The Frailty Myth by Colette Dowling

  The Frailty Myth is a book published in the year 2000 by Colette Dowling. The book asks the question can women be equal as long as men are physically stronger? She argues that the basis of the weaker sex stereotype in based on Victorian Age pseudoscience. There was the idea that too much physical exertion could damage the female reproductive system. Dowling  believes that women should seek to be on the same physical level as men in terms of strength and prowess.  She refers to this as physical competence. Running, developing cardiovascular endurance, building muscle, and learning to throw are essential. She puts emphasis on the need for girls at a young age to learn physical skills just like boys do. PE classes should expect more from their female students. Women student athletes should be given the same training as their male counterparts. The strength gap she is convinced can be narrowed, if  women are taught to develop their physical skills. Her book does make valid points, but is drowned in Feminist rhetoric.


Here are two different editions of the book ( 2000 edition on the left and 2001 edition on the right). Notice the other half of the titles on the book covers are different. The statement “women approaching physical equality” is odd. This implies that women were physically inferior before. The other statement “redefining the physical potential of women and girls” is misleading. Women’s physical potential has minimally been defined. The truth is we do not know how strong women could get, because so much focus was on their limitations. 

The general synopsis looks at the history of the weaker sex stereotype. The books focus is on the struggle of women to get into sports. Her examination is on the United States and Europe specifically. She only once mentions women gaining access to non-western  international competition (the Asian Games). Dowling rarely puts emphasis on the women developing world, who are struggling even more than their Western counterparts. There are countries that have even worse attitudes in regards to women and limit their opportunity. Their tribulations will not be discussed in this book. She then delineates how the idea of women being physically inferior is based in pseudoscience and unproven theories. Ideas such as genital decay or the notion women would harm their reproductive capability were common in the medical community. This seems facetious to us now, but during the Victorian Age it was believed. The cult of invalidism was a cultural construction that desired to present women as weak and frail. Not only that, but prone to illness. This was gradually overturned when women started getting access to competition opportunities. Dowling discusses how women were prevented from participation and then how Title IX changed everything. Women  could now have more funding for sports in schools and colleges.She examines gender in relation to sports. the author explains why physical activity is good for women’s health and well being. The book then ends with Colette Dowling stating the need for women to have self-defense skills. The final stage  of  women’s liberation will be what she calls physical equality.

One of the major problems of the book is it lumps all men together.Third Wave Feminists tend to believe all men are the enemy. Dowling becomes guilty of this in one section of the chapter “closing the strength gap.” All men, she states have a fear of women’s strength. While it is true that men have used women bodies a means of control that is not the only method. Denying access to jobs and education were by far more damaging. Not all men reject women’s growing physical power. She uses the unfair criteria in bodybuilding competitions as an example. Men are in her view keeping women back in the sport. The judges do not want to see hyper-muscular development. This is more of a failure on the part of the corporate sponsors. The IFFB claims that larger competitors are not marketable. This is not true when you see the large numbers of fans going to the athletes’ pay websites.  The Weider Corporation misses this opportunity. The fact is many fans of female bodybuilders are male. By ignoring fan bases corporations will fail to add to their profits. Just as well, because more money should go to the athletes. Judging criteria has always been distorted in bodybuilding circles. Judging “femininity’ is nebulous. Then there is a general dispute on whether size, shape, or symmetry should be emphasized more than the other.



Here are two athletes with pay sites, Kashma Maharaj and Colette Nelson. They provide video content as well as written content for their fans for a monthly fee. Clearly there is a large enough fan bases to keep these websites running. Some the funds go to expenses they need to continue competing. 

