Do These Booty Shorts Make My Female Empowerment Look Fat?

Do These Booty Shorts Make My Female Empowerment Look Fat?

Sometimes I just want to trail run or sport climb without thinking about what message I’m sending to the men around me.

I tried not to stare, but the woman’s skin-tight black workout shorts barely covered her butt. She was walking to her car in the Whole Foods parking lot as I sat chomping my salad-bar greens, gazing out the window. I’m not sure why her outfit surprised me — all the outdoor and fitness magazines on the store’s newsstand rack featured toned runners and climbers in as little clothing or less. Why should I care?

But on a recent morning run, I had spent probably 15 of the 50 out-of-breath minutes debating whether or not to peel my own sweaty t-shirt off and run in just a sports bra and shorts. On a bright, muggy July day, it should be a simple decision, right? But a tangled string of thoughts spun out as I examined my motivations and evaluated the consequences. The relationship we women have with our bodies, our self-images, and our assumptions about other people are complex.

Of course, part of my hesitation stems from insecurity. My abs and thighs certainly aren’t magazine cover material. Still, I’m pretty happy with them, especially after they’ve powered me through a tough day of climbing or mountain biking. But my insecurities about my own body play a part in how I react to seeing other women scantily clad in the outdoors, as well as what I choose to wear myself.

When I ask my guy friends what they think when they see a woman in skimpy workout clothes, they say: sex. Even if I just want to pull off my t-shirt because it’s hot, and I want to feel light, cool and free — with no ulterior motives — I’m still changing the way men look at me. Sometimes that really bums me out.

Sometimes I just want to trail run or sport climb without thinking about what message I’m sending to the men around me.

Don’t get me wrong, once in a while it’s nice to get checked out. I admit I enjoy the ego boost as much as the next girl. But sometimes I just want to trail run or sport climb without thinking about what message I’m sending to the men around me.

The feminist in me wants to say it doesn’t matter what I wear, that other people’s judgments are their own problems. It’s 2013 in these United States, and if people can’t handle a woman in shorts and a sports bra, well, too bad. But theory is different in practice, and I can harbor whatever lofty thoughts I want but they won’t change the one creepy guy who hangs leering out his car window and shouts a crude comment. Sadly, there’s a part of me that is afraid — afraid of the attacker. As a woman who frequently runs and rides in relatively remote areas, I’m aware of my potential as a target. I try not to dwell on it, but sometimes I think that the less I draw attention to myself, the better. And showing more skin definitely seems to draw more attention.

But what about more safe, controlled environments? Like a bouldering competition? I recently clicked on a blog post about climber Sierra Blair-Coyle, partly because I was interested in an up-and-coming female climber, but mostly because the related image was a tanned blonde in black booty shorts and a tiny sports bra spread eagle on an indoor bouldering wall. (Yes, guys, we ladies are constantly checking each other out.) As an attractive athlete in the media, it’s pretty much guaranteed that your body will be objectified. Since the dawn of art, the human body has been the subject of admiration and attention. But there’s a blurry boundary where a strong, beautiful athletic body starts being further reduced to a simple sex object.

When Roxy released the promo video for its Pro 2013 in Biarritz, France, it wasn’t focused on a strong, sexy body shredding, it focused on a sexy body in bed and in the shower. Women have been working for centuries to earn equal respect and opportunities in the waves and on the mountains, but their images are still so often quickly reduced to sex objects. It makes me wonder, how much of that can we women control by how we choose to portray ourselves? How much should we?

I don’t think women should have to choose between being respected as an athlete (or artist, or thinker, or professional, for that matter) and being sexy. I love seeing beautiful women embrace their femininity in the outdoors, whether they’re slaying powder or crushing a boulder problem. But where’s the line between expressing ourselves freely and relegating ourselves back to the role of sex object in the outdoors? Does climbing in a bra top mean I’m liberated or that I’m conforming to a media-perpetuated role that reduces me to a sex object? What’s a sweaty girl to do?

Photo by Shutterstock

Contributing editor Hilary Oliver lives in Denver and blogs at The Gription.
Showing 39 comments
  • John

    What other people think of you is none of your business.

