By Vanessa Grigoriadis
As new accusers continue to emerge in the wake of Larry Nassar’s abhorrent crimes, gymnastics—and the idea of girlhood that the sport perpetuates—is undergoing a revolution.
Few icons of American girlhood are as symbolically complex as elite gymnasts. They appear on the mat as tiny shining birds: gems sewn into their leotards sparkling under bright competition lights, and colorful bows plopped on their French-braided hairdos like feathered crowns. Scouts looking for young gymnasts with the potential to reach the Olympics sometimes spot girls as young as seven. Their careers usually peak before they can vote and end before they can legally order a glass of wine in a restaurant. Yet they are athletes of extraordinary accomplishment and fortitude. They’re strong women, or girls becoming women, who fly through the air seemingly by sheer force of will. As a child glued to the television during the Summer Olympics in the 1980s, I thought of them as real-life versions of Superwoman. Women of steel, lighter than air.
In the past few months, these girls have also become bellwethers for our evolving views on femininity, agency, and sexual abuse. Until recently the story they told about their lives in gymnastics was one of unique powerlessness. As top gymnasts, they were supposed to be silent, sexless, obedient little girls. They had one purpose and one purpose only: to perform fearsome acrobatics. They were never supposed to complain about ragged palms, stress fractures, and excruciating back pain. They didn’t question the sport’s rigid attitudes toward diet, which often veered suspiciously close to starvation. And they certainly never would have told an authority figure that Larry Nassar, the respected osteopathic doctor who was the physician for the U.S. women’s Olympic gymnastics team and other club and university-level teams, was inappropriately penetrating their vaginas and rectums with his fingers while they lay on his massage table to receive treatment for injuries. Good girls, and good gymnasts, didn’t create waves.
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