, and silly pseudo-dancing.

  7. Suido says

    I have issues with this analysis. Yes, gymnastics was developed along gender lines in stupidly misogynistic ways, which has led to the current situation of inculcated different values. Yes, that’s bad. I have never liked the dance components of women’s gymnastics, on floor or beam, and think that rhythmic gymnastics should be reclassified as a type of ballroom dance. However:

    First, factual errors:
    The vaulting horse has been replaced by a vault table which is the same for men and women. Evidence of some progress in recognising that men and women are equally capable.

    Second, the word dainty. Bullshit. Have you ever stood next to an elite female gymnast? They’re not dainty. Dainty can’t vault, dainty can’t tumble, dainty is not competing at the Olympics.

    Third, age. By having young children in high performance programs and teenage competitors at the highest level, gymnastics is no different to many other sports. Swimming, for example, has its own 16 year old sensation at these Olympics, and I remember Ian Thorpe winning a world championship at 14. If this is about age, broaden the scope of the argument and criticise elite sport in general for child abuse. Yes, female gymnastics is a good example for that argument, but so is ballet, so is swimming, etc.

    Moving on. If we could turn back time and have women and men compete on the same apparatus, that would be great, and I would absolutely love to see the music removed from women’s floor routines and the dance elements removed from floor and beam. I think they’re unnecessary and ridiculous when contrasted to the athletic skills on display. The make up and glitter is, I think, an unfortunate and unnecessary addition, but who’s going to tell a young girl she can’t have glitter in her hair like hge at her first ever competition? That’s how it starts, and then it continues. That’s society and culture, not a demand of the sport.

    However, assuming that time travel is out of the question, and that we are to continue with 8 different apparatuses, each requiring different skill sets which have been developed in astonishing ways within the physical constraints of the apparatus to showcase gymnastic ability, we have a different challenge.

    The key reason for much bigger, stronger men is rings, secondary reason is pommels. The strength requirements for rings are such that younger gymnasts are at a disadvantage, so the peak age is delayed till the mid twenties. Could the sport be altered to increase the optimal strength, height and weight of female gymnasts, thereby making it more likely that women peak at a later age? Sure, and I think that would be a good thing.

    Unfortunately, easy fixes (like increasing the max height of the bars or the length of the beam) won’t necessarily mean shorter gymnasts are at a disadvantage (they could then squeeze more skills in to the longer/higher arrangement).
    Bigger fixes, such as fundamentally changing the sport, face the problem of inertia within the current system.

  8. peterb says

    That’s what you get when a ‘sport’ is judged solely by the aesthetics of its performance, and not by anything capable of being measured objectively – it’s just another form of showbiz, in which the way the performers present themselves is at least as important as what they can do. Difficult though gymnastics and synchronised swimming and ice dancing might be to do well, they are no more worthy of being Olympic sports than ballet or baton twirling.

  9. Jean says

    peterb, you obviously know very little about the sport or how it is judged. I agree that there is a lot to discuss and criticize about the sport especially on the women’s side but claiming that this is a ‘sport’ that shouldn’t be at the Olympics is unwarranted.

    I don’t know of another sport that requires control of so many different aspect of someone’s body as gymnastics. But I’ll admit I’m biased on this subject having been a (male) gymnast many decades ago.

  10. Tony •King of the Hellmouth• says


    They’re part athlete part dancer part showgirl. It’s seriously weird.

    I know you’re talking about gymnastics, but I noticed the makeup on some of the female swimmers (I think it was the synchronized swimmers) and thought it looked ridiculous. Why do they need to have *any* make up?
    :::facetious voice::: I thought the Olympics was supposed to be a celebration of physical achievements of humans from across the globe, not how they look.

  11. Beauzeaux says

    Not all the gymnasts have glitter or wear makeup. Look at someone besides the USA team. I’ve followede gymnastics and some other sports for about 40 years. The fact is that the female gymnasts are LESS anorexic-looking now than they have been for years.
    And Suido is correct in all things.

  12. Stacy says

    they are no more worthy of being Olympic sports than ballet or baton twirling

    Perhaps ballet should be an Olympic event. According to one famous study it’s the toughest sport there is.

    Dr. James A. Nicholas, a pioneer in the treatment of sports injuries (he operated on Joe Namath’s knees and saved the man’s career) did a study that was published in The Journal of Sports Medicine in the mid 1970s. According to the New York Times:

    The study, which examined 61 different activities, ranked ballet most physically and mentally demanding, followed by bullfighting and then football

    (I remember hearing about the study at the time, but my Google Fu has failed to turn up anything more authoritative than that brief mention in the Times.)