  • Craig Rowe

    See Vonn, Linsday.

    Good to read this. I’ve stated before that I think that reduction to sex symbol comes from mainstream assumptions that the woman’s body is the only way to sell said woman to the masses. It works, of course. But it still becomes the first thing said woman is recognized for.

    “Oh, the hot one? Who dates Tiger Woods?”

  • Kim Kircher

    Interesting read. Sometimes I wonder if the objectified among us is not the female climber with the tight abs, but the rest of us women that look on. The greater society will ask the athlete/model/surfer if she felt objectified in the ad/video. And, most likely, she’ll say no. So the rest of us can go forward feeling smug and confident that women are not being objectified simply for their sexy bodies. But what about the ripples felt beyond just that one ad or video? Hilary Oliver certainly feels the pressure to show/not show based on her own comfort versus how how she might be perceived. If we all had camera-ready bodies, this probably wouldn’t be as much of an issue. But we’re human, and we don’t want to be judged on our flaws–whether those flaws are flabby abs or less superficial ones. On the other side of the coin, however, I know plenty of guys that are timid to take their shirts off too. So we don’t exactly have the market cornered on this one.

  • John

    In my very humble experience, people get paid by outdoor companies for one reason: because you make them money.

    There are a few ways to go about doing this. You can blog a lot. You can be awesome so other people blog about you. Or you can be hot.

    From a marketing and sales standpoint, I don’t see a big difference between the hot athlete and the less attractive blogging athlete other than it’s way easier to be hot and do less than it is to incessantly write about nonsense on the internet.

    Maybe I’m just a disillusioned sports enthusiast, but I say: Just do what makes you happy.

  • steve

    Is it me – or is this blog “guilty” of objectification too?
    Seems like most of the “Saw it Liked It” items from the past couple weeks are Women’s clothing with attractive, thin models in the title photo.
    Sexy athletes sell…Adventure Journal knows it, and takes advantage of it!

  • K

    Needs more pictures.

  • Laura

    Good article! And I’d add… maybe athletic companies should make more cuts/styles of gear especially for real women!! Tired of the only options being booty shorts (which my booty is not quite ready for.. though I’m workin on it!) or men’s cuts. Real adventurers and athletes come in all sizes!

    • RedJenn

      Are they currently making them for unreal women?

  • zero

    If you’re a fit woman playing outside: men think you’re sexy weather you’re wearing a baggy t-shirt or a tight sports bra, doesn’t matter which… wear what you’re comfortable in. :)

  • TracieW

    Men will think about sex if you wear the baggiest sweatpants you can find. You should wear what you feel is comfortable when you work out. I love a good lightweight skort as an alternative to booty shorts. It looks feminine , I can do almost any sport I choose in one, and I feel less conspicuous in one if I have to go to the grocery store post workout. My workout is my time not to worry about other people. It should be a time to release all that worry. I see other women on the running trails- and they are so much more unfriendly then men- so much angst and worry out there! Rejoice in your femininity, feel good about yourself and your booty and feel grateful that you are out there working out. And it wouldn’t hurt you to smile once in a while out there on the trails- to men and women! Let it all go!

  • Melanie

    “I love seeing beautiful women embrace their femininity in the outdoors, whether they’re slaying powder or crushing a boulder problem.”

    Not sure how you define “beautiful” but if you do so in the classic way, WE SHOULD ALSO LOVE seeing classically “non-beautiful” women embrace their femininity as well.

    And finally,
    “What’s a sweaty girl to do?”

    Wear what you want, and have common sense in potentially dangerous situation. More importantly, WHAT ARE WE TO DO, as a society of men and women? Here are 7 simple guidelines I can think of. I’m sure someone else can come up with something better, but here is a start.

