Female Athletes in Media
Photo: CC mariachily

While dissecting the things I did online I realized a few things: I always searched for videos and blogs about female climbers; I looked to them for inspiration to train harder; and I found it annoying that there was so little in this realm to watch or read.

Some time earlier I had started a Facebook page devoted to sharing bits of information, mostly visual, about climbing women; now I realised there were initiatives of this kind springing up around the web, connecting women, facilitating information and inspiration sharing, and even prompting them to meet in real life to train together.

I became curious: Why were women resorting to the internet and taking to their cameras to share their passion with other female climbers? From this pondering, a research question was born.

About four million pages of scholarly articles later, I started what anthropologists call “field work,” which includes the interview process. I wanted to get to know what people actually think. Eight female climbers agreed to spend long hours with me, chatting about things that ranged from serious to silly.

One of them was V., a climbing instructor from my local wall. We sat on a mat-covered floor under a campus board when I took out my recorder to start the interview. It was obvious the move made V. apprehensive, not really understanding why on earth I wanted to talk to her about femininity. A former aggressive inline skater, she didn’t see climbing as male dominated (“Well, at least not in comparison to skating,” as she put it), didn’t understand my interest in women’s issues (“Oh, this girls and boys thing again…”), and didn’t have much of an opinion on climbing media (“I like to climb, you know. Don’t need to read about it”).

We talked for about an hour before I switched off the recorder, but I knew interviewees tend to say the best things when theoretically the interview is “done.” V. didn’t disappoint. “If you go to the shop and look at the magazines,” she suddenly said, “there will always be — I don’t know why — seventy-five percent of the covers featuring a female. But there are less girls

[than that ratio] climbing. Have a look. If you have a nice cover, it’s always a girl.”

So we got up and walked outside to the gear shop located on the other side of the centre’s yard. There was a big pile of Climbing and Climber magazines by the entrance and we flicked through covers. Two in four featured women, then eight in fourteen, etc. Quickly it turned out that more than half of the covers in the random sample indeed portrayed women.

The shop owner peered at us from behind the till, intrigued to know what we were doing. After my brief explanation, he leaned over the counter and said: ‘Well, it will sound horribly sexist, but it depends on what kind of a cover it is: a route or a decorative picture. If it’s decorative, it’s usually a woman. The route doesn’t even need to be hard.”

And that’s how you sell a climbing magazine.
. . .

We have a problem.

Female Athletes in Media

(Photo, left: CC Rsriprac)

Taking into the account the history of women’s objectification in sport-related media, should this really come as a surprise? After all, the dominant discourse goes something like this: Girls are pretty, but they can’t really do sports, so let’s put a token girl in here and there. Make sure she looks really hot. After all, it’s not about her skills, it’s about her cute face. She will make men buy the magazine and make other women want to be like her, because men find her attractive. I mean, what other things could a woman possibly want from doing sports apart from finding a guy?

It may sound grim, but this is the truth of mainstream media. You can find confirmation both in scientific studies and in grassroots campaigns such as #notbuyingit. Apparently, this marketing tactic kicks around in lifestyle-sports media too: as open-minded men and women fight the bias, it punches back with an influx of big sponsors wanting to make big money.

Thanks to technological progress, women can make free-from-patriarchy media for themselves. However, some argue its need. They ask why female athletes, amateur or professional, would want to separate themselves from men in the media or, more largely, why the world needs women-orientated sport media at all? Seen as over-kill, it is often associated with a lack of self-confidence and a need to take the stage side-by-side with men.

The answer lies not in separation nor the fear of comparisons, but in creating balance. As long as there is a glaring lack of content that fairly represents women, it will be needed.

It’s also about “selling” sports, including climbing, to women. Why are there still less female climbers than male? It’s not because we like climbing less, but because our culture doesn’t encourage women to be physical in the same way it does for men, so we miss out on all the positive consequences that come with using our bodies for reasons other than satisfying the male gaze. (I trust that I don’t need to list them here.) In a time when media influences children as much as families and schools, it’s more important to strive for fair representation to help young girls get excited about physical activity.

Before deeming women-specific media an over-kill, think about this: To climb, to train, to write and make adventure content is just as important for those women out there doing it as it is for men. No more, and no less. It’s time to help women in this pursuit with fair and balanced media that inspires women toward athletic, not aesthetic, goals.

Zofia Reych is a researcher/writer with an interest in lifestyle sports, gender studies, adventure and all things physical. A regular London cyclist, former martial artist, current climbing junkie and coffee lover, Zofia’s other pursuits include skiing, parkour and the occasional bit of caving.

You can keep up with Zofia on her blog UpThatRock and Twitter. She also runs a Facebook page celebrating women in climbing.

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