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Is Physical Culture Good For Girls?
Source: Nerves And Common Sense
A NUMBER of women were watching a game of basket-ball played by some
high-school girls. In the interim for rest one woman said to her
neighbor: "Do you see that girl flat on her back, looking like a
very heavy bag of sand ?"
"Yes," the answer was; "what under the sun is she doing that for?
She looks heavy and lazy and logy, while the other girls are talking
and laughing and having a good time."
"You wait and watch her play," responded the first woman. And so
they waited and watched, and to the astonishment of the friend the
girl who had looked "lazy and logy," lying flat on her back during
the rest-time, was the most active of the players, and really saved
When the game was finished the woman said to her friend with
surprise in her voice: "How did you see through that, and understand
what that girl was aiming for?"
The answer was: "Well, I know the girl, and both she and I have read
Kipling's 'The Maltese Cat.' Don't you remember how the best polo
ponies in that story, when they were off duty, hung their heads and
actually made themselves looked fagged, in order to be fresher when
the time came to play? And how 'The Maltese Cat' scouted the silly
ponies who held their heads up and kicked and looked alert while
they waited? And don't you remember the result?"
"No, I never read the story, but I have certainly seen your point
prove itself to-day. I shall read it at once. Meanwhile, I want to
speak to that clever girl who could catch a point like that and use
"Take care, please, that you do not mention it to her at all," said
the friend. "You will draw her attention back to herself and likely
as not make her lose the next game. Points like that have got to be
worked on without self-consciousness, not talked about."
And so the women told the child they were glad that her side won the
game and never mentioned her own part in it at all. After all she
had only found the law that the more passive you can be when it is
time to rest, the more alert you are and the more powerful in
activity. The polo pony knew it as a matter of course. We humans
have to discover it.
Let us, just for the interest of it, follow that same basket-ball
player a little more closely. Was she well developed and evenly
trained in her muscles? Yes, very. Did she go to gymnasium, or did
she scorn it? She went, twice a week regularly, and had good fun
there; but there was just this contrast between her and most of the
girls in the class: Jane, as we will call her, went to gymnasium as
a means to an end. She found that she got an even development there
which enabled her to walk better, to play better, and to work
better. In gymnasium she laid her muscular foundation on which to
build all the good, active work of her life. The gymnasium she went
to, however, was managed in an unusual way except for the chest
weights, which always "opened the ball," the members of the class
never knew what work they were to do. Their minds were kept alert
throughout the hour and a half. If their attention wavered they
tripped or got behind in the exercise, and the mental action which
went into the movement of every muscle made the body alive with the
healthy activity of a well-concentrated, well-directed mind.
Another point which our young friend learned at gymnasium was to
direct her mind only on to the muscles that were needed. Did you
ever try to clench your fist so tight that it could not be opened?
If not, try it, and relax all over your body while you are keeping
your fist tight closed. You will see that the more limp your body
becomes the tighter you can keep your fist clenched. All the force
goes in that one direction. In this way a moderately strong girl can
keep a strong man hard at work for several minutes before he can
make any impression on the closed hand. That illustrates in a simple
way the fact that the most wholesome concentration is that which
comes from dropping everything that interferes--letting the force of
mind or body flow only in the direction in which it is to be used.
Many girls use their brains in the wrong way while on the gymnasium
floor by saying to themselves, "I cannot do that." The brain is so
full of that thought that the impression an open brain would receive
has no chance to enter, and the result is an awkward, nervous, and
uncertain movement. If a girl's brain and muscle were so relaxed
that the impression on the one would cause a correct use and
movement of the other how easy it would be thereafter to apply the
proper tension to the muscle at the proper time without overtaxing
Some one has well said that "it is training, not straining, that we
want in our gymnasiums." Only when a girl is trained from this point
of view does she get real training.
This basket-ball player had also been taught how to rest after
exercise in a way which appealed to her especially, because of her
interest which had already been aroused in Kipling's polo pony. She
was taught intelligently that if, after vigorous exercise, when the
blood is coursing rapidly all over the body, you allow yourself to
be entirely open and passive, the blood finds no interruptions in
its work and can carry away the waste matter much more effectually.
In that way you get the full result of the exercise. It is not
necessary always to lie down to have your body passive enough after
vigorous exercise to get the best results. If you sit down after
exercise you want to sit without tension. Or if you walk home from
gymnasium you want to walk loosely and freely, keeping your chest up
and a little in advance, and pushing with the ball of your back foot
with a good, rhythmic balance. As this is the best way to sit and
the best way to walk--gymnasium or no gymnasium--to look out for a
well-balanced sitting and a well-balanced walk directly after
vigorous exercise, keeps us in good form for sitting and walking all
I know of a professor in one of our large colleges who was offered
also a professorship in a woman's college, and he refused to accept
because he said women's minds did not react. When he lectured to
girls he found that, however attentively they might seem to listen,
there was no response. They gave nothing in return.
Of course this is not true of all girls, and of course the gentleman
who refused the chair in the woman's college would agree that it is
not true of all girls, but if those who read the anecdote would,
instead of getting indignant, just look into the matter a little,
they would see how true it is of many girls, and by thinking a
little further we can see that it is not at present the girls'
fault. A hundred years ago girls were not expected to think. I
remember an anecdote which a very intelligent old lady used to tell
me about her mother. Once, when she was a little girl, her mother
found some fault with her which the daughter knew to be unjust, and
she answered timidly, "But, Mother, I think--"
"Abigail," came the sharp reminder, "you've no business to think."