    1. Focus on the person and athlete, not the body.
    2. Men, if you must compliment women, start by complimenting athletic *abilities*.
    3. Women, if you must compliment men, start by complimenting athletic *abilities*.
    4. Don’t ever say anything along the lines of “that woman (or man) does NOT have the body for that outfit, they should not wear that” (see rule #1)
    5. Don’t compare bodies. “Wow that fat girl just beat that skinny girl!” (see rule #1)
    6. Don’t make excuses. “He did pretty well for a 200lb guy!” (see rule #1)
    7. Don’t objectify people. (see rule #1).

  • RT

    female empowerment?? you americans are loosing it;)

  • chard

    On a slight tangent, I have had a couple of a sad moments flipping through catalogs that have pictures of hardcore female climbers of equal talent and awesomeness but one (who fits the mold) is shown climbing in a tank-top while the other (strong as birch) is just a speck on a ledge paying out rope…and it’s happened repeatedly. It’s hard to say who to blame since I doubt anyone at the company would say that it’s their preference, but it’s probably just easier for a photo editor to choose that type of photo than risk being questioned on the choice.

  • Nate

    Wear what makes you feel faster. Chances are you’ll never remember any of the other people on the trail after the 2 sec it takes to get past them.

  • Candice

    I think it’s important to not blame others for judging but rather enjoy the clothing or lack of clothing that we desire. It’s easy to blame someone else (guys in this case) for our insecurities, but if we can’t be confident In our own skin, then we’ll never really enjoy the freedom of running in just a sports bra and short shorts. Own your body, enjoy it! I’m sure many guys are self conscious about going shirtless too.

  • Kelly

    I’ve been thinking about this article a lot (mostly while I was running around in a sports bra and shorts this morning). I think many women can relate to this – but it missed the mark for me. I am hesitant to take off my shirt because I’m self-conscious – but not because I think it sends a message of sexuality, but because people might think I don’t have the body to run without a shirt on. It took me a long time to get to the point of being comfortable enough to run in a sports bra. But I finally learned not to give a shit. To be honest, the first time I took my shirt off running around town among busy streets, cars, and people (as opposed to trails), it was scary and liberating at the same time.

  • tea.

    “As an attractive athlete in the media, it’s pretty much guaranteed that your body will be objectified.”

    Or self-objectified. Sierra Blair-Coyle appears to place higher priority on her image than devoting herself to climbing. She has imitated a female stereotype that plays directly into middle America’s lust for blonde & Aryan-esque women with spray-on tans. This is of her own making, though evidently she is the product of an environment that, given the increasing popularity of climbing, was bound to produce such a figure.

    I can only hope that Sierra discovers something greater in the world through climbing, and that she puts her self-crafted model-meets-“professional climber” schtick to rest — and devotes herself instead to the finer arts of where climbing becomes something more than a “sport”.

    We need more Lynn Hills. When Beth Rodden came around, there was some unfair critique of her naivety, but she was first and foremost a climber — and Lynn Hill took her under her wing to show her the ropes outside of the gym. But how can you take someone like Blair-Coyle into the climbing fold, when they see it as a marketing opportunity? When the climbing gym is treated as the same kind of zone as a club — and one apparently has to throw on the same amount of make-up and hair-prep?

    • Paul


      Sierra is a straight “A” student, on a full ride academic scholarship at Arizona State University. She eats organically, does not drink or do drugs, is a super nice kid, and trust me, a role model. Besides that, she is an elite level climber, trying to introduce more kids to climbing by generating as much main stream publicity as possible, so more kids enter a gym, and have fun climbing. Pro athletes in beach Volley ball, track and field athletes, all wear tight fitting athletic sports bra and shorts. This is normal dress for elite athletes, watch the Olympics.

      What climbing means for Lynn Hill or Beth Rodden, or anyone else, good for them. Sierra is on her own path and way more then just a pretty face in athletic attire, although I am not sure what is wrong with that. The sport needs more role models like Sierra to change the image of the sport from dirt bag to main stream, just like skate boarding and surfing.

      • Courtney

        But it’s so unfortunate that she only climbs outside when it involves photo shoots. I saw a photo taken of her where she was wedged in a chimney “climbing”, and it was clearly meant to be sexual.

