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.
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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?