Throwing Like a Girl: A Phenomenology of Feminine Body Comportment Motility and Spatiality

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Throwing like a Girl: A Phenomenology of Feminine Body Comportment Motility and Spatiality
Author Iris Marion Young
Subject Perception
  • 1980 (Human Studies)
  • 1990 (Indiana UP)
  • 2005 (Oxford UP)
Media typeJournal article

"Throwing like a Girl: A Phenomenology of Feminine Body Comportment Motility and Spatiality" is a 1980 essay by political philosopher and feminist Iris Marion Young, which looks at differences in feminine and masculine movement norms in the context of a gendered and embodied phenomenological perspective. Young's essay uses ideas from philosophers Simone de Beauvoir and Maurice Merleau-Ponty to examine how perceptions of the female body relate to task performance and confidence.

Iris Marion Young American philosopher

Iris Marion Young was an American political theorist and feminist focused on the nature of justice and social difference. She served as Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago and was affiliated with the Center for Gender Studies and the Human Rights program there. Her research covered contemporary political theory, feminist social theory, and normative analysis of public policy. She believed in the importance of political activism and encouraged her students to involve themselves in their communities.

Simone de Beauvoir French writer, intellectual, existentialist philosopher, political activist, feminist, and social theorist

Simone Lucie Ernestine Marie Bertrand de Beauvoir was a French writer, intellectual, existentialist philosopher, political activist, feminist and social theorist. Though she did not consider herself a philosopher, she had a significant influence on both feminist existentialism and feminist theory.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty French phenomenological philosopher

Maurice Jean Jacques Merleau-Ponty was a French phenomenological philosopher, strongly influenced by Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger. The constitution of meaning in human experience was his main interest and he wrote on perception, art, and politics. He was on the editorial board of Les Temps modernes, the leftist magazine established by Jean-Paul Sartre in 1945.




Young begins her essay with a critique of Erwin Straus, and his conclusion that the physical differences between men and women are biological. Straus studied the differences in how young boys and girls each threw a ball, and noted that the boys utilized more physical space and energy to exert their throw, concluding that the differences were due to a difference in biology. Young argues that because these children were pre-pubescent and were physically quite similar, their differing approaches were due to differing understandings of body comportment.

Erwin Straus was a German-American phenomenologist and neurologist who helped to pioneer anthropological medicine and psychiatry, a holistic approach to medicine that is critical of mechanistic and reductionistic approaches to understanding and treating human beings.

To elaborate, Young introduces Simone de Beauvoir’s account of women’s existence as constrained. Young asserts that de Beauvoir neglected several important aspects and, formulated to misconception that women's anatomies that determine their being unfree. The female body then becomes something to transcend, or break free from, rather than something that people recognize is in fact conditioned to be the way it is.

Young explains this gap in understanding as her motivation in writing the essay; to examine further the functionality of women's' bodies in a given space. The society she focuses on is about women in a "contemporary advanced industrial, urban, and commercial society" specifically, with attention to how the modalities of the feminine body are restricted in attempt to achieve specific goals, such as throwing a ball.

To outline the framework of her essay, Young first defines what it means to be feminine as "a set of structures and conditions which delimit the typical situation of being a woman in a particular society, as well as the typical way in which this situation is lived by the women themselves." Femininity is therefore not a characteristic or trait, but a quality of the female existence. Young argues women are "Others" in society, and are deprived of basic human qualities because of their sub-ordinance within the patriarchy. Women must therefore struggle to transcend this bodily comportment, Young argues.

Section I: Observations on Feminine Body Comportment

Young returns to Straus's observations of women engaging in physical activity, and also incorporates her own experiences to make the argument that women are physically no less capable than men, but underperform due to psychological barriers. She claims that women engage in a self-fulfilling prophecy, in which they do not see themselves as capable, so they do not “summon the full possibilities of our muscular coordination, position, poise, and bearing” as men. This is partially contributed to the idea that a woman has a constricted space to move in, while a man does not feel these limitations. In addition to the fear of taking up too much space, women also have a stronger fear of getting hurt, and underestimate their bodily capacity. Young writes, "We decide beforehand — usually mistakenly — that the task is beyond us, and thus give it less than our full effort." This concept results in the phrase, "throwing like a girl;" although women are physically capable to throw, or perform a task, successfully, it is their understanding of societal bodily comportment that prevents them from performing a task to the best of their ability.

Section II: A Phenomenological Account of the Modalities of Feminine Bodily Comportment & Mobility

In Section II, Young explains three modalities of feminine mobility that prevent a woman from engaging in the world to her body's full capacity. She cites Merleau-Ponty, Satre, and previous "intellectual thinkers," whom argued that a person could transcend societal boundaries by consciousness alone. Young counters this idea, and says that the body in itself must be aware of its surroundings, in order to transcend. She identifies feminine transcendence as ambiguous transcendence, explaining that "all transcendence is ambiguous because the body as natural and material is immanence." Young refers to her previous observations that women only use parts of their body to perform a task, and thus concludes that while these parts move, the rest of the female body remains rooted in immanence. Because of this dysphoria, women simultaneously view their bodies as a burden, and as something that needs protected.

In philosophy, transcendence conveys the basic ground concept from the word's literal meaning, of climbing or going beyond, albeit with varying connotations in its different historical and cultural stages. It includes philosophies, systems, and approaches that describe the fundamental structures of being, not as an ontology, but as the framework of emergence and validation of knowledge of being. "Transcendental" is a word derived from the scholastic, designating the extra-categorical attributes of beings.

