Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Gendering Physical Expectations: Of "Girl" Push-Ups and "Boy" Push-Ups

Years ago, when my husband and I were dating, he locked himself out of his apartment. He had a door in his bedroom opening up to a second-story balcony, and we decided to try to get in that way. The logical choice (since he was stronger and I was lighter) was for him to boost me up to the balcony and for me to pull myself over. We managed the boosting, but not so much the pulling.

My upper body strength is drastically disproportionate to my lower body strength. I can't do a pull-up (as my little breaking-into-the-house experiment made clear), and I have a hard time with push-ups. 

Perhaps this is because I rarely try to do a push-up. I plan to, in the loosest sense of the word "plan." I add them into my sheet at the end of a weightlifting session (one focused mostly on squats, lunges, and other things I feel confident about), and I half-heartedly pump out a few while I'm exhausted and checked out, but I haven't made it a fitness priority . . . and that's mainly because I don't like doing things I suck at. (I know, I know, that's precisely why you do them, to not suck at them anymore. This is emotion, not logic.)

That was all in the back of my mind when my three-year-old daughter came home from preschool the other day and started "exercising" (meaning jumping wildly around the living room with a mat on the floor) with my husband. She started excitedly doing jumping jacks, and then she turned to him and said "Daddy, you do boy push-ups, and I'll do girl push-ups." Then she dropped to her knees and did some sort of cat/cow yoga pose/push-up hybrid before returning to her natural state of torpedoing through the living room. 

I mentioned it to her teacher, who assured me it was just a passing comment that a dad volunteering to show the children some exercise moves had made. It had clearly stuck with my daughter. Days later, there was a man doing push-ups on TV and she said "Look! He's doing boy push-ups!" She'd internalized this passing comment. Boys do push-ups on their toes; girls do them on their knees. 

Maybe it shouldn't bother me as much as it does. I've been combating it with "There are no girl push-ups and boy push-ups; there are just push-ups." and "Girls can do push-ups on their toes, too." But I know that I don't have the ethos that this visiting parent had (visiting parents are a big deal to three-year-olds). He knows because he's an expert

Recently the Marines have had a problem: women are not passing the three pull-up minimum. Several people have jumped on this fact to demonstrate that women are weaker than men, and it's clear that there is a biological advantage that men have when it comes to upper body strength (thanks to Testosterone), but that's not the full story. 

Women who are given specific training in pull-ups are able to complete way beyond the minimum, and the current training (designed with men in mind, as female participants are the vast minority and only recently allowed) isn't providing that. 

The Marines have temporarily scrapped the requirement for female recruits, but there's debate about how to handle it going forward. 

Biology plays a role, but training and cultural norms are part of the equation, too, and my daughter's experience touches on both. She's being taught from a very early age that she's not capable of doing the same kind of physical exertion as her male peers, and she's therefore not getting the training that would allow her to demonstrate otherwise. 

It's a self-fulfilling prophesy that we need to end now. 

Maybe I need to start doing some push-ups so I can volunteer for the next parent-run workout routine. 

Photo: hyper7pro

1 comment:

  1. I have no upper body strength, but I'm not sure why. I remember in elementary school, my school's playground had a lot of climbing equipment. I was an avid climber and I remember hanging, swinging, and doing pull-ups. I'm not sure why I stopped other than my middle school didn't have jungle gyms (though the park near my house did). I don't remember being taught that girls didn't have upper body strength, but I do remember being told the difference between girl push ups and boy push ups. It never really bothered me though because I hated doing push ups either way. They always seemed like a punishment. So I'm not sure why my upper body strength wasn't developed when I know I used it as a kid. But when I took gym in middle and high school, it obviously wasn't part of the curriculum so I guess it was just ignored.

    What I find most interesting about your story, though, is the way a "passing" comment had such a lasting effect on your daughter. People don't seem to realize the impact of their words, which is one of the reasons why sexism is so insidious in our culture. It is just part of every day speech and people don't even realize it.