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Becoming visible: Empowering women through outdoor role models

I am an outdoor athlete. I enjoy many outdoor sports from surfing and climbing to backpacking and skiing. My passion for outdoor sports has extended to my professional life as well. I became a backpacking and climbing instructor in 2003 for the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) in the United States. Through my personal and professional experiences in outdoor sports as a woman of color, it didn't take me long to notice that I stand out – everyone notices my presence immediately. At the same time, I often feel invisible. For example, other climbers will typically approach my climbing partner to ask questions about the route, even when I’m clearly geared up as the ‘guide.’ At my local surfing break, I felt non-existent because nobody would talk to me until they saw that I could actually 'drop in' to the steep and fast waves. Why don’t they see me?

Then I stumbled upon an explanation. The people who I traditionally interact with in outdoor sports are typically white. Similarly, the media, whether advertising, TV or movies, tends to showcase outdoor athletes who are white – and usually male. When I see women in the media, for example, in surfing magazines, many women are shown in bikinis and not even surfing. They are often posing in a way that makes you think not of an athlete, but of a sex object. No wonder people don’t see me; I am not what they are used to seeing in outdoor sports.

But I am here – and so are other women – including women of color and those of differing ages, abilities, sizes, sexual orientations and socioeconomic backgrounds. This evolving awareness has made me advocate for myself and others who remain invisible in outdoor sports.

We all need role models. They inspire and inform us to form us. Yet if our role models continually fail to look, sound or live like us, we fail huge portions of our global population. In an effort to diversify the images that surround us and make the media more reflective of our society, I have dedicated myself to photographing and sharing the stories of women of color, as well as other women who break the traditional mold, in outdoor sports.

This is how my project "If She Can Do It, You Can Too: Empowering Women Through Outdoor Role Model" came to be. My hope was that by educating public, our society would recognize women athletes in outdoor sports, portraying images that many people can relate to. With this approach, people everywhere, especially women of color, would be inspired to overcome challenges and encouraged to participate in outdoor sports.

I am curious to know - who inspires you to love the sports you play? What is your experience as a woman with sports? Besides education, what else can we do to use sports as a way to empower women and solve our problems in our society? I would love to hear from you.


Dear Miho and all!
Thanks for opening this subject - I could immediately connect to it though we use cycling as a tool not as sports. Since 2004 around 250 women from 30+ different countries and diverse backgrounds and ages have participated in the Follow the Women for Peace Bike Rides in the Middle East, where we cycle together through Lebanon-Syria-Jordan and Palestine to make our voices heard and make a difference for women in this troubled region. I live in Jordan where women need a lot of encouragement to get on a bike and cycle in public spaces, but doing it together in such a large group helps overcome the obstacles - and we all felt 'that YES WE CAN' empowering experience - although I still have to struggle with the uphills, but then isn't our goal PEACE the real uphill challenge? When we first started everyone said: impossible, but we did it - now already five times - and it changes perceptions of women - as you said if she can do it, so can I:)!
BTW in 2008 we had just 1 participant from Japan - Mio is one of your wonderful role models and she is inspiring - in 2009 she brought 12 great Japanese participants along:)
Maybe you would like to come along too next year? Our next Pedal for Peace will be in April 2011 (16.4.-1.5.2011)

more on and here as well

Dear Jormouse,

What a wonderful event that women cycle together for peace! Thank you so much for sharing your story and how you use 'cycling as a tool not as sports' to empower women. Sports can bring many people together and using that as a way to create a social change for women. I am glad to know that your event has been so successful and the next one is happening in 2011. I'll see if I can come (I'm a teacher so hard to leave my students).... Do you have a way to stay in touch with many participants? Do you think they would be interested in sharing their experience: how that cycling impact their life and shape the way they are today? How did it empower them? How have they changed afterward?

Thanks again for this story!


Miho Aida

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