Some time ago I wrote an article about the issues associated with media representation of female athletes. It was based on my MA research, and the positive response was overwhelming. Many agreed that women, especially in free-spirit, lifestyle sports such as climbing, MTB, or surfing, are hungry for content that will not represent them as sexual objects, or mere side-kicks to men. It also seemed obvious that that female athletes and participants want to be recognised for their achievements, not for their looks, or other ways of displaying conformity with the mainstream standards of femininity (passivity, infantilisation, ‘beginnerism’).
The recent hullabaloo surrounding Sierra Blair-Coyle could, in theory, be the best proof that I was wrong. It all kicked off when a male journalist criticised Blair-Coyle for her sexually appealing looks and even accused her of damaging the climbing community. ‘Look how overtly unaware we seem to have become in our celebration of image over achievement’, he says, and yes, it might be right, but who exactly are ‘we’? Sierra Blair-Coyle markets herself as an athlete-model, and among her eleven sponsors, only two are climbing companies. Her online presence is much more mainstream than climbing orientated, and, c’mon doesn’t a girl deserve a pair of shoes for climbing as hard as V9?
Criticising Blair-Coyle for her blond hair and hot-pants is only as sensible as it would be in the case of any other celebrity. And she’s definitely not more guilty of damage to the climbing community than that same, serious, climbing journalist maintaining that he follows her on social media because ‘she’s totally hot’. Some integrity, please.
The balancing act
Blair-Coyle might be more of a celeb than an elite athlete, but let’s face it, she’s also pretty damn good at this climbing thing. There are quite a few athlete-models who capitalise on their looks, but there’s definitely fewer athlete-athletes willing to go that way. They’re probably aware they might lose as much as they gain. Social scientist call this ‘the balancing act of femininity’, and apart from balancing on edges and slopers, this is another skill that female climbers have to learn. If they too openly display feminine traits, regardless of their achievements, they’re likely to lose the respect of their peers and audiences which determine who gets to be a sponsored athlete. On the other hand, if they choose to cut their hair short, wear no make-up, and not to display an occasional bum-cheek in hot pants, their chances of making it to a cover of a climbing magazine are pretty slim. Tricky.
Even a thing so innocent as a charity calendar becomes a bone of contention when women are involved. I was very fond of Mina Leslie-Wujastyk’s choice to participate in the CAC project, notably as the only climber who didn’t show her body (though this might be coincidence). Does it mean that eleven other climbers’ decisions to pose in sexy outfits was wrong? No. What’s wrong is that their choices and bodies are bound to be scrutinised, analyzed and judged. In an ideal world they should be theirs, and theirs only. Unfortunately, they’re not.
In a recent article, Dr Esther Bott argues that ‘that bodies are always extremely political’. A naked picture of a women, even attempting not to be sexually charged, will never escape the burden of objectivisation, but does it mean it should never be taken in the first place? A women wearing hot pants will always be scrutinised for her choice to sexualise herself, but should we all cover ourselves in loose sweatpants? Gender politics cannot be escaped, and it sometimes seems that in trying to unmake them, we only contribute to their reinforcement.
The politics of a bikini
No-one’s to blame for the fact that it still pays to be ‘sexy’ – both socially and literally. Some will say the same goes for men, with scientific proofs that good looking people actually have it easier in life, but we have to face the reality that in case of women the difference is much more pronounced. We are all products of our culture, but wouldn’t it be beautiful if an intelligent man used his brain before validating somebody’s popularity on the basis that ‘she’s totally hot’, rendering his own criticism completely invalid? Supply arises only as a result of demand.
Capitalising on a sexualised image, whether for personal gain, or charitable reasons, is never apolitical. The message it sends affects all females, confirming that to be successful we not only have to be good at what we do, but also heterosexually attractive. Hell, if we’re pretty, actually we can be mediocre at everything else.
Empowerment has got many faces. If the one you chose has got eyeliner and lipstick on, fine by me. It is crucial, however, to realise what cultural baggage comes with that. Think about a question posed in the title of one of my favorite articles; ‘We can be athletic and feminine, but do we want to?’ Unpack that question, it becomes more complicated than just a matter of fashion.
PS. I didn’t intend to offend anybody by writing this post, and it’s only to offer some pointers for further discussion. Also, I do sometimes climb in hot-pants. Hot-pants are awesome.