Saturday, May 19, 2012

Of Shawn Johnson, body type and artistry

This past week at the USA Gymnastics media summit, Shawn Johnson discussed her post-2008 weight gain and subsequent weight loss, and these comments, more than anything else that was said at the conference, are the ones that have made the internet rounds. This type of stuff is blogging/link bait. We must all either be really concerned about women's health and body image or really care about policing female bodies or some combination thereof.

Johnson ended up taking to her ESPNw blog to discuss the hoopla, talking about how she always wished to be a few pounds lighter, even at her competitive peaks, and how hurt she was to read the fan takedowns of her Olympic appearance. Fortunately for Johnson, her mother had a normal perspective on body image. And some of the insecurities Johnson refers to aren't peculiar to gymnastics. They are typical adolescent concerns (hello-she was only 16 in Beijing), exacerbated by gymnastics. Any sport that puts you into spandex will make a teenage girl a little crazy.

What I found interesting was Dominique Dawes' response to Johnson. In her brief post, she comments that while Johnson's body type has enabled some of her success--she was a powerful vaulter and tumbler--it has also turned her into a target of fan/judge criticism. She writes:

In America, we'll score stocky, athletic builds normally. Internationally, there still remains a stigma to that type of body type.

I don't think it's judges who have a problem, overall, with the physique. (Though Elfi loves to talk about the "look international judges loves," by which she means skinny.) Many American gymnasts have been successful internationally with a less than lithe body type--from Mary Lou Retton to Kim Zmeskal to Shawn Johnson to now Jordyn Wieber. Not to mention that many other athletically built gymnasts from teams aside from China and the former Soviet bloc nations have managed to get on the podium in recent years. It's the fans who seem to take issue more than anyone. Sometimes I think the term artistic is tossed out at gymnastics who have the more balletic style. They are characterized as artistic for being fortunate (?) for having a certain type of body type and waving their arms like a princess rather than for any true artistry and dance abilities. When fans comment that so and so is so "artistic," what they sometimes seem to be saying is that she's thin. They're saying--she looks like she could be a ballerina. Not that she is one. Not that she has either the grace or form or musicality of a dancer but that instead of a leotard, we could successfully imagine her in a tutu. This is not something we are easily able to do for the stockier gymnastics who are then maligned for not being artistic.

Just as biology is not destiny in the nature vs. nurture debate, body type does not mean artistry. It's time we started decoupling the two.


Sofia said...

Wonderful points about SJ. I am a dancer by training, not a gymnast, and I found Shawn very clean and musical, with her head and expressions all connected...I don't think she could have been any more artistically pleasing. Liukin, though she has lythe, balletic body type, is no more (sometimes less) artistic than Shawn. There was a disconnect between her head and the rest of her sometimes, that didn't complete her line. She would sort of throw her leg up and the rest of her didn't lengthen with it... The only gymnast who was truly balletic was Podkopayeva,beautifully pointed feet (not just "toe point"), finished lines, and never broken wrists, musicality, and her whole presentation was balletic and artistic and her body type was more like Shawn's than Nastia's. Jordyn is not a dancy gymnast but her dance elements are clean and very musical. I think Jordyn was blessed with the best of both worlds, she is far less stocky than SJ (note, I love to watch Shawn, and don't dislike her body type at all)and she has the power...maybe international judges will be less harsh with her.

Dvora Meyers said...

Sofia, thanks for this feedback. I agree wholeheartedly. In general, gymnastics fans (and coaches and commentators) have such a narrow definition of "artistry." When they say it, they mean "elegant" or what I what I like to call "faux elegant." To most fans, it's not about the musicality or the originality of movements. It's about having the flourishes and hand movements that make it seem like you're elegant. And a lot of that seeming elegant or balletic boils down to body type. And I agree about Jordyn--she does an excellent job of presenting and has one of the better choreographed floor routines out there and knows how to perform and present. Since these girls aren't dancers, this is about as much as I hope to see. (And I usually see much, much less.)

While I'm not a "trained" dancer, I've spent the last five years participating in breaking and house so I've come to appreciate musicality and performance, too.