The most contradictory statements and claims in the text appear in the first paragraph of the sixth chapter . Dowling states: “as women got more muscular, the event was redesigned for female competitors so it had less to do about being strong and looking female.” Women can look very strong and female at the same time. The author seems to have a dubious feeling about that. When making a reference to the film  Pumping Iron II: The Women  she refers to Bev Francis as “macho woman.”  For a person who claims not to believe in strict gender roles in terms of masculinity and femininity  this is hypocritical. Bev Francis did not change her sex when she developed her body. Women come in different shapes and sizes. It is odd to say a woman of a muscular body type is abnormal. Models of beauty vary from culture to culture. When it comes to aesthetics in bodybuilding there are various perspectives. Often some say women have developed too much. Some judges prefer a sleeker model, a moderately size model, and the hyper-muscular model of body. That is why different divisions were created ( fitness and  physique). Incompetent judging of contests are as much to blame as sexist attitudes toward women. She states in a subtle manner that all men hate strong women. That is not the truth. Even though there are detractors of such women, there are a growing number of fans. Most are men.  While many magazines are disappearing featuring women in strength sports, there has been an internet revival. Fans have access to forums, websites, blogs, and online magazines. There is a greater exposure to female strength.

fl1107 muscfit_julyaug07cover

Here are two magazines. They are both for mainstream consumption, but feature women with powerful physiques. The Flex magazine will most likely be purchased by men, because of the woman on the cover. Muscle and Fitness Hers  is directed at women, but the model on the cover has a high degree of muscularity. The women are not portrayed in a negative light. 

The disappearance of female bodybuilding magazines may not mean public rejection to it. Print media ( including newspapers) are gradually being defeated by the internet. Women’s Physique World  for example ran in print from 1984 to 2006. However, it continues to sell its old issues and video material  on it’s website. This is a much more efficient business model. There are a myriad of sites dedicated to women’s strength sports. Most of the web traffic is coming from men ages 18 to 34. There is a huge portion of  men who enjoy female muscle. Colette Dowling should be praised for mentioning  female bodybuilding, but she needed  to more research  on the sport and culture. One statement becomes a blatant generalization : “today women bodybuilding champions make as much money from their appearances and endorsements-perhaps a final indignity for men.”  This may be an indignity for a sexist, but not all men. There are male fans and competitors that welcome women’s participation. Many want to see equal amounts of prize money for female competitors.

Colette Dowling’s assessment of sport performance needs adjustment. Her belief is that is the gap in performance is related to lack of training. While one cannot deny that women are discouraged from certain physical activities, sexual dimorphism plays a role. Dowling’s background is in sociology. She is a psychotherapist  based in New York. It would have helped her argument to expound more on exercise physiology. The author does not seem as knowledgeable as she could be in regards to sports performance.


This is an audio file of her appearance on The Dianne Rehm Show. This was broadcast in 2000 and they discuss the state of women’s sports. Listen to the recording. At one point a caller questions her about the role of sexual dimorphism in performance and she has no idea what the term means. 

Sexual dimorphism refers to the secondary sex characteristics in a particular species. One pivotal factor is how hormones influence the body structure. Testosterone increases strength and the size of the skeleton. Women who produce more estrogen relative to androgens,will retain more fat. While Dowling points out estrogen provides benefits  to women in some sports, she reduces her argument to a battle of the sexes. Women have to be on the same level as men physically. The comparisons seem unnecessary. Men on average are stronger, but that does not make them better athletes. Strength is nothing without skill. Colette Dowling says she wants women to develop physical skills, but contradicts herself by putting emphasis on strength. Her comparisons between male and female athletes are adjusted to height and weight. This does not accurately portray  certain mathematical records. There still exists a 10% difference in  Olympic records. Estimates can vary in body strength ( no matter which sex). Women can be 80% as strong when the weight and size are close. Absolute strength can be about 65%. lack of adequate training can be an explanation, but endocrinology provides one too. There are many exceptions, but on average men will become stronger than women even on the same training regimen.


 Here a difference can be seen. Colette Nelson (left) is much stronger than the man who does not train. Xin Li Cao (right) would have a challenge trying to match the strength of her male counterpart. 

A few women could match men who are equally trained. These are rare exceptions, but possible. Women and men are biologically different. The section titled “The Menstrual Myth” misses some points in terms of body function. Over training can harm women ( just like men) in different ways. If a woman’s body fat becomes too low, she may stop ovulating. Sports that focus on weight like ice skating, swimming, gymnastics, and long distance running could be prone to the athletes triad. Exercise will not harm the menstrual cycle, but over training will. Dowling proclaims: ” many heath benefits have been found for exercising for females, so care must be taken to not overpresent women who harm themselves by going to extremes.” There is no over representation. Women athletes could at some point in their career suffer from amenorrhoea. Dowling does not seem to accept that women’s bodies function differently. This does not mean women are restricted in  their physical achievement. Having the right endocrinologist and coach can prevent such medical conditions. Women are prone to shoulder and joint injuries in sports. It is important that they build up these areas to prevent harm. Dowling needs to understand that biological difference does not imply inferiority.