  13. says

    I also disagree with ‘dainty’–I think they have a lot of upper body muscle, and I’ve noticed this year that they have really muscly necks. Muscles develop per the demands of the physical activity. I don’t think they’re not allowed to develop bigger muscles because of aesthetic reasons. They develop the muscles they need to compete in their sport, which mostly involves hauling their own weight through space. It’s not an advantage to have a lot of bulky muscle.

    I really wish they could just flip around on beam and floor, though, and skip the dance moves. Although the stiff-legged step to the side the men do on floor is equally funny. I’m also not a huge fan of the leotards, and I say that as someone who studied ballet very seriously and has spent a lot of time in a leotard.

    It’s true that kids can be forced into these things, but it’s hardly true for all kids, and those that are forced into it aren’t usually successful. You need a lot of internal discipline to train day in and day out. To put it bluntly, no Olympian was an average child. In the end I decided against pursuing a career in professional ballet (and the odds are about the same as making it to the Olympics) but I don’t regret all the hours I spent in the studio. Those were some very formative hours, and I feel grateful for the opportunity. I don’t feel that I missed out on some essential teenage experience. I got to have my own unique experiences.

    And going to the Olympics would be an amazing experience! People like to portray gymnasts (and ballet dancers) as victims, or talk about how much they sacrifice to train all the time, but I bet the US team thinks everything was worth it to be Olympic champions. And young as they are, they’ve all had to make decisions about their lives. Hard ones, like moving away from home to train.

    These sports aren’t judged purely on aesthetic criteria. Like I said, I think they should ditch the pseudo-dancing, but the judging is guided by objective standards, i.e. completed rotations, vertical line of handstands, how well they land.

  14. OurSally says

    I am working on being the Olympic grinch. I have managed not to see any sport at all. But the menfolk do have it running all day.

    So why do the women run and jump wearing bikinis when the men are allowed to be fully clothed? And as for beach volleyball … just a form of soft pornography.

    I think any activity which has marks for “style” is not a sport. Gosh, synchronised diving. Posturing on ice. Teenage girls waving their legs around. Horses skipping. Awfully clever, but not sport. Still, it’s what people want, I suppose.

  15. Kathy says

    You know, I actually went to a men’s gymnastics qualifying session last weekend, and I must disagree with that comment on style. We were sat in the very back row of the O2, at the very top, we had the worst view it was possible to have, and yet we could still tell who the best gymnasts on each apparatus was. It was the ‘style’ in their performance that gave it away – when someone performs a move really well, it just looks stylish! The fluidity and flair of someone performing at the top of the sport it was makes it truly remarkable.

    The judges aren’t basing their scores on who has glitter in their hair or who looks prettiest or daintiest.

  16. Godless Heathen says

    I think someone mentioned this up thread, but gymnastics isn’t the only sport that requires hours of training to become an Olympic caliber athlete. Just wanted to throw that out there.

  17. Corvus illustris says

    “For some reason people are hesitant to call ‘pushing’ a child towards ‘success’ child abuse.” But what do you do when a kid manifests extremely high talent in a narrow area early in life? Suppose it’s music–were Mozart and Beethoven abused children? (Probably no and yes, respectively.) Are child actors abused? Or kids that manifest high mathematical ability early? Should one concentate on developing the talent, taking chances about other parts of life? Particularly in the US (except when the talent is athletic) parents frequently opt for leveling downward in the name of having a “well-adjusted” child, but these seem to be very hard questions with no glib answers.

  18. Dunc says

    Compare and contrast with women’s vs men’s fencing… Same events, same equipment, similar builds – you could hardly tell which was which except when they took their masks off. And those women fencers are fierce!

  19. Dave says

    The real problem with girls’ gymnastics [as I think we’re agreed it is teenage girls at the core of the sport] is that it’s utterly destructive of their bodies in a way that few other sports are. GB’s Beth Tweddle, who has been winning medals since she was 17, 10 years ago, is now a wreck, undergoing almost continuous medical treatment to continue competing. I hope she now retires, having just won an Olympic bronze. Really, the whole sport has just become a bad idea.

  20. says

    I took up competitive fencing after I decided to scale back on ballet. Fun fact: fencers used to get points for style as well as touches against their opponents. Now it doesn’t matter what you look like, so long as you stick ’em with the pointy end. I think fencing is also more mutually supportive between the men’s and women’s teams than most sports, probably because men and women frequently train together. So that’s cool. But fencing is also unusual in that it doesn’t develop a specific build. Most sports do, and athletes’ bodies vary depending on the demands of the sport. Compare sprinters vs marathoners, for example. In other sports, having a particular build is a clear advantage–hence the tall basketball players and swimmers with long ‘wingspans’.

    Also, ballet is very athletic and has stringent technical standards, but it’s an art, not a sport. It’s goal isn’t competition.

