Women athletes or athlete models? The role of women in the outdoors.

As women participating in male-dominated athletic activities, our marginalized position is incredibly complicated. If we can do an activity as well as a man, and look hot doing it, we are told we are special. This feels good. But when the dominant culture blatantly–or even unintentionally–excludes us, doesn’t listen to us, calls us a clutz or a spaz because of something we did in a stressful moment, our feelings are hurt. We need to act–and react–with intention to make situations better for us and for other women. Then, we need to think critically about the layers of privilege and marginalization extending out in a million different directions from us.

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I used to lead mountaineering courses for one of the largest outdoor schools in the country. During staff trainings, new instructors often asked about the difference between our curriculum and the curriculum of other outdoor schools. The program director’s response was always the same: the world does not need more climbers and mountaineers, it needs more compassionate people. That was our motto. We taught compassion–along with inclusion, integrity, craftsmanship and leadership–through activities in the wilderness. In rethinking the theme of this blog, I asked myself something similar: does the world need more women recreating in male-dominated outdoor activities?

Yes, but…

Not if the means to acceptance in the male-dominated sport is through sex appeal and image.

Click on this image of Sierra Blair-Coyle to read about the rise of the Athlete Model.

Not if the means to acceptance in the male dominated activity is through self-depreciation.

Click here to watch an interview with climber Hazel Findley in which, sadly, she makes several depreciating comments about herself at the end.
Click here to watch an interview with climber Hazel Findley. Despite being one of the strongest climbers in the world, she makes several depreciating comments about herself at the end of this clip.

I didn’t want to include the above video of Hazel Findley in this post because I like her so much. At the moment, she is one of the strongest women climbers in the world, and also one of the strongest climbers in the world. Period. This winter, she actually received a lot of slack from the climbing community for calling out climbing models (particularly Sierra Blair-Coyle) for perpetuating sexism–particularly the problem of women being appreciated for their image instead of their skill–in the climbing community. Her initial post on the topic (which you can read here) was incredibly thoughtful, but she received so much backlash from other climbers that she eventually retracted most of her points. It makes me wonder if, on a subconscious level, the negative reaction her comment received from the dominant culture had something to do with why she closed the above interview (an interview about some of the hardest routes in the world that she has recently climbed) by essentially calling herself a dumb blond. Self-depreciation in women, after all, is often a deflection of “attention from underlying structures of domination” (Clark 22). This is going to sound radical: the world does not need more women climbers (or mountain bikers, skiers, ultrarunners, paddlers, paragliders, base jumpers)…the world needs more women in the spotlight of the dominant culture, actively turning it on its head.

So, where am I going with all this?

In this blog, my main goal is to inspire more women to seek out adventure in wild places. I am particularly interested in encouraging women to travel by means–and in areas–most frequently used by men. Through observations of both land and people, early European explorers contributed to “empirically informed discourse about both man and nature” (Rubies 257). This blog is sort of a 21st-century version of an explorer’s journal. I intend to make observations about the southwest and the people–both the men and women–who recreate in it.

As women participating in male-dominated athletic activities, our marginalized position is incredibly complicated. If we can do an activity as well as a man, and look hot doing it, we are told we are special. This feels good. But when the dominant culture blatantly–or even unintentionally–excludes us, doesn’t listen to us, calls us a clutz or a spaz because of something we did in a stressful moment, our feelings are hurt. We need to act–and react–with intention to make situations better for us and for other women. Then, we need to think critically about the layers of privilege and marginalization extending out in a million different directions from us.

Women are minorities in many of the activities I write about on this blog, but the opportunity to participate in these activities still places myself–and other women like me–in a position of privilege. Inside the dominant culture. Inside the safety of the real margins. When confronted with blatant (and often unintentional) sexism, it is easy to forget that we are privileged simply by having the time to recreate, to afford a mountain bike, to have the opportunity to learn to climb technical routes. I believe it is our duty as women in positions of marginalized privilege to look out for each other, to encourage more women to participate in our activities, and most importantly, to use our positions of privilege–inside and outside of the male-dominated athletics we participate in–to advocate for other people on the margins.

This is going to sound even more radical: there is no point in women fighting for equality, respect and a voice in male-dominated athletics unless the fight also promotes, respects and includes other marginalized voices. Many places of recreation in the southwest are under criticism and controversy because of the privileged class’ belief of entitlement to the use of sacred lands for their recreational pleasure. The San Francisco Peaks, and specifically the Arizona Snowball’s use of reclaimed water on these sacred peaks, is a prime example of this. As a woman, as a voice on the margin in some of the activities I write about, my mission is to acknowledge other–even more marginalized voices than my own–present in the areas I explore.