        I think she knows very well what she’s doing – she’s learned than people will pay more attention to her if she climbs in booty shorts than if she doesn’t, because in reality she’s really not that strong of a climber. Plenty of women and girls out there much better, you just don’t hear about them because they’re not shamelessly selling themselves to the media.

  • Kerry

    Melanie, you said it best with: “Not sure how you define “beautiful” but if you do so in the classic way, WE SHOULD ALSO LOVE seeing classically “non-beautiful” women embrace their femininity as well.” I appreciate your Rule #1: Focus on the person and the athlete, not the body. I appreciate seeing any woman do well in athletics, no matter what she looks like (and she doesn’t have to look anything like the woman in the article photo). She can wear what she wants and so will I.

  • Stoneman

    Good analysis of a difficult issue. In regard to some of the comments, we must remember that we live in community- even when we are shredding slaying, or crushing in the wilderness. Living in community requires a certain amount of submission of our desires for the benefit of the peace and welfare of the community. Even though we may think it should be irrelevant how much skin is shown by an active woman, that does not change how others, particularly men, may react to that display of skin. We each bring our own perspective and in a society/media flooded with sexual themes, for some that display will only be interpreted in sexual terms, creating undesired consequences. That doesn’t make it right, it’s just how it is. Consequently, for the community, perhaps less skin is better.

  • Krista

    “She was walking to her car in the Whole Foods parking lot.” That explains it.

    • Krista

      Booty shorts? Whatever. It’s fake boobs that make me cringe.

  • Erica

    Thank you for putting words to what I have long struggled with as well. The portrayal of women in media, the over-sexed images of women athletes, the potential “message” I’m sending by wearing what ultimately feels the best for me, and the terrible fact that I have to consider my personal safety when I’m deciding what to wear for my back-country adventure. Thanks for putting it out there.

  • Brian

    Thank you for your thoughts on this. As an insecure male (is there really any other kind?), I often feel on a sort of equal but opposite side of this coin (at least from an objectification angle). I wonder how society and the media are programming young boys/men to not only view women, but themselves. I know it sounds silly, but I’m woefully self conscious about running at the park with no top because I’m neither a tattoed up Duane Johnson (The Rock) nor am I a pasty, rotund funny man with a beard (because both builds are equally as manly/acceptable based upon what I see). There are so many conflicting and confusing projections on what it means to be a man and what masculinity truly is, it’s no wonder I struggle with feelings of inadequacy and guilt for not knowing who I am, who I should be, or how I should treat others … Much less take my shirt off at the park!

    I don’t say any of this to detract or negate what you’ve said–I very much agree. It’s all just sort of opened up a kind of interesting reflection about gender perception/realization on both sides for me. Thanks again for sharing!

  • Nora

    y’all just jealous ’cause you don’t got this body

  • Grit

    Sierra Blair Coyle is wearing skimpy clothing and winning bouldering competitions. Do you think she gets stuck up on insecurity? Maybe. Doesn’t change the fact that she is winning.

    Don’t complain about evil male entitlement if it is an excuse for your lack of talent, or beauty. Because if there is one trait that is guaranteed female stereotypical behavior, its blaming someone else, ususally a man, for your problems.

    • Melanie

      Whoa there friend. Angry much? If there is one trait that is guaranteed male stereotypical behavior, it’s creating an atmosphere of self-shaming, for women. Nicely done!

  • Wildcard356

    Don’t worry what people think, they don’t do it very often.

  • Kathleen Rock

    I agree with Stoneman. We can say that we are just going to do whatever we want and it’s someone else’s problem if they objectify us but doesn’t it really come down to being our problem. If I show up to a mountain or for biking or climbing how I am treated will be determined in part by how I treat myself, i.e. how I dress and present myself. If I show up looking slutty I would be treated like that and don’t have the right to whine about it. On the other hand, should men treat you like a slut depending on how you’re dressed? no, but you can’t control their behavior either way.

