Women's artistic gymnastics : an (auto-)ethnographic journey

Barker-Ruchti, Natalie (2007). Women's artistic gymnastics : an (auto-)ethnographic journey PhD Thesis, School of Human Movement Studies, University of Queensland.

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Author Barker-Ruchti, Natalie
Thesis Title Women's artistic gymnastics : an (auto-)ethnographic journey
School, Centre or Institute School of Human Movement Studies
Institution University of Queensland
Publication date 2007
Thesis type PhD Thesis
Supervisor Professor Richard Tinning
Subjects 321400 Human Movement and Sports Science
Abstract/Summary Breathtaking circus-like performances, perfectly shaped lean bodies, ponytails and glittering leotards: the present-day ideals of women’s artistic gymnastics are narrow. Competitive success is only possible if gymnasts satisfy distinct bodily characteristics and appearances and produce particular gymnastics performances. In order for gymnasts to achieve success within this selective gymnastics model, they have to coerce their bodies towards detailed technical requirements and specific aesthetic standards, undergo a repetitive and timeconsuming training schedule from a young age, and submit to an authoritative coach. How do present-day female gymnasts experience their sport? How do they deal with its idealistic pressures to form their selves? This thesis examines gymnasts’ subjectivities using a range of Michel Foucault’s and feminist concepts. Foucault argues that the modern subject constructs identity through an agonistic tension between external pressures that aim to train individuals in particular ways and personal agency that allows self-regulation and selfstylisation. Contextual factors are powerful in inscribing our bodies, directing our lives and who we see our selves to be. Women, feminist scholars argue, have limited agency in constructing their subjectivities and lives. In being controlled by external pressures, mainstream female subjectivities maintain and reinforce patriarchal discourses of femininity and masculinity. This thesis begins by exploring my own passion and experiences in artistic gymnastics, interweaving these with the field notes and interview data I collected from a number of elite gymnasts and coaches. The ethnographic and self-reflective accounts illustrate how this sport creates particular gymnasts, performances and identities. While these may be experienced differently, the dominant gymnastics model coerces its athletes toward homogeneity, yet individuality. Gymnasts strive to force their bodies to achieve the sport’s regulatory and idealistic requirements. These standards provide meaning and feelings of competence and identity. Any sense of empowerment, however, is counter-productive as it reinforces feminine ideals of corporeal discipline and control, pleasing others through appearance and subordination from and dependence on others. Further, the normalisation process individualises as less able or unsuitable gymnasts are identified, isolated and penalised. The (auto-)ethnographic focus of the thesis extends to a genealogical exploration of women’s artistic gymnastics. In particular, the thesis presents historical information to shed light on how the modern form of gymnastics has been able to develop. It does this through descriptive analyses of two eras relevant to gymnastics: Swedish gymnastics in 19th Century Victorian England and the changes gymnastics experienced during Communist politics. Using critical feminist Foucauldian interpretations, the thesis positions artistic gymnastics as a case of female identity formation and conduct. The analyses illustrate how the external pressures today’s women face have controlling effects, which limit their agency to self-stylise their selves and lives. Liberation from such forces, as in Foucault’s notion of an ‘aesthetics of the self’, may only be achieved through critical self-reflection. My personal journey from indoctrinated gymnast to a feminist critic of this sport illustrates how women may be able to interpret patriarchal forces.

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Created: Fri, 21 Nov 2008, 15:23:51 EST