    And you’re right, Corvus illustris, that families have to make tough decisions when faced with a talented kid who is driven in one direction. Success in a very competitive field generally requires single-minded dedication over many years starting at a young age. Some people want to do that, others don’t. And I think that’s fine, as long as kids are allowed to change their minds if they’re unhappy. The problems arise when parents try to live vicariously through their children, or see their child’s success as integral to their own identity.

    Sorry if this has diverged too much from the original topic!

  21. says

    suido and Bix – you missed my point about “dainty” – or rather you reversed it. I’m not saying they’re not strong, I’m saying they are strong so why does that have to be presented as dainty via the costumes, hair, makeup, glitter, hand gestures, and facial expressions?

    Dave – I know – but then the same is true of ballet, but dancers do it anyway because they crave it. They know they’re doomed to terrible arthritis starting very early. I’m not sure what to think about this.

  22. says

    OK, I see your point. I thought people were commenting about their actual bodies being dainty. I don’t like the way it’s presented either.

    You’re right that both gymnastics and ballet are rough on the body, but I wouldn’t say that all ballet dancers are doomed to arthritis. Ballet schools and companies are way better at injury prevention and physical therapy than they used to be, and I think people are more cautious about pushing teenagers too far, because growing bodies are more injury-prone. Gymnasts seem to peak around age 16, but really good dancers are considered in their prime in their early 30s, when they’re stronger and more artistically mature (since it’s an art). Yes, injuries come with the territory and everyone has to decide how much of that they’re willing to take. They do it because they’re passionate about it, but saying they ‘crave’ it makes it sound like an addiction they can’t control, rather than a career for which they make a series of conscious decisions.

  23. says

    I know. I hesitated over the word, and I’m not crazy about that one – but dancers do tend to view it that way. It is a kind of addiction – they want to do it despite knowing the physical consequences. “Passion” would be a less pejorative word, I guess…but there is a little addiction involved. Runners will tell you that too; so will workout junkies.

    I don’t exactly think that’s a bad thing. I think a passion that leaves you battered is preferable to no passion. But…I have qualms, too.

  24. says

    And then, about its being “a career for which they make a series of conscious decisions” – that’s extremely dubious, since the decisions are made in childhood. Children don’t know from careers and their conscious decisions are made with underdeveloped frontal cortices.

  25. says

    It’s definitely true that one’s goals and desires change through time, and that kids aren’t fully equipped to make big life decisions. My point is that as adults dancers continually evaluate their careers, and they have to be brutally realistic about their prospects for success. It is true that when dancers retire it generally feels like letting go of a childhood dream, and that can be really crushing.

    I’m just kind of sensitive to the way ballet dancers are portrayed, because I’ve encountered a lot of weird stereotypes.

  26. says

    But then I don’t think it’s like letting go of a childhood dream so much as it is letting go of something you love doing in the present. If it were just a childhood dream it wouldn’t keep going.

  27. eric says

    Many sports favor one body type or another. That’s okay. The problem with gymnastics is that it selected women’s events differently from men’s, likely on a cultural basis (remove rings from the women’s because it requres great strength).

    I think gymnastics generally pushes its competitors towards a high strength/weight ratio. Which for most humans means: petite. Even if we made both mens and womens gymnastics the same, I’d bet the women would still look like they do, because of the physics.* At least then, however, we could say that the ‘gymnastic look’ is due to the general requirements of the sport (like weightlifting, basketball, marathon running or horseracing), and not due to some sex-based cultural bias.

    *Example: the best male and female vaulter in these Olympics did the same vault in the team competition, allowing the TV commentators to show the two vaults superimposed for comparison during last night’s coverage. The woman’s vault was about a foot higher. Her power to weight ratio is better than her male competitor’s. So if the sports were the same, it is hard to argue that the women would begin to look more like the men. More probably, in fact, the reverse would happen. The dainty look in gymnastics is not just about sexist standards – some of it is physics.

  28. says

    It’s both. There are a lot of decision points in between the first class and the last performance. I trained very seriously in high school but decided not to audition for professional companies. Other people get into companies, but decide to retire early because they find they don’t like dancing professionally, or they get injured and don’t want to live in continual pain, or they realize they’ll never be promoted out of the bottom rank, or they decide that it was fun for a couple of years but now they’re going to medical school, or whatever. Other people have successful careers and get to perform their favorite roles and retire in their forties. But it can be really tough to move on from something you’ve done so seriously since childhood, and in that sense, it is a childhood dream, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I bet most astronauts would tell you they got their childhood dream job too. Some people find what they want to do really young, and continue to see it through when they grow up.

    OK, I feel like I’ve thoroughly derailed this thread now. It wasn’t my original intent.

