Sexism in Climbing. I’m Going There.
Sierra Blair-Coyle (SBC) is a professional rock climber who pushes the line between Sports Illustrated, and Sports Illustrated – Swimsuit Issue. This has a lot of male and female climbers’ undergarments in a bunch (I may be one of them). Many people have commented upon this subject. Evening Sends did a piece, Mick Ryan did a 4-part series called Climb Like a Girl, Climbing Narc commented on “sexiness in climbing”, and Julie Ellison wrote a somewhat scathing response to climbing media haters for Climbing Magazine.
My goal is not to do a historical analysis of the debate. I just want to tackle the subject head on. It seems like people are afraid to just come out and say the obvious thing that we are all thinking. So allow me to volunteer.
The sexual objectification of women through climbing media is lame, and we shouldn’t support it.
Is anyone out there scratching his or her head on this one? Seriously. This is a no-brainer. Perhaps I owe my viewpoint to my upbringing. My mom is an astrophysicist (which I can barely spell), my sister is an epidemiologist (ditto), one of my favorite climbing partners (female) routinely whoops me on any route we climb together, and my girlfriend can beat me up any trail, and often carries the heavier pack. It’s not the freaking 1800’s, people. Gender equality is not a theory, it is a given. If you need a climbing context to help you wrap your mind around this concept, look up Lynn Hill, Kitty Calhoun, Ashima Shiraishi, Miriam Underhill, Kei Taniguchi, Silvia Vidal, and Ines Papert, for starters.
A woman is more than her body, period.
This is like some third-grade shit that everyone should know by now. There’s more to a woman than how she looks. In climbing, the performance gap between men and women is closer than in any other sport I know of. Lynn Hill grabbed arguably the greatest trad climbing prize ever with the first free ascent of El Cap, via the Nose. Ashima is the best climber under 15 years old ever (better than Ondra was at the same age). At the 2005 Ouray Ice Festival, Ines Papert not only won the women’s division: she even smoked the top male climber (Will Gadd – ever heard of him?) by a whopping three minutes becoming the overall winner in the difficulty event. The annals of alpine climbing history are full of accounts of women dragging men up climbs all over the world. Climbing is the poster child for gender equality in sports; to sexually objectify women in climbing, of all sports, is utterly reprehensible.
The question is not what’s wrong with SBC.
SBC is no different from Alex Honnold. Seriously. They are both playing a game, and they are both winning. The goal of the game is to use whatever advantages you have to make a living as a professional climber, so you can get paid to do what you love: climb. The picture above strikes us a bit funny because we are not used to Honnold being sold as a sex symbol. We are used to him being sold as a daring free soloist. Now SBC may be a top athlete, but that is not how she is typically sold. She is typically sold the way she is seen in this photo – and in this photo, we all know what they’re selling. We could critique Honnold for selling the idea of soloing to make his living (aspects of that are certainly problematic), but typically we don’t. So let’s not hold a double standard and criticize SBC for selling her… assets.
The question is what’s wrong with the rest of us.
Don’t hate the player, hate the game. Right? Well, guess what. The game sucks. Once I pitched an article about climbing in the Dominican Republic to a magazine I’ll leave unnamed, and they told me just to be sure to get lots of pics of chicks in bikinis. No joke. The climbing media should be better than that. We have so many badass female athletes whose abilities are so far superior to the average climber (male, female, trans, or whatever) that we don’t need to use sex to sell them. Yet we do precisely that, and SBC is proof. The onus is not on girls like SBC who dress up in their skivvies for crotch, butt, and boob shots (though they are complicit); the onus is on consumers to reject that shite, and the media not to sell it in the first place.
Whatever dude, that’s how it’s always been, and how it always will be.
I’ve heard this attitude a lot. There’s a name for that kind of reasoning. It’s called “appeal to tradition”, and it’s a logical fallacy. In this case, the tradition we are appealing to is a dumb one. Presenting women as eye candy to sell climbing products reinforces – in layman’s terms – a shitty paradigm. We shouldn’t do it, and we don’t have to do it. As a consumer, your voice is powerful. If a shoe company is selling their products with crotch shots, call them out in social media. If enough people do it, they’ll listen.
But males are objectified, too.
The climbing industry objectifies all their athletes by branding, packaging, and selling them to consumers. That’s nothing new. You have the humble climber, the conservationist climber, the artist climber, the community climber. You all know what I’m talking about. What that copy does is it makes someone more than just a ‘monkey with big forearms’. If we make SBC the model for how we brand female climbers, then the brand we sell is a ‘monkey with boobs’. And that doesn’t reflect values that the climbing community has traditionally held, and certainly not ones that we hold currently.
So what can we do?
If you’re a climbing company, don’t sell distasteful products. If you’re going to whine to me, ‘but sex sells’, then why not just delve into the sex industry outright, and get into pornography? Just because you can make a dollar doing it doesn’t mean you should. If you want to support the climbing community, promote athletes in a way that reflects traditionally held community values: athletic prowess, exploration, courage, and conservation.
If you’re a consumer, speak out. When you see things that raise your hackles, say something. Marketers read comments, they listen to hate, everybody is afraid to put his or her foot in his or her mouth, and lose brand credibility. In the end, it’s not that difficult. If you don’t like the way women are portrayed in the climbing media, just be transparent. Don’t beat around the bush. Say what you are thinking. Trust me: you’re not alone.
[Note: I contacted SBC a few weeks ago via her PR rep to ask if she would consent to an interview for this article. I did not receive a response.]
[For more reading on this, check out the following links:
http://www.climbing.com/news/climbing-media-is-not-sexist-you-are/ (which is kind of an indirect response to the article above)
(which is kind of a direct response to the piece in climbing)
(which is a well-rounded article on the subject by a woman)
(which considers the idea of climbing babes, and how they fit into a feminist context).]