Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Women in Their Bodies: Challenging Objectification through Experiential Learning

Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Women in Their Bodies: Challenging Objectification through Experiential Learning

Article excerpt

In the three decades since Title IX guaranteed equal opportunity for the sexes in educational athletic programs, women's involvement in high school and college sports has increased dramatically. Still, women lag behind men in participation rates, and more girls than boys drop out of sports during adolescence (PCPFS 1998). One explanation for this sexrelated disparity is that compliance with Title IX has not been consistently enforced (NWLC 2002), but we believe that lack of opportunities, inadequate funding, and inconsistent institutional support are not the only barriers to the participation of girls and women in athletics. A more fundamental obstacle is the way women are alienated from their bodies by a gender system in which femininity is displayed through rigorous appearance maintenance and modification, self-conscious posture and gesture, and clothing that invites the gaze but limits freedom of movement. Traditional gender socialization hinders the participation of girls and women in sports-and impedes the development of their bodily skill and physical self-confidence in general-because its dominant message is that female bodies are valuable for their form, not their function. Girls (and boys) are still taught that there is an essential contradiction between femininity and subjective physicality.

In this essay we describe "Women IN Their Bodies," a college-level interdisciplinary Women's Studies seminar that integrates traditional classroom techniques and experiential learning sessions (such as rock climbing, martial arts, and strength training) to educate students about the ways in which bodily objectification and the social construction of femininity interfere with women's participation in sports and other activities that are beneficial for their physical and mental health. The course has three primary learning objectives. We rely on assigned readings, lectures, class discussions, and films to meet our first and second goals for students: that they think critically about women's sexual objectification and its consequences and that they understand how bodily objectification, feminine socialization, and structural barriers inhibit women's participation in physical activities. Specific topics include the psychological and social ramifications of women's bodily objectification, the paradox between femininity and strength, historic and contemporary sex discrimination in athletics, and the heterosexual objectification of women athletes in popular media. Tied to these specific course topics are experiential sessions intended to facilitate our third goal: to promote a sense of bodily subjectivity that will inspire women students to pursue a physically active lifestyle.

Many women's studies courses address topics such as the objectification of women in the media or the history of women's participation in sports, but the exercise is typically only intellectual. In our traditional courses we teach students to recognize and label sexual objectification in advertising; we inform them about sex discrimination and Title IX; we discuss eating disorders and fatphobia; and we contemplate cultural variation in standards of women's beauty. All of this is very eye-opening and beneficial for students who have never taken a critical perspective on the status of women's bodies in our culture; however, we believe that the learning need not end there. In our experience, many women students whose consciousness has been raised end up angry about the ways in which their bodies are dehumanized, alarmed about the pandemic of body dissatisfaction among women in our society, and at a loss for what to do about their own continuing struggle in a cultural context that leaves them at odds with their physical selves. We believe our course is unique m its applied focus. We think the combination of academic inquiry and experienced embodiment holds great promise for instilling in women students not only a new body of knowledge, but also knowledge about their own bodies that will serve them well as they negotiate their subjectivity. …

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