How to make the most of being a woman – isn’t that the most empowering you’ve heard in a long time?

Kajsa Gilenstam
Department of Community Medicine and Rehabilitation, Umeå University

Jacky Forsyth & Claire-Marie Roberts (red)
The Exercising Female: Science and Its Application
288 pages, hardcover.
Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge 2019 (Routledge Research in Sport and Exercise Science)
ISBN 978-0-8153-9198-2

As a student you become used to the specific point of view where females are described by if and how they differ from males. Indeed, you can still find physiology books with a section aimed at “special populations” such  as children, women and the elderly. As a scientist with special interest in sport and exercise for women, you become used to the fact that most research has been performed on men but usually applied to both men and women, often in a quite unreflected manner. Indirectly, this tells us that the normal athlete is a young, healthy male, and that sometimes women are different from men.

The editors of The Exercising Female, Jacky Forsyth and Claire-Marie Roberts, wanted to change this point of view. They wanted a book focusing on women, full stop! They wanted a book about the knowledge of the female body and mind, where science regarding exercising women of different ages was collected, and where this knowledge was put in use by giving practical advice. A wonderful, refreshing idea that perhaps is ahead of its time, as not all researchers within the field share their critical thinking.

The book includes twenty chapters, all focusing on different aspects of health and wellbeing as well as elite performance. The majority of the authors are from the UK. What makes this edited volume different from other books of its kind is that most authors (85%) are women.

Most authors are also scientist within physiology or psychology, and represent a wide range in terms of level of expertise – all the way from students to distinguished professors. The knowledge depth also varies between the chapters –  from well written chapters by really established researchers within their field of expertise to chapters of much less substance and depth. Some chapters  are written by real authorities in their field of expertise (e.g. chapters 6, 10 and 19), whereas the choice of authors of some chapters is something of an enigma.

A favourite chapter of mine is written by quite young researchers (they received their PhDs 2013–2015). This chapter (chapter 13) really follows the general aim of the book, in that the situation for female athletes are described and analysed without using the male athlete as the norm. The authors explain that the social environments that female athletes experience affect their “perceptions, behaviours and achievements in sport”. In other words, the different contexts of male and female athletes need to be considered in sports, and this chapter makes it really easy to understand this. Here, the aim of the book is clearly visible and it works splendidly.

The history of women in sport has been full of obstacles, with the medical science being very active in finding “scientific” reasons why women can’t or shouldn’t be allowed to participate in sports and exercise. The “female sex hormones” and her lesser muscle mass, etc. has been used as arguments to discourage women from strength training and exhausting exercise. Most of these arguments have, in time, been proven wrong, but there is still much work to do before medical science is relatively free of gender-based assumptions in disguise.

In spite of my disappointment in some areas, all the chapters together give us a better insight into the topic and really make for an important book for all of us interested in sport and exercise for women.

Seen from this perspective, the most “dangerous” chapter of the book concerns musculoskeletal injuries. In this chapter, the female body is described by its difference to the male body (and they are, I quote: “inherently different”), and differences in injury rates are consequently explained by these differences. Even though these factors are relevant and important to discuss it is not enough. By reducing female athletes to “female sex hormones” and “narrower intercondylar notch” we fail to see that the conditions for female and male athletes are different from beginning to end (see chapter 13) and that in order to understand injuries in women, we need to look at the whole sporting context for women per se. As this book really wants to change the way we view women athletes we would definitely have needed something more. However, as medicine still is a quite gender blind area (see introduction), perhaps this was too much to ask for?

Hormones are addressed in several chapters. The multifactorial mechanisms that adjust hormone levels, that the effect of a specific hormone also depend on the sensitivity of its receptors, and that hormones affect each other , these confluent factor makes this area really difficult to discuss in relation to the living body. In addition, menstrual cycle length differs between individuals, and the facts that there is variation between menstrual cycles within each individual, etc. make the hormonal effects in athletes a complicated matter. The authors tackle this problem in different ways. In chapter 3 the inconclusive results of this small research area make the authors draw the conclusion that menstrual cycle has no effect on performance, whereas chapter 10 manage both to navigate through the general function of the immune system and to discuss the specific factors related to women in a clear and understandable way.

What I like the most about the book is that it includes a bit of everything: Performance as well as health, physiology as well as psychology. In spite of my disappointment in some areas, all the chapters together give us a better insight into the topic and really make for an important book for all of us interested in sport and exercise for women. However, if I am allowed to make a wish for the second edition of this book, I would like an additional chapter about sex transformation and hormonal imbalances from both a health and a performance perspective. I would also like an additional chapter on body composition in relation to health and performance

As previously mentioned, the editors had a really marvellous idea, of a book empowering women in exercise. However, the book as a whole does not really manage to fulfil the goal of “making the most of being a woman” and to give the reader a better insight about the exercising female.

      • By still referring to how women are different to men, and sometimes by referring to research that is probably based on an all-male population in an unreflected manner, women are not put in the centre and the facts may not be correct
      • By letting authors from one research area alone write a chapter that often relates to both gender, body and mind, some important aspects are left out. Some examples of “gaps” I would have liked to see filled: the chapters about adolescence and body image focuses on psychology (and the body is left out), and the chapter about menopause focus on the body (and social/gender factors and psychology is left out) and I miss the important part of birth injuries of the mother injuring the perineal area and the pelvic floor that may be of substantial hindrance for exercise postpartum.

If the chapters were co-written by researchers from psychology and physiology who also understand gender in society and in sport, these gaps would probably disappear and make the chapters even more informative.

I cannot help but thinking – what an amazing meeting they would have had if they all had met and they all had shared their knowledge with each other! However, as this reader is painfully aware of the difficulties that an editor may encounter to get the different manuscripts submitted on time (as the current document that you are reading right now is long past due-date), that might be something to hope for before the next edition of the book is released.

Copyright © Kajsa Gilenstam 2020

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