No Filters: Athletes Versus Models—Why Keeping It Real Is Better for Everyone

Sex sells. I overheard a couple of middle-school girls on lunch break outside a local café the other day talking about thigh gaps and how they didn’t want to be in the sun because of wrinkles. What words can really encompass how f*cked up that is?

Illustration: Dave Barnes

words :: Taylor Godber

I wanted to knock the smartphones from their hands, pick them up and shake out whatever marketing schemes had infiltrated their sweet little souls. I wanted to expel all the “more boobs, more ass, more Botox” concepts from their minds. I wanted to scream, ‘that is not what makes you beautiful!’ I wanted to tow them up to the mountains with me, to experience what it feels like to be outside, to be in a place of true beauty.

I wanted to show them what overcoming the deep burn in your legs feels like on those final steps to the summit of a mountain. Have them feel the flow state of dropping into a line that scares you shitless, but you commit and go anyhow. To introduce them to a life where thigh gaps are not measured and where wrinkles and sunspots come from real connections to the elements and adventures with friends in places few people ever see. Where bruises and scars tell stories of failures and victories and learning to overcome mental hurdles. I wanted to show them a life that would catalyze them to question and create dreams beyond embodying the life of an unrealistic, insta-famous model.

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“Women are also shamed in the media if they come across as too ‘strong’ or ‘masculine’ in sports; we are taught that it is desirable for us to be athletic, so long as we still show up small enough to be ‘feminine.’” —Katherine Weed

The marketing model created by the fashion and beauty industry has found its place in sport. Their ethos is commandeering our eyeballs by way of our fingertips via advertisements, lifestyle branding, and social media. While action and “gnar” still sell all kinds of men’s products from baselayers to boogie boards, many outdoor brands are marketing women’s lines with lifestyle photos featuring airbrushed models holding gear, rather than strong women using it. This decline of authenticity and the objectification of women is creating a messed-up psyche for the next generation and could even hurt the reason for it all, sales.

“As a general rule, media highlights one body type as beautiful, consequently leaving everyone who doesn’t fit the mold feeling less than perfect,” says Erin Treloar, founder of Raw Beauty Talks, an organization that aims to cultivate self love and positive body image in women through media-literacy education. “The glamourization of these women creates a beauty ideal that young women strive to achieve and this is the foundation for the billion-dollar beauty industry.”

The average customer sponges it up, but until recently the outdoor sports world had existed in its own bubble (perhaps because the number of products geared towards women was so tiny for so long). Times are changing however, and as women exert more buying power, some outdoor brands are relying on the tried-and-tested marketing strategies like “sex sells” or “lessen the customer’s sense of self-worth” to sell products. The only hope is that the impact of these strategies comes from a place of complete prejudice blindness.

Women are highly influenced by how the media portrays them,” says Katherine Weed, a registered counsellor and 17-year veteran of the mountain adventure lifestyle. “When we see images of ourselves in the media, much of it registers unconsciously, but there is always a message being communicated and nothing sells without us believing that that product is going to give us something we ‘need.’”

“Vote with your wallet. Support the brands who give back to the sport equally and who share real and raw stories of their athletes and depict them in their true essence.” – Leanne Pelosi

And isn’t that business? To sell a shirt that will make us feel more beautiful, a jacket that will make us a better skier, a five-day heli trip to change our lives? (Ok, maybe the heli trip would be life changing.) But when print and ad campaigns replace female athletes with professional models who do not participate in the sport, what message is being conveyed to the consumer? To our kids?

Weed explains, “Women end up believing that there is a specific ‘way’ we are supposed to look while being athletic, and many of us will shame ourselves for not reaching this unrealistic expectation, this ideal.”

And while the mental trickery can be avoided with open eyes, a solid education in media-literacy, and building a bulletproof self-esteem, children and adolescents often don’t possess these “BS filters” and can be even more susceptible to media representation. “Their brains are still developing,” says Weed. “They’re learning, on a fundamental level, who they really are in the world and if all they see are air-brushed, photoshopped, impossibly perfect women in sports, it may dissuade them from getting into sports altogether because they feel they won’t measure up to what they’ve been led to believe it means to be a ‘woman in sports.’”

Another challenge for authentic marketing of women who are athletes is the perception of what being a woman should look like. Weed says, “Women are also shamed in the media if they come across as too ‘strong’ or ‘masculine’ in sports; we are taught that it is desirable for us to be athletic, so long as we still show up small enough to be ‘feminine.’”

The reality is, your dress size or bust size doesn’t matter when you’re standing on top of an Alaskan peak, pedalling up a long ascent, or paddling into an overhead wave, and the consumer knows this. Leanne Pelosi, one of the most influential female pro snowboarders of the past decade, says, “In action sports, a lot of the decision makers are men, and frankly I just think the ones who choose to mainly focus on models for marketing have the wrong idea of what their female consumers want to see.”

 

 

Illustration: Dave Barnes

Pelosi knows firsthand the value of putting women in visible roles. She produced Full Moon, a women-only snowboard film showcasing some of the best in the sport. “I can’t say enough how important it is to showcase real women athletes in media for all girls to be able to create their own dreams and aspirations. The brands that use athletes versus models have far more credibility in action sports.”

Pro snowboarder Jess Kimura explains further, “As humans we learn by watching those who came before us. Putting emphasis on action, fun, and real, actual athletes allows younger kids to believe it’s possible for them too. Sport helps kids learn to overcome fear and adversity, understand consequences and find a sense of community. I’m not sure the same can be said of the modelling/beauty industry.”

“Sport helps kids learn to overcome fear and adversity, understand consequences and find a sense of community. I’m not sure the same can be said of the modelling/beauty industry.” —Jess Kimura

Thankfully, there are some companies practicing gender equality and transparent portrayal of their athletes, but the brands don’t bear all the responsibility. To pay female athletes, they need people to see female athletes. “Media plays a big part in shaping how girls and guys perceive women in sport,” Pelosi explains. “It’s a full circle: if media gives females the recognition they deserve, there will be more participation, more opportunity, more support from both men and women. And more opportunities for brands to support, pay, and nurture female athletes.”

Want to make a difference? “Vote with your wallet,” Pelosi says. “Support the brands who give back to the sport equally and who share real and raw stories of their athletes and depict them in their true essence.”

Athletes have a role to play as well. To possess the skill of a chosen craft, to be marketable, to engage with the community, and to self-market. All these pieces build and create role models for generations to come. They set the tone and stage for what will be. It’s their true stories, their raw selves, the things that set them apart, that make them so inspiring. Seems crazy to dilute and mask the power behind that. Let’s use this already solid platform of incredible humans to activate the equalitarian paradigm shift. Because let’s be honest, truth is always better than perfection.

 

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