Chamonix-based adventure sport website Epic TV encountered Facebook turbulence this week, after they posted a picture of US climber and model Sierra Blair-Coyle with a thermometer photoshopped in a very suggestive place. We take a look at feminism, climbing and Sierra's famous hot pants.
“Today, I feel ashamed to be a climber,” commented Everest climber Bonita Norris, in response to the Epic TV graphic. And several women also phoned up the BMC to express their views.
So this seemed like the perfect time to put online our Perspective piece from Summit 75. Here, Esther Bott, a Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Nottingham, eloquently argues why we should celebrate women’s achievements, not their bodies.
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Sometimes I wonder, am I a climbing feminist, or a feminist climber? I'm more or less a Proper Climber. I love climbing. I obsess sometimes, train a bit. I diet, tend injuries, and yes, I've enjoyed the odd photo of myself on a route looking reasonably ripped in a bikini. And I'm certainly a feminist; like a real feminist, the type that does feminism for a living in a university and everything.
What I think I'm enjoying are the fruits of my labour, evidence of my investments and hard work, in a socially sanctioned fit, physical form. People generally approve of embodied graft. I'm also enjoying being a strongish woman in a world where this is not always possible. I take the risks and pleasures often associated with climbing. I travel to amazing places and meet incredible people. And of course all of this is heavily embodied, because at the most basic level, without our bodies we cannot climb.
My job also involves thinking and talking about climbing. I bring climbing into sociological analyses of risk, identity and belonging. I research and write about the positioning and use of bodies in many different contexts, thinking about embodiment on a broad spectrum, from pornography and prostitution to risky sports, drug taking and body modification.
I’m involved in debates about how men and women use their bodies to exercise power and agency, and how bodies, especially those of women, are used to sell ideas and norms and products. One major theme for me is that bodies are always extremely political. I'm at times a poor feminist, because I'm forever caught in the middle of a fierce and decades-long row in feminism about the harmful treatment of women's bodies and the powers we have to resist, to play and to perform through them.
My work on lap dancing only muddied my thinking, because the dancers’ own stories would speak, sometimes all at once, of structural inequalities, sexual objectification, sexual empowerment and bodily pleasure of the type that I describe above, borne of being fit and strong and skilled. I’m not really comfortable with lap dancing, but who am I to say what it gives to or takes from women in a conceptual sense, without speaking over them from my ivory tower?
I’ve been similarly troubled by recent representations of women's bodies in the British and US climbing press. On the one hand, young, hard female climbers rule. They dominate the headlines like never before. Yet at the same time there is a bit of an odd new (or resurrected) trend for saucy climbing calendars. Some are made for charity, some for ‘art’, featuring elite women climbers posing or climbing, often wearing not so much as a chalk bag.
And we really do go in for this stuff. In 2013 Rock and Ice posted a preview of the Climber’s Against Cancer calendar, which featured pin-up style shots of well-known women climbers in their undies and which generated the highest single day of traffic to the site in history. Rock and Ice acknowledge and justify their frequent postings of ‘hot women’ [sic] in order to, they claim, satiate an irrepressible demand for such images of women amongst the climbing community. Again, who am I to judge Sierra Blair-Coyle for bouldering in her hot pants in front of a cameraman? Or the women who volunteer to be photographed climbing in the buff for Dean Fidelman’s ‘Stone Nudes’ project?
But it’s the ensuing online chat, which is, to me, so deeply worrying. The overwhelming response to, for example, a recent Stone Nudes clip on Alex Honnold’s Facebook page, which showed video footage of women climbers being photographed nude was that the photos are ‘beautiful’ and therefore beyond political debate. And the rare challenges to this from concerned feminist men and women were paffed off with claims about ‘the innate aesthetic beauty of the female form’. Groan. Because the suggestion is that women's bodies can be aestheticised and appreciated as art in a vacuum. But there is no vacuum because bodies are always political. They always function in a social and cultural context. And the context here is, unfortunately, centuries of subjugation, oppression and inequality.
Rendering women objects of art and of the male gaze in this way does, and I’m sorry about this too, contribute further down the line to ongoing sexism and violence committed against women. Bodies can never be suspended in a vacuum. And ‘beauty’ is a myth, a construct, and a very dangerous one at that. Beauty as a conceptual force is not always smooth and toned and tanned. Beauty's notional power is often ugly, destructive, fatal even. The steady rise in disordered eating amongst young women in the West proves as much.
I live and climb in a world where a good deal of political cheek-turning is required when, for example, failure to excel is so often termed 'being gay' or 'being a girl'. A world where major climbing websites leave casual sexism unchallenged, and where a macho culture still pervades. 'Really?' I hear you ask.
Yeah, sure, things have improved for minorities in climbing. But hegemony is crafty. Listen carefully next time you're at the bouldering wall to the casual homophobia. Look more closely at those threads and you'll see what I mean. Like many others I am so delighted with the achievements of young women climbers of late. Because of their incredible feats they have become elevated, respected and admired. Why is this not being fully and healthily reflected in the climbing press? Why, oh why, in an era of such unprecedented progress for women climbers do we need and tolerate so uncritically these cultural relics of a bygone era?
Esther Bott is Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Nottingham. She has carried out research on migration tourism and sex tourism, and currently focuses primarily on niche tourism in the Developing World.
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