I wound up writing a bit of an essay comment on a Jezebel article re the gymternet and attendant tumblr blogosphere and today’s Vogue publication prompted me to share the thoughts here.
I think a lot of people still hark back to late 1980s/ 1990s gymnastics heydays when they think about the sport. Olga Korbut, Nadia, the Soviet teams, Bela Karolyi and his squad... they made an impression. I’ve noticed in a couple of Jez articles about gymnastics that there’s always a comment or two that brings up abuses from that era, often referencing Little Girls in Pretty Boxes, and I think there’s a widespread belief that that’s still how it is most of the time. Sometimes the attendant implication is that the whole sport is unethical or unhealthy. Having said that, let me just point out that THESE COMMENTERS ARE NOT PEOPLE I WISH TO CRITICISE HERE. Keep reading.
For what it’s worth, things have gotten better. Not in every gym, as McKayla Maroney will tell you, but there’s way less starvation and more permission to be obviously muscular than there was pre-LGIPB. Certainly nothing’s perfect but there has been a lot of progress. Aly Raisman, Simone Biles, Vanessa Ferrari, Shawn Johnson, Alicia Sacramone, Ellie Black, Giulia Steingruber, Cheng Fei, Jordyn Wieber, Claudia Fragapane, Elizabeth Price, etc all put paid to the notion that you have to be a prepubescent sylph to have amazing skills and impress the hell out of the judges. Meanwhile, the pre-LGIPB era didn’t actually have that much time as a proportion of women’s gymnastics; there were many pre-Nadia womanly and strong athletes, and there were many of her contemporaries who remained so into the 1990s. (Kim Zmeskal, Kerri Strug come to mind.) Since around 2000, the code of points and equipment has changed in such a way that it actually favours healthy power. The open-ended code allows for stacking up of big dynamic skills in a way that the perfect 10 never did, and the use of a vaulting table instead of a horse is allowing for bigger and better vaults, for which you need to have corresponding mass in order to get good rebound from your run.
^Claudia Fragapane, since I know y’all have seen the goddess that is Simone Biles already today!
So given that list of medalists, the new code, and the absolute dominance of Simone Biles, why the fuck does the NBC commentary and non-gymnastics fans feel like they can still make snide remarks on gymnasts who don’t fit the 1992 mould? Older male commentators, and not just the NBC ones, just loooooove to comment on the bodies of gymnasts. Not on their gymnastics - on their bodies. Tim Daggett famously said, about then-junior Laurie Hernandez’s floor routine in 2014, “Watch out, dads, she’s only 13!” and that Gabby Douglas would be more likely to come back succesfully after 2012 because she was “thin.”
^Victoria Komova in London 2012
And there’s still a bias in that crowd for the skinny, coltish, preferably double-jointed style Nastia Liukin and Viktoria Komova. (To clarify, there is nothing inherently wrong with that body. It’s just not the only body that produces beautiful and win-worthy gymnastics, so telling everyone that they should have that body is patently crap.) At this point, someone like Simone or Aly would get most of her body criticism from internet randos who think they know what a gymnast should look like, because they watched something on TV this one time and everyone was skinny and they don’t believe women should have women parts unless they’re in porn. Shawn Johnson and Chellsie Memmel will tell you the mental anguish caused by that attitude.
I’m not a gymnast and I never was one seriously. (I wish. Mama honk had other ideas.) But watching gymnastics now with the current team winning with their muscles, with Simone Biles just owning everything and Aly Raisman not far behind, I have to say I find heart in it. One of the ways I feel better about my body is to tell myself that the stuff I use it for is fun and healthy. Skinny is not the goal, POWERFUL/enabled is the goal - powerful and able enough to do stuff I like, like a 32k swimrun and multipitch rock climbing and surfing. And while I’ll never be a Calvin Klein model, I can definitely be an athlete and feel hot damn amazing doing fun stuff. So I find a ton of inspiration watching bombass muscly women be that precise and graceful - it doesn’t feel so out of reach for me to be strong too.
^Chellsie Memmel in 2012
So how do we fix the remaining issues for gymnasts? I think the lingering impulses toward eating disorders and body dysmorphia come from a few bad apples like McKayla’s former coaches; as she puts it, maybe they never really experienced different themselves, since they came up in the Soviet system when abusive coaching practices were de rigeur. I kind of suspect it’s more still a thing in Russia - the Rodionenkos aren’t exactly known for sanity when it comes to their team, and there are loads of fans who equate “artistry” with “classical Russian ballet” art rather than expanding art to include other types of dance. But I think the much larger source of impulses comes from the misogynist culture at large. That is, people policing women’s bodies and judging based on a misguided notion that nothing is healthy except being skinny. Here is yet another example of fuck that noise and the horse it rode in on.
TL;DR: Watching muscly gymnasts makes me feel positive about my own muscles and wanting to have more muscles and happy about the honest womanly layer of adipose over top of them. The lingering body dysmorphia that occurs in gymnastics is IMHO from misogynist body-policing bullshit from the world outside of gymnastics, and the changes over the last 16 years has made gymnastics much friendlier to body diversity while making the sport itself more dynamic.