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This old YA novel shows us how far women’s gymnastics has come — and how far it hasn’t

Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Isn’t it astonishing to watch Team USA gymnast Simone Biles perform a floor routine? The incredible precision of her flips and twists and the immense strength powering them, the gracefulness of her movements and the muscular force that propels her across the mat — it’s all immensely compelling stuff.

As Meghan O’Rourke writes for New York Magazine, women’s gymnastics "speaks to all that remains unresolved in our ideas about the female body and its power — the push-pull between the ballerina’s slim, delicate ‘clean lines’ and the vaulter’s muscles blasting her into the air."

But the world of women’s gymnastics didn’t always embrace that combination. It used to be a world like the one described in The Rascals from Haskell’s Gym, a 1977 YA book written by Frank Bonham. Rascals is a kind of time capsule, one that shows us what women’s gymnastics looked like at a pivotal moment in the sport’s history.

It was a world that — like its heroine, teen gymnast Sissy — frowned at the idea of too much feminine strength and power on display:

"Hey, hey, hey!" chortled the announcer. "You, lady — you look like a responsible mother. What are you going to say when somebody asks, Where is your darling daughter tonight? Out whooping it up with Hell’s Angels? No, ma’am! She’s going to be at Bonnie Walker’s gymnastics club developing her muscles!"

Not muscles, mister, Sissy thought bleakly. … Who needs big muscles? Not muscles, but skills!

That tension between muscles and skills — between strength and grace — is what powers Rascals, from Sissy’s search for "style," to her feud with a rival team, to her furious focus on helping slim down the bodies of her teammates. It’s the same tension that, ultimately, drives our fascination with women’s gymnastics.

Should women’s gymnastics be lyrical or powerful?

The ’70s marked a transitional period in the world of women’s gymnastics, as the sport evolved beyond a lyrical dance focus toward a more dramatically athletic sensibility. As Sports Illustrated wrote in 1979:

There was a time, not too long ago, when women's gymnastics was more of an art form than a sport. It was a lyrical exercise somewhere this side of ballet, an activity pursued by serene young ladies with swanlike necks. There was some bouncing around, sure, but the gymnasts cut elegant arcs with their bounces, even on the bars, and one could persuade oneself that a clutch of nymphs had wandered out of L'Aprèsmidi d'un faune.

But then came second-wave feminism. Then came Title IX and the ensuing wave of enthusiasm for women’s sports. And then came the Soviets. Led by Bela Karolyi in Romania, who hand-selected teams of young, tenacious small girls and trained them relentlessly, the women’s gymnastics teams of the Soviet Bloc spent the ’70s systematically innovating the sport. They performed moves only men had done before, and invented new ones.

In the midst of all this innovation came The Rascals from Haskell’s Gym. The book was published in 1977, three years after Congress amended Title IX to clarify that its ban on educational sex discrimination extended to school sports, and one year after Nadia Comaneci scored the first-ever perfect 10 at the 1976 Montreal Olympics.

Rascals takes place in a small-town amateur gymnastics scene, where the local clubs brag about how their coaches almost made it to the Olympics. It’s not at the cutting edge of elite gymnastics, so its characters have only just begun to recognize the new — and dangerously Russian — model of gymnastics. And they find it terrifying.

Sissy and her team don’t want to be too strong

Gymnastics, thinks Sissy, "was supposed to be fun, and good for you, but it wasn’t fun when people practically drafted you into the Army to beat it into your head." She’s thinking of a rival team, Haskell’s Rascals, who train with a version of Karloyi’s methods and who she despises passionately.

Sissy and her fellow teammates, the Butterflies, resent the Rascals’ reliance on flashy, crowd-pleasing tricks, but they console themselves with the reminder that after all, the Rascals aren’t actually more talented than they are. "Anybody could lose weight and learn fast," one Butterfly says. "It’s like the Russians. Like it’s all they do."

It’s not that the Butterflies don’t work hard or do strength training. Sissy knows, for instance, that she needs to be strong to do well on the uneven bars, and she glows with pride when her coach affectionately calls her "a muscle freak," responding, "It’s the strength exercises. It really is," with "a warm feeling for the strength circuit."

