Raw, adjective: 4. painfully open, as a sore or wound.

Salon has an interview this morning with Jennifer Sey, the former national champion gymnast and now author of a new memoir of girlhood in the institutionalized mess that is competitive gymnastics, "Chalked Up."

I don't know what it is about women's (girls'? children's?) gymnastics, but something about it has always struck me as vaguely grotesque, macabre, bizarrely dark in the midst of so much sprightly prancing and ponytail-swinging. This is just a quickie chat with Sey, and it gives a number of peeks into the content of her book, which looks to be disenchanting at best and disturbing at worst.

There's a strange juxtaposition going on in women's gymnastics. I mean, these little girls - truly, children - train under what can only be described as duress, and in the process become these muscular super-human little creatures before they've even hit puberty. And, in spite of being starving and oftentimes driven into the ground, they manage to accomplish inconceivable physical feats. So I am drawn to the thrill of contorting the body and mastering a physical challenge at the same time that I am left agape at the extraordinary circumstances under which they do so.

Throw in all this crap about "corporate malfeasance" and the fact that so many of these little girls do end up becoming meal tickets - for their parents, their coaches, their countries - and I am left increasingly disturbed. I've always been fascinated not so much by the elite level gymnast at the top of her game, when she is all pigtails and chirpy voice and astounding tumbles, but moreso by the same person a decade down the road; by watching what these people do when they suddenly find themselves washed up and over the hill at 19 or 20, their bodies crumbling and their metabolisms completely fucked forever. How do they find balance after so much discipline and such a strange, structured lifestyle? How do they come back to their bodies and find some kind of home in them after being so completely estranged? And what terror must it be to wake up one morning at 21 or 22 and find that the rest of your life looks like dealing with crippling pain from lingering injuries and trying to decide what to do with the years to come?

It's interesting to me the way you often see these girls retain their high voices and somewhat stunted femininity. Cultivated so carefully to be at once hyper-masculine in athleticism and hyper-feminine in affect, they seem to struggle to settle into womanhood after living such a juxtaposed existence.

Bodies and commodification are two things I spend a lot of time thinking about. And this glimpse at elite gymnastics makes me realize even moreso what a classic example of the body commodified can be found here; bodies put to service to earn medals, to placate governments, to sell Wheaties. Nevermind the broken ankles or starvation.


"Why Do These Men Want to Coach Little Girls?" (Salon.com)


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