From the Desk of Matilda Darling

An Open Letter to the So-Called “Fierce Five”

Dear United States Women’s Artistic Gymnastics National Team,

As much as it pains me to consider the cutesy infantile tragedy that is your team nickname, I have resolved to take up this cross and carry it, like so many Olympic torches, with the hope of igniting a flame, or even a spark, of social enlightenment among your ilk. Recent rather heavy-handed American television coverage of the women’s artistic gymnastics competition at the Games of the Thirtieth Olympiad have brought a panoply of issues with the current culture of your sport to my attention, and, as you may know, once my intellect has become aggrieved and my taste offended by some mind-blanching idiocy excreted by our turning world, I will not, nay cannot rest until I address such slights.

Let me assure you at the outset that I do not intend to use this missive as a vehicle with which to ride roughshod over the glory of your athletic achievements. Indeed, even an athletically ignorant person (such as myself) is able to recognize the Herculean dedication that is required of participants in elite-level gymnastics competitions. I can only imagine the hours—the months, the years, the lifetimes—spent in dingy cinderblock gymnasiums, where the recessed fluorescent ceiling lights become something like a sun around which your work day revolves, and what is that work? All and only physical exercise. I would imagine that you work out for the entire duration of my school day. That for the entirety of the sedentary nine-to-five schedule of modern American office lemmings, these corporate drones who require coffee in the morning and diet sodas in the afternoon just to stay awake enough to sit upright in a Posturepedic chair, you are running on a treadmill, or climbing a Stair-Stepper; you are doing hundreds of sit-ups, push-ups, lunges, squats, all told thousands of calisthenics performed in a single week; you are lifting weights and stretching until your physique has the sleek striated musculature of a thoroughbred racehorse or a Greek sculpture; and then, then! After all of this, you begin to actually perform your sport: practicing leaping and flipping and somersaulting from a vault or atop a sliver of balance beam; pirouetting and dancing and risking near-certain neck injury practicing new tumbling passes on a springloaded floor; and flinging yourself with reckless abandon and at high speeds around the uneven bars, as if your very frame, the health and structural soundness of which is essential to the continuation of your career, were nothing more valuable or weighty than the flimsiest of shuttlecocks. Watching you in flight on the various apparatus left me in a state that can only be termed slack-jawed astonishment, particularly since I myself cannot be trusted to safely make it down a flight of stairs without an unintentional and non-acrobatic tumble.

Furthermore, when one considers the fact that all this effort is exerted in pursuit of a goal so singular—winning a gold medal at the Olympics—that achieving it is nearly a statistical impossibility, the mental fortitude required for this level of sport cannot be overstated. Can any of us imagine the pressures of competing on the Olympic stage, performing before cameras and judges and teammates and rivals, before parents and coaches who have sacrificed their time and money and lives for you, of facing all this and being able to not just perform but to perform well enough to medal, which is to say, to perform flawlessly, with perfect form and innovative technique and explosive power, after which the outcome of your whole lifetime of slavery to the sport up to that moment is left in the hands of lumpy-bottomed bifocaled judges who are marking their every infraction from on high, as if these gymnasts were not so much elite athletes as defendants in a war-crimes tribunal?

Yes, the arena is a cruel place in which to grow up. So I have not come here to denigrate your accomplishments, particularly in light of the gauntlet over which you have vaulted yourself to achieve them. No, what I have come here to question is why, exactly, young female gymnasts in competition—who demonstrate such inhuman mental and superhuman physical strength in the face of incomprehensible obstacles, such steely glares of determination, such power and grace–why, once a routine is finished, these very same athletes dissolve into utterly insipid bimbos?

You bound down the sidelines clapping and squealing, or alternately, pouting and sobbing, depending on the quality of your performance, and then you hug, in the most superficial manner possible, each of your teammates—every single one! After every single routine!—your taut arms barely grazing their heaving Quasimodo shoulders, your chests not even touching in a bizarre sorority-esque ritualistic dance of congratulations that seems to be as elaborately choreographed as your actual tumbling routines. Good job, good job, good job, you whisper-chant in the eeriest of chipper voices, for all of you, to a girl, have throats that have the bleating vocal register of a pan flute played by a toddler who has just inhaled a balloon full of helium. It is a wonder that all the dogs in Londontown did not set up to braying when you got to cheering for one another. (And atop of all these cheers and tears and strange simulacrums of affection, you plaster heaping layers of makeup: overdone contour blush and smoky eyeliner and sparkles, sparkles everywhere, as if the same child with pan flute had petulantly set it down and demanded that now it was time to “play makeup.” Can one name another sport in which the contestants spackle their visages with foundation before entering the ring?) Even more discomfiting is the oddly juxtaposed and lavish affection your—usually male—coaches display toward you post-performance. They not only hug but kiss you, cradling your chin in both hands, pecking your forehead, pulling you in for embrace after embrace, particularly if you have done well for yourself in competition. These coaches cannot, it appears, keep their hands off you, in a manner that seems at best that of an overly doting helicopter-parent and at worst that of a nymphet-infatuated Eastern Bloc Humbert Humbert. It would be very strange behavior between a coach and his protégé even if you were fully formed adult women who had embraced their strength and athleticism and, truth be told, rather masculine musculature, but it is all the more horrifying considering you attempt to undercut what would otherwise be one’s actualized self with simulacra of girlhood such as butterfly-shaped barrettes and sequined purple bodysuits, emphasizing and even exaggerating the truth, which is that you are, in fact, all teenage girls younger than eighteen.