The best part of  The Frailty Myth is the analysis and  history of sex discrimination in sport. When the modern day Olympics were revived in 1896, women were not allowed to compete. It was not that women were not able to play sports, but cultural mores would not permit it. Women did get to compete in the 1900 Olympic Games, but only in golf. Swimming and diving was added in 1920. Track and field events were added in 1932. The change was met with media backlash. Newspapers harshly criticized women’s involvement and sports organizations as well. The National Amateur Athletic Federation (NAAF)  was opposed to women competing in the Olympics. Real improvement did not come until 1964. The 400-meter run, volleyball, track and field pentathlon, and the 400-meter individual medley swimming were introduce for women in the games. Women continued to face discrimination with sex testing. Women athletes were required to go nude before a panel of doctors, gynecologists, and  IOC officials to prove they were female. Men were not required to do such a test.  The International Olympic  Committee   claim was to “protect” women from men who would disguise themselves as women and compete in their events. This rarely happened and it was clear what it was designed to do. Seeing as it was not possible to ban women from sports, another option was to make an uncomfortable atmosphere. It was a way of trying to put women back in their “place.” Dowling also has explored the pay disparity between male and female athletes. Many sports networks give very little attention to women’s sports on television.  The chapter “Can I Play” is a must read highlight.

One chapter that is troublesome was the discussion of rape. The section “Physical Assault : Keeping Women Down”  is a statement on the dangers of rape culture. Dowling is convinced that women need as much physical strength as possible to prevent perilous situations. The problem with the rape culture concept is that it views all men as  sex offenders. An individual who commits such crimes obviously has violent and anti-social tendencies. Colette Dowling casts men as either oppressive or malevolent. Self-defense is something women should learn, but seeing men as the enemy is not. She uses the high rate of sexual assault on universities as an example. Most of these crimes do involve alcohol given to the victim. So, in this case physical strength is not a factor. Being aware of your environment and people in the area is critical. Large muscles and strength are not always required to defend yourself. Certain martial arts like judo are highly effective.  Her knowledge of martial arts seems to be limited. It is true that learned weakness is detrimental. The biggest problem is the author’s conjecture that men keep women weak so they can be easy targets. Women may actually be weakening themselves by trying to reach a thin body ideal.  This is related to body image disorders that Dowling mentioned in previous chapters. The mass media shares some of the blame. TV, film, and advertising made the extra slim body type as something desirable. To blame men completely is unfair.

The book seems to come to the conclusion that might makes right. The last paragraph is of major interest.  This quote is revealing: ” When necessary, a woman must be able to tap in her fighting spirit and do what she needs to do to survive.”  While self-reliance and self-defense are necessary Dowling frames it in a combative tone. It then seems like she is saying every man is against powerful women. Her reasoning is in a subtle way that women should use their new found strength for vengeance . Some men have been brainwashed by a traditional culture. Others do have genuine misogynistic attitudes. Not all men have negative views about women or powerful ones in particular. This is probably the biggest flaw of the book. The monograph Colette Dowling produced is not the best on women’s sports.However, it does have some positive attributes. It reveals a history rarely written about. It gives a great outline of women’s rapid rise in the professional sports world and the struggles they faced. The most important message written in the book is the need for physical activity. The long term benefits are good for women. Seeing as people are living longer than ever, maintaining a healthy lifestyle is pivotal. One day society will be accepting of strong women, but it will take time.  Dowling closes with this quote ” women by making themselves  physical equal, will at last set themselves free.”  The fact is women were never physically inferior. There is a long history of women’s participation in sports. It seems as if women have already reached the physical equality that Dowling speaks of. Women are showing more muscular and powerful physiques in athletic contest, than in the past.

The Frailty Myth by Colette Dowling

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