Women's Strength: The Myths That Shrink Us

Colette Dowling, LCSW

NYC psychotherapist Colette Dowling, LMSW, author of the following article on women's strength, has written eight books on women's psychological issues, including The Cinderella Complex: Women's Hidden Fear of Independence, which was published in 23 languages.


Women's strength has been historically underestimated. Myths about physical weakness have affected what women can do in many areas of life.

In the 19th century, anatomists believed that one's sex affected every part of the body. The skeleton itself was thought to prove that women's strength was inferior, particularly their smaller (and thus, presumably, less intellectually capable) craniums. By the end of the nineteenth century, female and male bodies were virtually thought of as opposites, each having different organs, different functions--even different feelings.



1920s and 30s, added another dimension to medicine's understanding of women's strength, beefing up the popular perception of women as soft and weak and men as tough and strong. Soon, estrogen and testosterone came close to replacing genitals as the signifiers of sex. Testosterone was seen as the equivalent of strong, estrogen the equivalent of weak. Women's strength, in fact, was considered virtually anti-feminine. This simplistic view of men's and women's physical development persisted until the last decade of the 20th century.

The long-standing perception that women are 'the weaker sex' is finally changing as extraordinary breakthroughs of elite-level women athletes shatter the remnants of the frailty myth, bringing home the truth about women's strength. Consider, as one dramatic example, Sweden's Lyudmila Engquist, the 35-year-old runner who won the gold medal in the 100-meter hurdles in the 1966 Olympic Games in Atlanta and then, in the spring of 1999, went on to face her greatest trial of her life so far.

In March of that year Enquist discovered a lump in her breast. The following month she had a mastectomy. In May she began chemotherapy. But then, stunningly, after the fourth of her six scheduled chemo sessions, she was back in action, competing at a track meet! Just getting through the race would be triumph enough, but she won it--won it in 12.68 seconds, shaving 18-hundredths off her Olympics gold medal time.

Bolstering the public's view of women's strength, Enquist explained to reporters that her personal physical strength had been a bonus in the healing process. Five days after surgery she was using small weights. A month after that she and was doing clean-and-jerk exercises with over 120 pounds of weight.

While many men have more lean muscle mass than many women--due, in part, to their having more testosterone--women actually have some physical advantages over men. In part these are due to greater supplies of estrogen. Recent studies suggest that estrogen buffers women against muscle soreness after exercise. Such soreness is the result of micro-tears in muscle tissue. Male rats show much more muscle damage, post-exercise, than female rats. "Estrogen seems to explain the difference," says exercise physioloigist Priscilla Clarkson. When male rats were given estrogen they sustained less muscle damage. Estrogen may do its good work by stabilzing muscle membranes, protecting them from tearing.

Estrogen protection may help explain why women can endure longer exercise sessions than men. "Women may accumulate less damage over the course of the long event, which would enable them to perform better," one physiologist suggests.

The precious "sex hormones" affect far more than women's strength. For example, research indicates that testosterone increases spatial ability in women but inhibits it in men. A fascinating study published in Perceptual Motor Skills tested spatial abilities (visualization and orientation) in 150 men and 150 women collegiate athletes in different varsity sports. Across the board, women scored significantly higher than men in their ability to visualize and orient, but in basketball their superior spatial capacities were off the charts.

When they push themselves athletically, women's attitudes change. Nicola Thost, of Germany represents the new breed of female snowboarders, going bigger than ever before. At 19, she brought a gold medal home from the 1998 Olympics, in Nagano. She's so extreme in her moves she's often mistaken for a boy. "It's a pleasure to see other girls improving so much: like Shannon Dunn with a 720, and so many girls with a good, clean McTwist," she says. "We have to push the limits all the time."

It's a matter of figuring the angles, of understanding the particular challenges of any given sport. With snowboarding, it's important to get height. You have to be strong, but strong isn't the whole game. As Nicola says, some of the guys who snowboard are "so tiny, so muscular. It's clear it's technique."

It's also a matter of courage. "You must get in your mind that you can do it." Nicola says she has no "scary feelings." Fear just isn't a part of it. "I just take speed, and don't speed-check, and then just see how high I can go. It's such a good feeling to go big. If you think, 'Oh my gosh, I can't fall hard, I'm afraid I'll injure myself,' then it's already too late.

Today, women are coming to see that fear of physical risk-taking is the only thing holding them back, athletically.

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Further information on women's strength and emotional wellbeing can be found at SelfGrowth.com


NYC psychotherapist Colette Dowling,LMSW, has written hundreds of magazine articles and eight books, including The Cinderella Complex: Women's Hidden Fear of Independence, Red Hot Mamas: Coming Into Our Own at Fifty, and "You Mean I Don't Have to Feel this Way?": New Help for Depression, Anxiety and Addiction.


Colette has a masters degree from The Smith College School for Social Work and has done advanced training at the Institute for Contemporary Psychotherapy, in New York. She can be reached for consultation at 718-594-0201, or at dowlingcolette@earthlink.net.

To hear Colette speak about what it's like starting therapy with someone new, click on the audio button.




Information on Colette's therapy practice can be found at Psychology Today


Click here for more information on women's strength and unique aspects of women's mental health.

Copyright Colette Dowling, 2006-2010
Contact: dowlingcolette@earthlink.net