  29. M Groesbeck says

    Gymnastics is one of those sports that I just think might be better performed as an art. A performance art form with exceptional athletic requirements on the performer, of course — much like dance (ballet, modern, etc.). I’m just not sure that making it a competition really adds much; with both dance and acrobatics, for instance, there may be competition but ultimately it’s a performance art and the ultimate goal is spectacular and/or aesthetically pleasing performance. (Also, without a rigid set of apparatus for competition, gymanstics-as-art might be friendlier to a wider range of builds; if each gymnast focuses on the sorts of performance that suit their own body, there’s more room for women with large and powerful builds and men with a longer and leaner build.)

  30. H2s says

    Re the rings : would its inclusion for female gymnastics end up excluding a lot of current female gymnasts, just from maximum genetic potential of pec/delt/trap/lat strength? Given that it takes male gymnasts a decade of exposure to much higher levels of testosterone to get decent at …. I’ve done the rings and it’s bloody difficult on the upper body.

    I mean we have to be honest that for some physical challenges, exposure to a steroid is going to provide an advantage, sometimes to the point that competing without isn’t possible. I’m not convinced that rings for girls gymnastics wouldn’t just make it completely impossible for a really huge number of girls to participate.

    Totally agree on the dancing bit – odd.

  31. Kathy says

    Gymnastics is hard on the body, but then so are many other sports! Injuries at the top level if any
    Sport are common, and tend to be more frequent and more severe around the late twenties and thirties, which is why so many top sportspeople are past their peak at thirty-odd. Gymnastics us far from the only sport to have young competitors, and rigorous training at a young age, either – just look at the divers and swimmers.
    I doubt you’d find many current Olympic medallists describing their training as child abuse, either, despite their young they were when they started.

    I think sometimes we underestimate the abilities of young people to make their own decisions about how they do and don’t want to spend their time.

  32. says

    Yes but not all children who train for a sport end up as Olympic medalists, so it’s a mistake to ask only medalists.

    And I don’t think we underestimate the abilities of children to make their own decisions; the issue is the ability to make good decisions, as well as the independence to make decisions that aren’t imposed or pushed by adults.

  33. Lynn says

    My cousin was a very serious figure skater as a kid. Practicing before and after school, travelling to competitions, working with a coach who worked with several Olympians, etc. He was doing very well, but his chances were pretty much killed when he had a growth spurt and ended up well over 6 feet tall before his 15 birthday.

    He didn’t make it. But if you asked him if he regretted the time he put in, he’d say no. He loved skating. And he liked the people he knew from skating much more then the kids he went to high school with.

  34. Ysanne says

    I have a few friends, male and female, who did pretty serious gymnastics when they were kids. They all stopped at some point because it was taking a serious toll on their joints, and that’s simply not worth it in a hobby.

    As for the body types… well, hormones do play a huge role when it comes to muscle growth and joint flexibility, so it’s not just about sexism that that men’s disciplines were built mostly around strength and women’s around being flexible. Artistic gymnastics as a sport, as invented in the 19th century, was intended as a form of physical exercise that would prepare people for war and/or revolution (in Prussia, gymnastic were even banned for this reason), so the idea was to build strength, flexibility and balance in both genders, and focus on the skills that men/women were likely to have for further development.

    1952 footage on youtube shows that this didn’t result in all that extreme body dimorphism. In particular, the women look like adult females and not like underfed children. The floor exercise in particular was meant to be an athletic dance and show sense of rhythm and fluidity of motion, so men as well as women did lots of splits and balance/fluidity displays.

    The extreme body dimorphism started when the points ratings were changed (around 1970) to favour acrobatic skills instead of the “aesthetics of body control” stuff. A high strength&flexibility to weight ratio is very practical for that, and in women, this favours the skinny, muscular, super-bendy pre-pubescent body type — very few adult women have the testosterone levels that would let them build enough muscle to compensate for the added weight. Having children (or athletes on hormones that keep their bodies childlike…) compete is really a way of gaming the system. A good part of the make-up and styling stuff is related to trying to sell the skinny children as sufficiently grown-up athletes.

    And in the last few years, with age rules taken more seriously, the body type of female athletes has significantly changed. I’m really not sure what gymnasts the quote is referring to — “thin in the upper body” is the last thing I’d call the British and German athletes in yesterday’s uneven bars finals… not even glittery swimsuit-like tops with strategically placed colour gradients can disguise that female gymnasts have extremely athletic builds these days, quite similar to swimmers.

  35. Godless Heathen says

    The flip side of kids spending all their time training intently in one thing is the toll it takes on the parents. I remember reading as child about girls who were trying out for a ballet performance and about how early they had to get up, how far they had to drive for practice, and how many hours they had to practice after school. Even as a kid, I could not imagine giving up that much of my life, as a parent, to support my child’s dreams. Especially because they might not amount to anything.

    (I also wouldn’t have wanted to be one of those kids-I hate focusing on just one thing, it’s boring.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *