Body Histories: “Expressive muscles” and women’s fatigue

Posted on July 8, 2011


“Any doctor who saw how even experienced female athletes collapsed and were lying on the ground after the race could not support this kind of athletic competition for women.”

Norwegian historian Kerstin Bornholdt cites this statement, by a German doctor, H. Franzmeyer, reacting to what he saw as the unsuitable participation by women in the 1928 Olympic Games, when they were first allowed to compete  in the 800 meter race. After ensuing debate, the women’s 800 meter race was discontinued, and not restored to the Olympics until 1960.

Bornholdt’s 2011 doctoral dissertation in the Department of Archaeology, Conservation, and History at the University of Oslo pursues the history of medical characterization of bodily difference that was used to justify excluding women from more vigorous sports. It deserves a place with other critical works for scholars of changing attitudes about bodies and personhood like Anne Fausto-Sterling’s Sexing the Body and Judith Butler’s Bodies that Matter.

Perhaps the most striking fact Bornholdt establishes is that what she calls a “gendered physiology” of sports was relatively recent: a product of the 1920s– a period when she shows that what previously was a “gender neutral” practice of gymnastics, for example, became divided into men’s and women’s forms.

In her dissertation and related conference papers, Bornholdt examines how physiology– a discipline that began with the principle that muscles were sufficiently generalized mechanisms that animal experiments could be applied to the human body– developed theories that differentiated male muscles from female ones. By the early 20th century, Bornholdt says

“researchers wrote that women have expressive muscles, muscles that are suited to making elegant movements …The researchers knew that there was no such thing as expressive muscles, but they wrote about it anyway. You can even find this in the same article. First the author asserts that there are two types of muscle fibre and a bit farther down in the same article comes an explanation about women’s expressive muscles. This shows an interesting encounter between science-based knowledge and popular notions, and especially how prevailing ideas affect knowledge production within the medical field.”

While muscles actually did not perform differently, starting with a concept of “fatigue” introduced  in the 1870s, physiologists in the 1920s developed ideas about exhaustion to differentiate between the sexes.

Bornholdt cites an influential book from 1915/1916, still in circulation in English translation in 1950, that argued that

Due to a weaker muscular system, including a weaker heart muscle, and women’s reduced red blood cells, women would not be able to perform the same absolute power…as men do.

The same authority used presumed physiological differences related to fatigue to argue that men should not do housework:

“Also in civilised communities domestic work requires both a considerable amount of energy and especially great endurance. This kind of work tires men quicker than women. Men’s rate of work is, as a rule, more forced than women’s. If a woman were to work at the same rate, she would very quickly be worsted. Partly she would not be able to put forth the same absolute amount of energy, and partly she would tire much quicker than a man when yielding the maximum output”.

Bornholdt argues that the emergence of a formalized notion of sports as something without a pragmatic purpose of improving bodily health, oriented instead to competition, promoted “excess” and “transcendance of bodily limits” at the expense of alternative goals of moderation, balance, and beauty that were part of 19th century physical education philosophy. This shift is embodied in the motto of the modern Olympic Games, first held in 1896: “higher, further, faster”.

She explores how medical debates about women’s participation in sports between World War I and II led to claims that athletics “masculinized” female bodies, and that women engaged in sports would have difficulty giving birth, or even be sterile.

Yet not all sports physiology followed this line of argument. In an interview, Bornholdt says that based on studies of women engaged in sports, some doctors in the 1920s

“began to understand gender as something more complex. They stopped writing about female and male bodies in terms of a dichotomy, and wrote instead in terms of degrees and different types. Muscular female athletes represented a variation of the female body.”

From the materialist perspective of archaeology, an intriguing aspect of Bornholdt’s research is the identification of new technologies that emerged in the 1880s and 1890s that allowed physiology to measure bodily activity, such as ergometers and treadmills, leading to changes in understanding gendered embodiment. Archaeologists interested in the past of sex/gender long ago abandoned simple searches for a material signature of women (or men, for that matter), while insisting that materiality can inform us about the ways differently gendered people lived and understood their lives. There is nothing inherently feminine or masculine about a treadmill, but as Bornholdt shows, these instruments facilitated new understandings of sexed bodies.

But in the end, for me, these detailed body histories are most informative because they show how discourse shaped what even materially committed scientists– physiologists– said about what they were observing.

One of the more contested arguments that I and other gender researchers make is that cultural attitudes are at least as important as biological imperatives in shaping the way men and women are perceived. I can guarantee that when I write about this, I will receive at least one comment from someone who thinks I am simply stupid for not seeing that sex is natural, and naturally binary.

Some of us ground our arguments against this simplification of reality in the philosophical work of Judith Butler, who demonstrates that there is no perception of embodied being that precedes the use of language. As Butler writes in Undoing Gender,

To understand gender as a historical category…is to accept that gender, understood as one way of culturally configuring a body, is open to a continual remaking, and that “anatomy” and “sex” are not without cultural framing. (2004:9-10)

Contrary to what once seemed comfortable for archaeologists interested in studying women’s lives in the past, there is no pre-discursive “sex” that serves as the natural definition of a category of people across time and space. Sex itself is a cultural concept; in the European tradition inherited by US scholars, a concept that seeks to claim it is given (and thus not political) while imposing a rigid two-column grid on the immense variability of what it means to be human.

But to truly understand how this works, we need to trace exemplary histories of the ways that bodies have been disciplined, so that people ignore what they actually see around them– substantial variation “within” what they take as natural categories– and cling to the idea that there are two, and only two, normative sexes.

This is where studies like Bornholdt’s are indispensable: they are both a product of nuanced understandings of sex and gender that were ushered in by Butler, Fausto-Sterling, and their like, and the demonstration that following through on these works produces not just different histories, but better ones.