One hundred years ago it was only the very exceptional girls who
really thought. Now we are gradually working toward the place where
every girl will think. And surely it cannot be very long now before
the united minds of a class of college girls will have the habit of
reacting so that any man will feel in his own brain a vigorous
result from lecturing to them.
This fact that a girl's brain does not react is proved in many ways.
Most of the women who come to nerve specialists seem to feel that
they are to sit still and be cured, while the men who come respond
and do their part much more intelligently--the result being that men
get out of "nerves" in half the time and stay out, whereas girls
often get out a little way and slump (literally slump) back again
before they can be helped to respond truly enough to get well and
keep themselves well. This information is given only with an idea of
stirring girls up to their best possibilites, for there is not a
woman born with a sound mind who is not capable of reacting
mentally, in a greater or less degree, to all that she hears,
provided she uses her will consciously to form the new habit.
Now this need of intelligent reaction is just the trouble with girls
and physical culture. Physical culture should be a means to an
end--and that is all, absolutely all. It is delightful and
strengthening when it is taught thoughtfully as a means to an end,
and I might almost say it is only weakening when it is made an end
Girls need to react intelligently to what is given them in physical
training as much as to what is given them in a lecture on literature
or philosophy or botany. How many girls do we know who take physical
culture in a class, often simply because it is popular at the time,
and never think of taking a long walk in the country--never think of
going in for a vigorous outdoor game? How many girls do we know who
take physical culture and never think of making life easy for their
stomachs, or seeing that they get a normal amount of sleep? Exercise
in the fresh air, with a hearty objective interest in all that is
going on about us, is the very best sort of exercise that we can
take, and physical culture is worse than nothing if it is not taken
only as a means to enable us to do more in the open air, and do it
better, and gain from it more life.
There is one girl who comes to my mind of whom I should like to tell
because she illustrates truly a point that we cannot consider too
carefully. She went to a nerve specialist very much broken in
health, and when asked if she took plenty of exercise in the open
air she replied "Yes, indeed." And it was proved to be the very best
exercise. She had a good horse, and she rode well; she rode a great
deal, and not too much. She had interesting dogs and she took them
with her. She walked, too, in beautiful country. But she was
carrying in her mind all the time extreme resistance to other
circumstances of her life. She did not know how to drop the
resistance or face the circumstances, and the mental strain in which
she held herself day and night, waking or sleeping, prevented the
outdoor exercise from really refreshing her. When she learned to
face the circumstances then the exercise could do its good work.
On the other hand, there are many forms of nervous resistance and
many disagreeable moods which good, vigorous exercise will blow away
entirely, leaving our minds so clear that we wonder at ourselves,
and wonder that we could ever have had those morbid thoughts.
The mind acts and the body reacts, the body acts and the mind
reacts, but of course at the root of it all is the real desire for
what is normal, or--alas!--the lack of that desire.
If physical culture does not make us love the open air, if it does
not make us love to take a walk or climb a mountain, if it does not
help us to take the walk or climb the mountain with more freedom, if
it does not make us move along outdoors so easily that we forget our
bodies altogether, and only enjoy what we see about us and feel how
good it is to be alive--why, then physical culture is only an
ornament without any use.
There is an interesting point in mountain-climbing which I should
like to speak of, by the way, and which makes it much pleasanter and
better exercise. If, after first starting--and, of course, you
should start very slowly and heavily, like an elephant--you get out
of breath, let yourself stay out of breath. Even emphasize the being
out of breath by breathing harder than your lungs started to
breathe, and then let your lungs pump and pump and pump until they
find their own equilibrium. The result is delightful, and the
physical freedom that follows is more than delightful. I remember
seeing two girls climbing in the high Rocky Mountains in this way,
when other women were going up on ponies. Finally one of the guides
looked back, and with an expression of mild astonishment said "Well,
you have lungs!" This was a very pleasant proof of the right kind of
There are many good points for climbing and walking and swimming and
all outdoor exercise that can be gained from the best sort of
physical culture; and physical culture is good for girls when it
gives these points and leads to a spontaneous love for outdoor
exercise. But when it results only in a self-conscious pose of the
body then it is harmful.
We want to have strong bodies, free for every normal action, with
quiet nerves, and muscles well coordinated. Then our bodies are
merely instruments: good, clean, healthy instruments. They are the
"mechanism of the outside." And when the mechanism of the outside is
well oiled and running smoothly it can be forgotten.
There can be no doubt but that physical culture is good for girls
provided it is given and taken with intelligent interest, but it
must be done thoroughly to be done to real advantage. As, for
instance, the part the shower-bath plays after exercising is most
important, for it equalizes the circulation. Physical culture is
good for girls who have little or no muscular action in their daily
lives, for it gives them the healthiest exercise in the least space
of time, and prepares them to get more life from exercise outdoors.
It is good for girls whose daily lives are full of activity, because
it develops the unused muscles and so rests those that have been
overused. Many a hardworking girl has entered the gymnasium class
tired and has left it rested.
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