It is possible that your behavior is the result of mitigating circumstances rather than some overweening desire, conscious or unconscious, to appear as girly as possible when not actually competing. For example, perhaps you are required by some authoritarian governing body of international gymnastics to wear this pageant-worthy war paint; perhaps stepping out into the coliseum barefaced would result in immediate multiple deductions. However, I distinctly recall one (short-haired!) German gymnast hurtling herself at top speed toward the vault with nary a lick of mascara in sight. Or, perhaps your leotards are in fact too snug to permit much range of motion in your arms when embracing a teammate, although one swiftly doubts any such fabric retardation when one considers the wild acrobatics you otherwise are capable of performing in the same outfit. (It bears noting, I think, that the Thirtieth Olympiad is more commonly referred to in type as the XXX Olympiad, where Roman numerals signify the number thirty, which is quite apropos considering the XXX-caliber quality of the cut of these leotards, which leave precious little concerning your nether regions to the imagination.) Or perhaps your voices, like your height and your secondary sex characteristics, were hampered in their development by the physical rigors of your training and, no doubt, your uber-restrictive diets.

I should perhaps now also admit that I, too, am an almost-teenage girl, albeit one a few years younger than yourselves, and that watching the NBC coverage of gymnastics competitions certainly provided a soothing balm of distraction at the end of my summer vacation, the days of which seem to drag on and on. Mercifully, school resumes next week, and perhaps my pondering my own imminent future as an eighth-grader in part contributed to my distaste for the childish behavior you displayed. (One member of your phalanx actually pouted on the medal podium!) As I reflected upon the particular set of manners and the amount of maturity expected of me when faced with the challenges of my life, which may not involve me attempting to pirouette on a four-inch-wide wooden beam (and thank God) but which are extremely trying nevertheless (it is, after all, rather hard to have to eat lunch by oneself day in and day out), I found myself becoming more and more incensed at the cavalier manner with which you handle your position as role models for the future women of America, impressionable little girls who no doubt now think the ultimate mark of a female warrior is an American flag manicure or the use of the word “like” between every third word in their sentences. You have been given the opportunity to present yourself to the world as a paragon of female strength and you have chosen instead to display behavior reminiscent of the worst kind of middle school cheerleader.

Perhaps I am too harsh: it is, of course, quite difficult for any of us to figure out exactly how to be oneself when one is walking that balance beam of life otherwise known as adolescence, where at one’s mount you are a little girl, and at one’s dismount you are a young woman, and to traverse the perilous span betwixt these two points is to endure wobbles and errors and deductions of all sorts, is to risk limb, life, and worst of all, falling flat on one’s face. Perhaps I should not be surprised that in the face of such pressures, both metaphorical and actual, female gymnasts often regress into such pre-pubescent postures in some sort of unconscious grasping for any form of stress relief. But, on the other hand, I find that outwardly disguising oneself as a harmless little girl as a sort of apologia for the woman warrior within smacks of a certain cafeteria ruthlessness, a certain insincere entrapment in the manner of the Trojan horse, or, for that matter, Madison Lauren. Is this truly the kind of person you want to be: a Salome who danced for Herod, or worse, a humble housewife type too meek to show her inner strength to the outside world? Is this what you feel you must do to compensate for your strength and power? Do you truly believe that after all your years and years of Spartan-style training, you’re really nothing more than innocent ditzes with sugary falsettos who, when not in cutthroat competition for gold, wouldn’t, and couldn’t, otherwise hurt a fly? Embrace your power! Wash off your makeup and put some grease paint under your eyes! Trade in your pink and purple leotards for an intimidating color palette of black or even camouflage! Learn to decry those insidious societal whispers, those silver-tongued influencers of taste (those Seventeen magazines, those Justin Bieber videos, those endless vampire fantasy sagas) who convince us we must above all be pretty, be delicate, be silly and soft and sweet! Because if you’re strong enough to stick it, you’re strong enough to stick it to the man.

Yours in female fearlessness,

Matilda Darling

Liz lives and writes in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.