Something bothered me this week, and I wanted to be able to talk about it. On Friday my friend and I went on a hike, down route 90 out of Seattle. We didn’t have graduate school class that day and it was a sunny day, the last before a long week of rain. I woke up early from my boyfriend’s house, threw on the layers I had in a little backpack, nabbed his rain jacket and first aid kit, because sometimes I’m not very prepared, and got in my car. I drove down the early streets of Seattle as the sun was rising over the eastern Cascades, listening to the country music station. A song came on which I had put on a birthday CD for a friend last summer, who I hadn’t heard from in a while. It made me sad. I sang along anyway. I pulled into my friend’s driveway, banged on her door and told her we had to get going to avoid traffic. She opened the door hurriedly, pulling on a hiking boot, and pointing me toward the fruit and a french press pot. I loaded the snowshoes and poles into her car, and she rushed out a second later, layers and jacket in hand. We were on the road about 7:15am.
Driving down rt. 90, the sun was starting to rise above the mountains. There was mist and some early morning Seattle city traffic commuter, straight faced, sad looking, holding their coffee in one hand, steering wheel in the other. I was so happy to be wearing hiking boots instead. The clouds hung low, but there were hints of blue sky above. The kind of day in February in the Northwest that makes you tingle with the longing of what long days used to be like, an aching in your wet and frozen bones like a reminder of a nice faded dream. I munched on a cliff bar and drank some of my friend’s coffee. We played a CD a guy had made her a while back, when he had come to visit Seattle before he left to travel to Ecuador; sappy sweet acoustic songs of love and leaving. I stuck up my middle finger to the dashboard. “Mountain men.” I scoffed, an angry band aid covering up my own handmade country CDs and heartbreak.
After a stop to a gas station, and up and over Snoqualmie Pass, we made it to exit 63, where the trail report said to park. Just a few other cars, and a line of porta potties shoved into a snow bank six feet high. A fog hung over the valley, but hopefully the sun would burn it off. We grabbed our snowshoes, packed our little packs, and prayed the car would go unnoticed without our parking permit. (I’m sorry Washington State Trails association. I’ll buy a pass soon, I promise.) Crossing the highway, we started up the trial, a series of groomed cross country ski tracks. After about half a mile we saw the sign and right turn off to Amabilis Mountain, a dirt forest access road that’s not maintained in the winter. Strapping on our snowshoes, we headed up.
As we walked, I was ecstatic. The pine trees were tall, draped in snow that was dripping in the warmer air. I had felt cooped up in the city for weeks; a combination of rain, sickness and graduate school exhaustion. This was exactly what I needed. I loved walking next to my friend too, the female energy and a sense of freedom.
After coming to a fork in the road, and heading left as the trail report said, we ended up walking up a small side trail into the trees. According to the WTA website, there was a shortcut through the trees that would cut off about 2/3 of a mile, which seemed okay by me. We started walking, following some tracks. Eventually the tracks thinned to simply a few animal prints, squirrels and maybe a rabbit. The air was silent. Absolutely no wind. There was a steady drip, drip of snow from the trees, falling into the stillness. The sun was warm between the trees, and as the fog began to lift the valley spread, highway and lake far below. As we walked our awkward snowshoe legs up the so-called shortcut, the trees thinned until we came to a kind of wide ledge. Apparently this trail was supposed to connect to the main road at some point; however as we walked it became apparent that it did not, and we had simply gone down a false path. It was beautiful where we were however, completely untouched, smooth wide patches of snow and pine trees. We frolicked for a bit, our snowshoes crunching through the fresh powder. Stopping to take in the view, a wide lake under crisp snowy peaks, my friend looked at me, grinned and said, “You know what we should do? Topless photo.”
I laughed, a little unsure. But subsequently we did, posting the camera on a backpack. Stripping off my layers and finally, in a quick movement, my sports bra, I walked up to the edge. I felt so good. Amazing really. Happy. The sun on my bare skin was warm, in a way I hadn’t felt in months. It felt like years, forever. I felt connected to all the things around me, safe in my body and space. We laughed, as my friend tried to get her phone to stand up and I danced a little to the mountains, alone and free.
Later that day, 10 + sunny miles later, dead legs and exhausted, I looked through our photos in the car on the way back. The topless one was just beautiful; in my mind natural female bodies in the mountains, both strong and powerful. An accomplishment both of what women were capable of. After a while, I decided to post the photo on Instagram. I wanted to show off our accomplishments, and unabashedly share our moment, the ability to feel comfortable in our bodies and to climb mountains.
Soon after, later that night while out with friends, I received a comment on the post from an old co-worker and avid outdoorsman with the hashtag, #mtnbabes. I clicked on it. Soon my phone screen filled with a series of photos similar to ours; women in the outdoors naked or topless in similar forms. It was beautiful, the scenery and the bodies of the women, but immediately I was filled with annoyance, shame and a kind of burning feeling in my stomach. I almost wanted to take the picture down. It still makes me mad or embarrassed writing this, and the worst part is, I can’t entirely articulate why. Maybe it was the fact that it was a male that had posted this, even one who I knew well as a friend, and progressive minded outdoor person. We had even sat together in a staff training once having conversations over privilege and accessibility in the outdoors. So maybe then it was jealousy, seeing all these beautiful competent women, and feeling lesser than.