  • RW

    I’m a climber, hiker, backpacker, etc and I’m fit. I could pull of booty shorts and a bra top, but I just don’t like it. I almost always climb in pants rolled up even in 100 degree and at most I’m in a tshirt with the sleeves pushed up to avoid a tan line. It’s what I’m comfortable in, I feel safe in it protected from insect bites, stinging nettle and rock scrapes. I grew up with a scouting father and when you hike you wear the proper clothes, not your underwear. But when I show up at the crag sometimes I feel like the old fashioned grandma with the other girls wearing a fraction of the clothing I am and that actually makes me self-conscience. I feel like I’m being judged for wearing too much clothing. It’s an odd twist. I can see the guys disregard me and even the girls loose interest like I’m such a prude. Maybe I just bruise easy and like crack climbing despite sucking at it. It’s lame on both sides whatever you wear. At least I know when someone does like me it’s not for my outfit and that feels good. And guys that put up with my baggy torn climbing pants and lame tshirt will see I’ve still got it when I’m in my bikini to soak my sore muscles.

  • Howard Carter

    If this is female empowerment,then male empowerment must mean we(men) have to wear tight tanks and speedos in public while working out our bodies.Is that why females are allowed to wear tank tops and miniskirts in the office nowadays?Why don’t we allow men to wear jerseys and bike shorts,in place of a business shirt and long pants,to work,to give us the same degree of such empowerment?

    • Kathleen Rock

      I think male empowerment is being able to do something without women trying to make you say women could do it better. (lol)

  • KatieSue

    I saw a girl running yesterday in a bikini. Not booty shorts and a sports bra, a little, side strings, bright patterned bikini with running shoes. She wasn’t heading toward a lake or pool, she was running on a busy road past strip malls and business. She was running against traffic and the same direction as me and I watched every single head in 3 lanes of busy traffic twist around and gawk. Male and Female old and young. I don’t know if this woman felt empowerment or it was a dare but seriously? Put some clothes on. You’re in public, have some decency at least to a point, or go to a nudist colony.

  • Monique

    Hey folks, can we refrain from victim blaming here? It’s sort of ridiculous that we are still having the age old conversation of “people need to be careful of what they’re wearing because if they’re wearing booty shorts they’re clearly asking for it.” Come on. Have none of you read the skit “My Short Skirt” by Eve Ensler? It is our inherent human responsibility to be aware as players in the wheel of life. What the author is asking is that we please reevaluate the objectification and immense sexualization of the female body in the outdoor industry. (Also, I must include that men are not excluded from this realm of overt sexualization) so pump the breaks

  • Marcus

    This is poorly written. Literally zero points were made. Well some with little conviction. You say these things but do the same. I’m a hairy ass dude, I know my place but if Ryan Reynolds or 1970’s Burt Reynolds came running towards you with no shirt and elite 80$ running shorts you’d be humming the same tune. A beeboo bee(you crying over nothing), also don’t over flatter yourself. A better much weirder fact is most guys hope you fall or do something stupid because you’re trying to hard. It stems from their inability to attain you so save that argument but it’s still a funny thought.

  • Eric

    I really wish people could feel comfortable wearing whatever they want to. It’s a shame that our society directs so many judgements based on how much or what kind of clothing someone is wearing. Everyone would benefit if we could lay off on the “attractive girls are too distracting to men” point of view because it’s stupid bullshit. Who cares? If women dress a certain way for attention, that doesn’t mean they’re somehow entitled to receive any. The blame is just as much on the media and men as it is on them, for dishing out the attention.

  • james

    Tank top/singlet?

  • MaiNguyen

    I run in “bootie” shorts all the time – love it. I don’t like anything pulling / tugging at my legs running or when I do squats. Furthermore, traditional running shorts are NOT attractive from the rear view and I do not wish to look matronly – I don’t care what the logo is.

    I wear lip gloss because it protects me from sun and keeps my lips moist when inhaling / exhaling thought my mouth running or weight lifting.

    I wear eye liner because I like to feel like a lady.

    I wear sharp looking / color coordinated clothes when I workout because it inspires me to work harder – I look good… I feel better about myself.

    Nothing of what I do is for someone else. If they like it – GREAT. But regardless of their opinion I do what suits me.

    Really not all that complicated :)

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