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Review: Body Stories: Research and intimate narratives on women transforming body image

#13: Body Stories: Research and Intimate Narratives on Women Transforming Body Image Through Outdoor Adventure edited by Lisa West-Smith:

At first, our Spartan diet slowed us down, our morning sugar crashes translating to falls on hard climbs, or motivation sapped by early afternoon. Then without understanding cause and effect, I came to expect--then enjoy--the shock of a body desperate for food. The natural dizzy high or climbing all day without eating translated to weakness in my legs but also a carefree giddiness. I associated that light-headed feeling with the satisfaction of a hard day of climbing. I came to equate hunger with happiness.

--Susan Fox Rogers, "Climber Girl"


Synopsis: A collection of narratives which try to explain why, according to the editor's doctoral thesis research, women who participate in regular outdoor adventure sports are 37.3% less likely to diet.



A couple Sundays ago, the Petra Cliffs Ladies Climbing Auxiliary and Gun Club arrived to find a birthday party in full swing, the gym filled with shrieking, laughing, jumping girls around ten years old. The birthday parties keep our membership fees low so we gamely soldiered through the high-pitched screaming, but after we all struggled too hard on a 5.9 along an edge, all laybacks and slivered footholds, we had to admit the squealing was interfering with our concentration.

I'm not at my best in crowds when they're not screaming, so I went upstairs to the bouldering cave and started working on some projects, bigger handholds and brawny pulls that didn't require as much focus as brute strength. A group of the girls came upstairs too, accompanied by a middle-aged woman who was chaperoning them, mainly by not climbing. And when I finished a v2 and was taking a water break, she came up to me and said, "You know, I was watching you down there. I just wanted to tell you: you climb really good for a big girl."

---

Lisa West-Smith did her doctoral thesis by administering a survey on body image to 86 women who regularly participated in outdoor adventure sports, and she found that 47% of them were on a diet; compared with numbers she found showing that, in general, 85% of the American female population are on a diet at any given time, that's a pretty big gulf.

West-Smith's research is, to the best of my knowledge, still ongoing, but one of the projects she developed from it was this book, a collection of 14 essays and poems investigating each author's response to the issue of women's bodies and adventure. In terms of quality, it's a mixed lot; there are three essays I really enjoyed--two on climbing and one on sea kayaking--and one poem that continues to puzzle me (and from which I took the title of this entry) but the other entries I found too overtly spiritual to really connect with. Maybe it's because I'm not the type of girl who dances with anything--especially not waves or cliff faces--and that seemed to be the most popular analogy going. Or maybe I just like climbing and paddling.

Nina S. Roberts' "From Rhythm to Rocks: An Intimate Connection" skirted the edge of the dancing issue but ultimately won me over with the author's story of how her older sister quit climbing when she got a permanently scarring rope burn on her back. From there she relates how, as she climbed more, and with men's groups and women's groups, her perception of climbing, and her own power, changed. She also includes a bibliography that is pretty much going straight on my to-read list.

Mary McClintock had a nice piece on planning longer and longer paddling trips to celebrate turning forty; Ann Vilen had a too-true-for-comfort essay, "Solo", on how, in general, women perceive the biggest threat to their bodies while hiking or backpacking alone takes the form of other people; and Donna Glee Williams' poem about growing strong for the sake of her daughters continues to fascinate.

But by far, for me, the standout piece in the book is Susan Fox Rogers' "Climber Girl", her cautionary tale of how, as a young woman, she spent a summer living the dirtbag climber life with a boy she really liked, and she learned how to climb and starve in equal measures. I've read quite a few climbing pieces by Rogers, and they never disappoint; in fact, I read her reflections on a friend who died climbing before I ever started, and it sticks with me to this day. She's an incredibly skilled travel writer who cuts to the heart of a story and plucks it out, still beating, to hand to the reader. "Climber Girl" is painfully familiar to anyone who's ever been young and naive, and tried to be really good at something, without complaining, simply to impress someone else.

While I did have some quibbles with the statistical analysis and research methods cited here (I know! I try to spoil the fun WHENEVER POSSIBLE), the momentum behind the collection is heartfelt, and I suspect many of my outdoor adventure sisters, if not all, would find something there to like.

---

The thing I remember about the birthday party chaperone is that her hair was dyed blonde, and permed, and that she was overweight. She was very jolly to the girls, but I don't remember if the things she said to them were more encouraging or warnings not to climb too high, warnings to stay safe.

Of *course* I told the rest of the Ladies Auxiliary what had happened, and while they were shocked and supportive (thanks, Sue, for threatening to go beat her up. *hugs*) the overwhelming reaction was puzzlement. "But you're not a big girl."

And I'm not. I do have a perma-booty from seven years of soccer, and bits jiggle here and there, but overall I couldn't give a toss. I'm much more concerned about finger strength and hand strength, and not pussing out on big moves. And while a few of our group are curvy, the only talk of dieting comes when we're trying to figure out if there's a way to get smaller boobs so we can get closer to the wall (true story, and how).

Maybe there's covert dieting. I'll have to ask. But in general, the talk is of goals and training; I ran into a friend I hadn't seen in awhile at the gym earlier tonight and she was ecstatic about her current activities. "I'm training for a triathlon! All I do is work out and eat!"

But on the bright side, I climb really good for a big girl. It's true.
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