The “Weaker Sex” Is a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy
Women become frail because everyone thinks they’re frail — including themselves.
My body feels vulnerable, my body feels small and breakable and weak. My body recoils from men’s physical presence, their strength their height their width their assurance, the way they take up space in the world. My body fears and hides and shrinks.When shadows lurk on street corners. When guys come too close, a threatening invasion of my personal space. When I wear high heels and I feel sassy and confident and powerful until one look or comment reduces me to mincemeat.
Sometimes I am stronger than the man I am scared of, or I can run faster or kick quicker or reduce him to ashes with a withering look. But I don’t believe that, it doesn’t even cross my mind because the way I have been taught to view my body, the way everyone is taught to view women’s bodies, is as small and breakable and weak and vulnerable.
The problem with the myth of the weaker sex is how self-perpetuating it is. How a belief in women’s frailty actually creates that frailty itself. It’s exactly like how people used to believe women’s intellectual capacities to be inferior to men’s, which led to their capacities being reduced. Girls received less education, women were encouraged not to participate in intelligent conversation but rather be seen and not heard, women were infantilised throughout their lives, barred from higher education and training. In short, they were prevented from ever developing their intellect.
Today, girls are encouraged to take part in less active games than boys, they have fewer opportunities to develop their abilities on the sports field, they are told not to get too muscular because it isn’t feminine. They practise less and lose interest in sports because they are convinced that they are no good anyway. From their infancy, they are taught that they are weaker than boys, that to be feminine is to be frail. From outside and in, everything pushes women to constrict their own abilities.
But what about anatomy?
Some cis-women are shorter than some cis-men, is basically what our physical differences boil down to, when you into it. From my 5'1" I am hardly a tall woman, and yet I many men are shorter than me. And I could beat my ex in an arm-wrestle, no problem. The strongest and tallest people might be men, the smallest and least strong women, but the part of the population where abilities overlap is huge.
Let’s look at it this way: there is an average 10–15% difference in size between men and women. Between the country with the tallest men (the Netherlands), and the country with the shortest, (Indonesia), there is an average difference of 16%. So gender is not a significant factor of physical size nor ability.
Of course, cis-men and cis-women are anatomically different in ways other than size. The thing is, those differences don’t inherently give males an advantage when it comes to physical activity. Both sexes have their own advantages. For instance, cis-women’s muscles heal quicker than men’s, providing them with more endurance capabilities.
So anatomical differences are not what plays a decisive role in making women significantly weaker than men. This is definitely a case of nurture over nature, as Colette Dowling lays out in The Frailty Myth, a great read.
The consequences of the frailty myth
So what happens when you believe your body is weak?
You fall prey to the myth that you need a guy to protect you.
You dissociate from your body. It is outside of you. It is not you. You never learn to use your body for your own enjoyment and advantage. You have learnt instead that it is an object for men to enjoy and you to make beautiful. Even when it involves undereating for decades and having your body hair pulled out by the roots.
You don’t try to fight back or impose yourself. You grow used to folding inwards.
On the bus, you squeeze your legs together and put them to one side, you accommodate the guy manspreading next to you.
You have sex you don’t want to have because you are afraid of the consequences of saying no.
When you are the victim of rape, you don’t even think of fighting back, because you are afraid of being beaten.
The fact that you didn’t put up a struggle will be used as an argument to say it wasn’t rape.
“The frailty myth has profound effects — physiological, psychological, emotional. Many women have grown up alienated from their bodies, not knowing the extent of their strength and endurance and not daring to try to find out. But just as physical weakness has been learned, soc an it be unlearned. And that is happening today, as women acknowledge the price they have paif for their weakened bodies — and are no longer willing to pay,”
— Colette Dowling
Luckily, women today are taking back their bodies. Female athletes are marking incredible strides forward — some are even beginning to suggest that their records will converge towards men’s, like Per-Olof Åstrand, professor emeritus of Sweden’s Karolinska Institute wrote in Oxford Textbook of Sports Medicine.
Women are punching, kicking and running their way through the frailty myth. And, as Dowling writes:
“As the different beliefs supporting the frailty myth shatter, one after the other, the change will not be trifling. It will alter the way women walk on the earth.“