The southwest is filled with voices that have long been silenced by the dominant culture. In the words of James Clifford, “…if contemporary migrant populations are not to appear as mute, passive straws in the political-economic winds, we need to listen to a wide range of ‘travel stories’ (not ‘travel literature’ in the bourgeois sense’)” (Clifford 38). The world does not need more women simply participating in the recreation of the dominant culture. It needs more women becoming stronger advocates for themselves, as well as better listeners of–and advocates for–other people typically excluded from the recreational elite in this country. The word does not need more climbers, mountain bikers, skiers, paddlers, rafters, ultra runners, paragliders, base jumpers. The world needs a more compassionate dominant culture. It needs recreationalists advocating for marginalized populations and for the environment. It’s up to us women to listen, and to lead the way.

Links to Work Cited

Rubies, Joan Pau . “Travel Writing and Ethnography.”

Clark, Steve . “Introduction to Travel Writing and Empire: Postcolonial Theory in Transit.

Clifford, James . “Traveling Cultures.”

7 comments on “Women athletes or athlete models? The role of women in the outdoors.”

  1. Chase, do you live in Flagstaff? I am planning a trip before the year is out to go to see the college that I am attending ( an adventure).
    Wow! I love your enthusiasm for the female athlete. Women athletes have always been a marginalized group, I guess women in general are marginalized. When I was in high school, I was not allowed to take wood shop,( I am an artist, I wanted to take woodshop) I had to take home economics. I say this because I see how far we have come and how far we have to go, through the writings of women such as yourself. I am glad you are focusing on the female perspective of travel writing.
    I look forward to reading your adventures.

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  2. Hello Chase:

    I enjoyed reading your blog. You make a valid point about sexualizing the female athlete. Unfortunately, I think this is a common trend in any sport, really.

    Your comments reminded me of the long-lasting controversy around racing’s Danica Patrick. Although I don’t follow racing myself , I do follow headlines, and I remember when Danica scored several pitchperson spots for a variety of sports drinks, cosmetics, and more. For a while, each one of her spots made her look like a supermodel (intentionally) and less like an athlete who sweats under a helmet.

    Your post also reminded me of one of my all-time favorite commercials ever. It’s a Nike advertisement called “If You Let Me Play.” Take a look:

    One thing I would like you to elaborate on is your statement, “Many places of recreation in the southwest are under criticism and controversy because of the privileged classes belief of entitlement to the use of sacred lands for their pleasure.” Could you say something about the “many places.” Where, exactly? Also, what do you consider a privileged class, and how do they use the land for their pleasure? Surely one no can (or should) go anywhere illegally, so aren’t we all using the land?

    Anyway, great post, and I look forward to reading more.

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  3. Awesome, powerful blog. I love your point of view and would love to become more athletic outdoors. I look forward to reading more of your adventures. I also enjoyed how you incorporated the readings into your writings.

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  4. Hi Chase,

    I feel empowered! I also feel the need to act, and regret that when I did have opportunities to speak out for my gender and for others, I didn’t. I have read some articles about the reclaimed water at Snow Bowl, and I have never thought to voice my opinion, but why I do not see my opinion as valuable is beyond me. I look forward to reading your next blog. By the way, your title is so funny, my laughter almost woke up the while house…so worth it.

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  5. Chase,

    I really like this project, it’s definitely one worth a great deal more attention. Like you point out, it’s not necessarily about calling more attention to women in sports, but helping the voiceless gain momentum in being heard. I really liked your allusion to feminism being so intimately linked to anarchism (not your words, I know, but the hear me out) because in critical theory circles they are always linked quite closely. This is because both strains of thought originate in the same ideas, deconstructing power structures that are normally taken as naturally legitimate.

    This is going to sound radical: I am a feminist. I can say this because it is in the sense that all anarchists are necessarily feminists. I know next to nothing about rock climbing, and I suspect that whatever I leave this course knowing about it will come only from your blog, but I do know a solid strategy of power skepticism when I see it, and this is an outstanding example.

    Thank you for going in this direction (up! :)),

    -Justin

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  6. Hi chase, your entry explaining the purpose of your blog was so well written, cited, and passionate. I look forward to reading much more in the future and am ecstatic that you are approaching the intersections of privilege and marginalization. I got my first MA in sociology, and in particularly focussed on issues of race and class, segregation and stratification. It’s rare to find a good discussion that takes into account the complexities of privilege and marginalization without becoming defensive or aggressive. Especially when discussing anything as taken for granted as outdoor recreation in the southwest.

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  7. Hi Chase,

    Your posts addresses some timely issues tied to deeper understandings about who we are as women… as a human race. What do we value in people? Are people loved and important because they are another soul created by God? Or, do we only like them if they entertain us … or are beautiful/sexy/athletic? It seems our culture adulates a lot of unimportant stuff. Thanks for writing so well about that. I look forward to more of your posts!

    Vanessa

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