But the Butterflies don’t want to be too strong. They want to be just strong enough, and their real focus is on grace and elegance of movement. They consider the women’s gymnastics of the early ’70s to be a perfectly balanced sport, one that asks them to be lyrical and graceful and not nearly as strong as their male counterparts. Their coach describes it as the perfect and ultimate endpoint of a long evolution:

For many years, women’s gymnastics were the same as men’s. Women and girls tried unsuccessfully to perform tricks they weren’t strong enough for. Then the sport began to change into the women’s activity it is now, with more elegant tumbling moves, and dance elements in which we can be feminine and athletic.

To be feminine and athletic is the greatest goal of all — but not so athletic, of course, that you might be threatening to men.

Sissy is pretty sure bulimia is a helpful tool in the journey to gymnastic greatness

Of course, to really be graceful and elegant, the Butterflies think, they need to be compact. They need to be slim.

Enter Andrea, Sissy’s best friend on the Butterflies. She is the fat one, and you know this because Andrea’s name never once comes up in all 119 pages of this book without the narrator reminding you that she is fat. She’s "the pudgy little gymnast," her legs are "stubby," and when she does her floor routine you can hear her coming down too hard on the boards, causing Sissy to think unhappily, "She’s got to lose some weight!"

Luckily, Sissy has the solution. Andrea comes to her in a panic after she loses control and eats an ice cream sundae, and Sissy sorts her out:

"Sissy! What am I going to do?"

"Do about what?" …

"All that ice cream I ate! When I saw it — I just couldn’t —" She shook her head in despair.

"Go into the ladies room and put your finger down your throat. My father knew a jockey who used to keep his weight down that way. But don’t get in the habit."

"You mean — vomit?"

"Throw it up. Otherwise —" she pinched Andrea’s waist, "your personal fudge-factory will go into gear."

So Andrea takes herself off to the bathroom and emerges a few pages later, "pale as pork fat but looking relieved."

Ah, you think, now we’ve come to the social realism part of the book. One of the gymnasts struggles with bulimia! How realistic and hard-hitting!

LOL, says Rascals. Of course not! Andrea, who is relentlessly shamed for her weight by her peers and coaches, learns to soothe her feelings by binge-eating and then vomiting, but it’s cool, she doesn’t make a habit of it.

Instead, she diets her way to success. In the final, climactic exhibition, Andrea makes a brilliant showing:

Cucumbers, orange slices, and exhaustive workouts had trimmed her down. She was lighter on her feet and quicker on her handsprings. Her poses looked spontaneous. She finished to a sound she had never heard before: applause from someone beside her parents.

When Rascals was written, of course, public awareness about eating disorders was still relatively low. The Golden Cage, the first popular mass text on anorexia, wouldn’t come out for another year, and eating disorder stories wouldn’t reach Hollywood until 1981, with The Best Little Girl in the World. So Rascals has the luxury of imagining a world in which you can give driven, body-obsessed girls step-by-step guides to bulimia and not have to worry about the fallout.

Rascals preaches self-acceptance and eating disorders at once, without seeing any contradiction

Rascals, in fact, thinks of itself as a celebration of positivity, one that helps girls realize their own self-worth. Throughout the book, Sissy’s goal is to learn confidence and style. She’s a technically precise gymnast, but she has a tendency to move mechanically, like a wind-up doll. Her coach keeps telling her that she needs to cultivate grace and flair.

At last, Sissy has a breakthrough: "Style was feeling good about yourself! It was as simple as that." So once Sissy feels confident and ready to show off, she becomes a stylish gymnast. The key, it turns out, was in learning to love herself.

Rascals sees no contradiction between these two ideas. On the one hand it encourages girls to love themselves, on the other hand it celebrates a body type that requires bulimia to maintain, and it sees no reason why both these things cannot be true at once.

That attitude is, of course, very much a time capsule, a reminder of a time when the idea that female gymnasts should be as strong as they are graceful seemed dangerous and foreign.

And it’s a close cousin to the paradox that lies at the heart of today’s women’s gymnastics, the one that, as O’Rourke wrote, celebrates both "vulnerability and power" — the tension between the extraordinary muscularity of Simone Biles’s legs, and the elegance and grace of the poses they push her into.

But it’s also a paradox that American popular culture continues to embrace — we’ve just gotten a little better at hiding it now. We continue to give girls girl-power chants; we also continue to give them Photoshopped magazine ads. Then we ask them to reconcile the two.

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