Push-ups – exercise of the patriarchy or feminist?

If this was a film set in the army, rather than a feminist blog, it would inevitable involve a drill sergeant saying “drop and give me 20”. But it’s not, and so I must admit I haven’t previously directed much attention to the push-up. This piece in the San Francisco Chronicle is very interesting though.

First off, there is the fact that the exercise is divided into “proper push-ups” and “girl push-ups”, the latter, of course, being the easy version in which you lever the press-up from your knees rather than your feet. So far, so obviously sexist.

But what’s particularly interesting is the divergance of opinion on whether the whole notion of a push-up is inherantly sexist:

The article “simply assumes women should be not only able to complete male push-ups, even though the push-up is an exercise invented by males and for males which, like its brother exercise the pull-up and all those spacial analysis questions, has served for generations solely to (shaft) women on elementary school achievement tests,” went a post on Jezebel.com, echoing a popular sentiment. “But what’s more: the story suggests that a woman of forty should be able to complete sixteen of these patriarchal exercises.”

But Kelly Mills argues that it’s not the exercise that’s sexist, but the way that women are discouraged from strength training, building muscle and doing “man” exercises.

Here’s a newsflash about why women have a hard time with push-ups: We don’t do them. We don’t do other kinds of weight training that would build the necessary strength. You could be relatively fit, but that doesn’t mean you would go out and run a marathon with no training unless you are crazy. You generally have to practice anything to be able to do it. So what if some men start off having an easier time with push-ups? (And, by the way, I know from training experience that plenty of men are not automatic experts.) There’s no reason women can’t knock out a good set, and do them well from the feet in time.

Mills suggests that women should do 10 minutes of push-ups a day, and conquer the exercise.

Women don’t do push ups because they think of them as a man exercise. Same goes for weightlifting. We teach women to strive for thin and toned, but not strong and powerful. I mean, be athletic, but not so athletic that you can kick a guy’s rear end at strength endeavors.

I know from personal experience that when I walk into the free weight area of some gyms, it will be almost entirely populated by sweaty guys grunting in front of the mirror, and that when I pick up a barbell for overhead presses, I will get strange looks from some of those guys. Very few will offer to spot my bench press. And a 1996 study published in the Illinois Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance journal also found that women were more likely to underestimate the amount they could bench press than men. We are conditioned to think we can’t possibly lift like men, or crank out a set of 20 nice push-ups, and, if we do, we are too masculine. We’re taught to hide our strength or minimize it or just avoid using it altogether. “Could you give me a hand carrying this box, guy-from-my-office-who-never-works-out?”

I don’t think that we should be striving for any particular body type; that’s just replacing one set of expectations with another. But I don’t think that physical strength is a bad thing to be aiming for, if it’s possible in your particular set of circumstances.

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