Young explains this existence as in an inhibited intentionality. She writes, "When the woman enters a task with inhibited intentionality, she projects the possibilities of that task — thus projects an "I can" — but projects them merely as the possibilities of "someone," and not truly her possibilities — and thus projects an "/ cannot." This again refers to her previously stated self-fulfilling prophecy, in which women do not succeed in tasks to the best of their ability, because they do not believe that they can do so; hence, why they "throw like a girl."

The third modality of feminine mobility presented in Young's essay is discontinuous unity. Young theorizes that the female body sees its surrounding space as "a continuous extension of its own being," thus restricting its own movement. Additionally, the parts of a body moves when performing a task are isolated from the rest of her body, which remains immobile. Merleau-Ponty explains that women thus see their bodies as both the subject and object of an action; for example, "women have a tendency to take up the motion of an object coming toward them as coming at them." When a woman views her body as the object of the action rather than the subject, it is even more difficult for her body to transcend and perform to its full capability.

Young concludes that women therefore have constrained bodily comportment and mobility, because she sees her body as an object rooted in an imminence she is unable to transcend.

Section III: The Spatiality Generated by Modalities

Young next delves into the concept of female bodies in their respective spaces, and introduces Merleau-Ponty's distinction between lived space and objective space. These two concepts merge for men, but for women, their existence is confined in their living space and does not expand into all objective space. Young cites a study by Erik Erikson, in which Erikson asked several young male and female participants to construct a scene for a movie, given a set of props. He observed that the females set their scenes constricted inside, utilizing "inner space," while the males set their scenes in the outdoors, utilizing "outer space." Erikson concluded that this was a psychoanalytic expression, with respect to each gender's anatomies — the female subjects subconsciously projected the inner space of their wombs and vaginas, while the male subjects subconsciously projected the outer space their phalluses occupy. Young discredits this theory, and argues that women favored inner space, because that is where their bodies move in space.

Erik Erikson American German-born psychoanalyst & essayist

Erik Homburger Erikson was a German-American developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst known for his theory on psychological development of human beings. He may be most famous for coining the phrase identity crisis. His son, Kai T. Erikson, is a noted American sociologist.

In terms of limited mobility, Young writes that women often use and inhabit a smaller space than what is realistically available. For example, when a ball is thrown, a woman will "stay in one place and react to the balls motion only when it has arrived within the space where she is." The female spatiality is limited based on her limited perception of what she is physically capable of, if she were to be able to transcend her body's discontinued unity.

Because women are seemingly stuck within their inner spaces, they experience a double spatiality, in which there is a perceived difference between space "here" and "yonder." Young contends that women are positioned in space, while men can freely move through it. This further contributes to a woman viewing her own body as an object, because she does not have the autonomy to move her body freely to constitute actions, but rather she remains within her space and receives the action. Young demonstrates this assertion by referring back to her observations that women only use parts of their body to perform a task, while the rest remains immobile, stuck in its constricted space. This further proves her previous rejection of Erikson's conclusions; because a woman sees herself as rooted and enclosed in a space, "then on the reversability assumption it would follow that visual space for feminine existence also has its closures of immobility and fixity."

Section IV: Implications, Understanding the Oppression of Women

Young concludes the paper with the assertion that these constraints are the result of living in a patriarchal, and sexist society. Women are not given the societal acceptance to take up as much space as men, and are taught from a young age to contain themselves in a small, enclosed, "inner space." Young girls are taught, both implicitly and explicitly, to follow the precedent of limited female spatiality and consequentially grow into "throwing like a girl." Once these girls have reached womanhood, they have embraced the conception that their bodies are fragile, and are both a subject and an object to be protected; women are aware that their bodies are seen as sexual objects by men, and that their bodies are objects receiving the male gaze. Young argues this further entrenches the discontinuity a woman has with her own body, as she fears that being outwardly direct will be perceived as an invitation to be objectified. She writes, "The woman lives her space as confined and enclosed around her at least in part as projecting some small area in which she can exist as a free subject."

While Young contends she has drawn sufficient conclusions on the modalities of feminine mobility, she introduces several questions that her paper raises. She questions how women perform differently than men in activities that do not require full-body movement, and in activities that do not have a clear goal, such as sex or dancing. Furthermore, Young questions how the constrained spatiality of the feminine body affects women's lives as a whole; she concludes with the suggestion that the lack of confidence women have about their physical abilities has resulted in their lack of confidence to be successful in cognitive or leadership abilities.

Scholarly reception

This essay has become a classic in feminist theory for its attention to female experiences and embodiment. It has been praised for breaking radical new ground in philosophy and providing a strong foundation for performance and corporeality studies. Because of its popularity, it has been reprinted in several book-length collections of essays and features in the title (see Throwing Like a Girl and Other Essays in Feminist Philosophy and Social Theory (1990) and On Female Body Experience: 'Throwing Like a Girl' and Other Essays (2005)).

Feminist theory is the extension of feminism into theoretical, fictional, or philosophical discourse. It aims to understand the nature of gender inequality. It examines women's and men's social roles, experiences, interests, chores, and feminist politics in a variety of fields, such as anthropology and sociology, communication, media studies, psychoanalysis, home economics, literature, education, and philosophy.

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