But I think it was something else. Talking it over with my friend out to dinner over Indian food in Seattle the other night, I was able to rant through my curry and verbally process enough until something kind of coherent came out. “It felt, objectifying, kind of Spring Break-ish” I said. “Like, you know, WOOO TOPLESS, type of short skirt background dancer of a music video, pretty girl by the side of the pool kind of feeling. Like the girls on this feed are doing this for attention from men.” That even as well intended though the audience might be, the fact that they’re spending their free time scrolling through half naked pictures of women leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
And I know that’s not the whole story, of course. I’m sure most or really all of them are bad ass, competent women who want to promote the freedom of their bodies in the outdoors, and the absolute right of women to exist in those spaces, the same as men. That social media is a slim filter to show our whole selves. But it bothered me still, to be associated with that feeling of sexualized inferiority somehow, and that I couldn’t figure out in our world of social media how to portray this feeling of freedom, the sense of womanhood, empowerment and belonging in the mountains because the system was so ingrained in the way that women’s bodies have been objectified. So that’s a simple solution, right? Just don’t post the pictures.
And there is it, the strong part of me that feels as though this whole feeling is completely invalidated. That I’m incredibly wrong here, with no grounds to even stand on. It’s like there’s this voice in head, Erin If you don’t want to cause problems, why even post the picture in the first place? You’re not good enough to say these things, you don’t have the power to think like that. Why do I feel like that? That every time I get angry it’s not a valid thing; that I’m being silly? That it’s just, as my (incredibly wonderful supportive, feminist minded boyfriend), laughed after seeing the picture, calling it another ‘Girls Show Their Tits To The World’ photo. (He later apologized.)
I think it’s confusing moments like these when I listen to Lemonade, cry a lot and then resolve my steel. (Thank you Beyonce, always). And moments where a good friend takes me to an all ladies naked spa day the weekend after I had my IUD procedure, just to thank me for being brave. And moments on Orcas Island, in the clothing optional hot tubs, sitting with friends and laughing in the salty pine air, just like the majority of Europe where bodies are not sexualized in our staunch puritanical bullshit principles, but appreciated as unique, natural and beautiful.
So I WANTED to post the picture. I wanted to try to accurately depict an incredible, powerful moment in the quiet of the mountains and the sheer beauty thereof. And of being women. And not following any man up the mountain, but hiking it ourselves. And how hard, how so fucking hard that is to maintain, promote and demand as equality in this society, simply to be recognized as equals, as equally entitled. I work for a rock climbing gym, and as part of staff training we had to write through safety scenarios. One of the scenarios was a woman following her boyfriend to the gym, and acting unsafe in the environment. It pissed me off so much, and I still haven’t been able to say anything about. That was months ago. Every half hour on shifts we have to tally up the total of men and women in the gym, simply for record keeping purposes. Every time the ratio is always in favor of the men, and every time it digs me, just a little. Yesterday was the first time I had ever seen the number equal. I actually wrote an exclamation point next to the tally.
I was listening to the SheExplores podcast in the kitchen the other night, in which a woman told of a story of going hiking with her boyfriend. He was an ex-marine, and she always felt like she was slowing him down, feeling the need to overcompensate and prove herself. She told a story that one time, he told her that he didn’t want to hike the John Muir Trail with her, even though it was a long term dream of hers, because she would, quote, “slow him down.”
“DUMP HIS ASS” I yelled into the sink of dirty dishes I was washing, splashing water onto myself, knowing full well I had no right to dictate life choices to a woman from a podcast.
The thing that got to me though, was that that wasn’t even the point of the story. The point was her work as a product researcher for an outdoor company or something along those lines. The fact that she felt inferior to her boyfriend in the outdoors was just a small detail. What got to me was the way she spoke of it like it was almost normal, the following of men up mountains and on trails. And the feeling of disempowerment it brings. Like it’s just something that women just have to “deal with” in order to go outside. The podcast producer expressed similar sentiments, and the whole thing just got me so upset that I had to pour a glass of wine to keep listening.
Up on the climbing wall cork board is an article entitled, How to Fight Sexism in the Climbing World. Yesterday I saw a guy read it, scoff “interesting…” like it was a new and foreign concept to him. I stood there quietly, insides burning. So goddamnit, yes I will take my shirt off, and if you want to objectify me, then let’s remember, that mountains are shaped exactly like female tits. So who’s house is this really?
Here’s the photo. I captioned it “Views for days”. I kind of hate myself for it. It sounds objectifying and diminishing.
Here’s what I really wanted to caption it, my favorite U2 quote, and one of my favorite song quotes of all time.
If you want to kiss the sky, better learn how to kneel.
On your knees boy.