Detailed guides to painful problems, treatments & more

The myth of feminine fragility

 •  • by Paul Ingraham
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Weekly nuggets of pain science news and insight, usually 100-300 words, with the occasional longer post. The blog is the “director’s commentary” on the core content of a library of major articles and books about common painful problems and popular treatments. See the blog archives or updates for the whole site.

Nothing in life is perfectly safe, but lifting heavy things (bodybuilding, powerlifting) is much safer than most people assume (especially if you exclude the kooks who egregiously overdo it). The idea that women who lift suffer more pelvic organ prolapse is likely just sexist hand-wringing and fear-mongering about how delicate women are. A new study by Forner et al. shows that women “do not have an increased prevalence of pelvic organ prolapse symptoms.”

Sports science is full of the idea that (white) women might get hurt more often than men, usually because they are presumed to be more structurally vulnerable in some way. (Black women are perceived veeery differently. Spoiler alert: it’s not an improvement.) This sexism/racism is more plausible in some cases than others, but mostly it’s just an obnoxious vestige of the more overt chauvinism of the past. The myth of feminine fragility over time…

Olden times: “Ladies in athletics? Ho ho, don‘t be absurd old chap! The fairer sex is simply not designed for the manly arts. If God wanted women to play sports, he would have made them tough as old boots, but then who’d want to marry them?!”

Today: “Women can be fine athletes, but obviously they have some more injury risk factors because of their biomechanical idiosyncracies.”

There are some aspects of female anatomy and biology that are legitimately risk factors for certain injuries. Women are going to sustain more “frictional breast injuries,” for instance. But to the extent that this is true… men also have their own gender-specific vulnerabilities. I can verify that! Google “twisted testicular appendix,” if you dare.

Bottom line: There is no significant net difference between the athletic vulnerabilities of men and women.

For more on this topic, see the It’s Time to Ditch These Myths About the Female Running Body, a short evidence-based summary of myths about the vulnerability of women’s bodies to injury, which are “wrong, disempowering, and can be harmful to a female runner’s experience. Yes, women get injured. But it’s not because of how they’re built.” A well-written and competent article.