Bodywork

Q:

The Myth of the Falling Uterus

Where did the myth that a woman’s uterus would fall out if she participated in sports come from?

running sprinting women athletes

Women compete in the 100 meters in Yalta, Ukraine.     Photo: Denis Kuvaev/Shutterstock

A:In 1898, a doctor in Berlin wrote in the German Journal of Physical Education that “violent movements of the body can cause a shift in the position and a loosening of the uterus as well as prolapse and bleeding, with resulting sterility, thus defeating a woman’s true purpose in life, i.e., the bringing forth of strong children.”

The myth, however, could’ve developed before Dr. Gerson put pen to paper. During the mid- to late-1800s, as Kathleen E. McCrone writes in her book “Playing the Game: Sport and the Physical Emancipation of English Women, 1870-1914,” a woman’s ovaries and uterus were thought to control her entire nature, from her disposition to her intellectual abilities.

“On the basis of no scientific evidence whatsoever,” McCrone writes, doctors of physiology related biology to behavior, figuring that women who “displayed symptoms of aggression, ambition and competitiveness were incompletely developed and prone to disease.” A woman who engaged in sport, therefore, could be sterile or transmit her unfavorable characteristics to her children who, in turn, would likely be degenerate.

The climate was clearly ripe during the Victorian era for the emergence of the falling uterus myth. But while the fable seems to have developed in the 1800s, what’s truly surprising is how long it has endured.

Katherine Switzer, the first woman to officially run the Boston Marathon in 1967, recalls in her memoir how her high school’s basketball coach—a woman—told her that women would never play the men’s version of basketball because the “excessive number of jump balls could displace the uterus.”

The issue came up again as recently as 2010, when Gian-Franco Kasper, president of the International Ski Federation, commented on ESPN’s Outside the Lines that the female uterus might burst during landing from a ski jump, reiterating a statement he made in a 2005 NPR interview that ski jumping is “not appropriate for ladies from a medical point of view.”

Uterine prolapse, a condition in which the uterus falls out of position, is a real medical issue. The National Institutes of Health, however, do not list exercise as a probable cause. 

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