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thesis blog

You are invited to look through my blog to see the evolution of my thesis year at SVA's Products of Design as it progresses.

Reflection on my research thus far

Inspired by women who are making headway in the great outdoors, competitive sports and activism, my aim with this thesis is to empower all kinds of women to embrace risk and a spirit of adventure in their lives.  To start the research for this topic I did a variety of readings in three main categories: the psychology of adventure, women in the outdoors, as well as feminist writing and activism.

I started reading two classics of outdoor stories, A Walk In The Woods by Bill Bryson and Into The Wild by Jon Krakauer. Bryson’s memoir is a sincere and often humorous account of his experience hiking the Appalachian Trail, which extends for over two thousand miles  from Georgia to Maine. It gave me great perspective into what it is like to embark on such quests, as well interesting historical facts on what inspired the creation of natural reserves and corridors such as the Appalachian Trail (AT), The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) and the Continental Divide Trail (CDT). These have all inspired generations of hikers who show up by the hundreds every year to test their spirit of adventure, their bodies and their minds.

Jon Krakauer’s book gave me a more analytical view into the psychology behind people who embark on wilderness exploration through the story of Chris McCandless, a troubled young man who embarked on a series of wild exploration trips and eventually perished in the Alaskan wilderness. What was most impressive is that he had survived for a few months with nothing but what he hunted and scavenged. Unfortunately, by being alone and isolated in such terrain a small mistake cost him his life. The allure of survival in such extreme places, often influences people who are dissatisfied with our mechanized society and who look to nature as a way to experience the world in it’s purest form, the way it was before human beings developed our current lifestyles. Conquering a summit, or living of the land in such harsh terrain becomes a form of protest and a way to comb through thoughts and form beliefs to re-enter society in a rejuvenated state.

After reading these two stories I was ready for some women adventurers, that’s when I started Lynn Hill’s memoir Climbing Free: my life in the vertical world. She singlehandedly shattered the gender barriers in climbing, and opened up the sport to what it is today, a space where women and men are recognized for their achievements, though much more work needs to be done to get to equal recognition. What I enjoyed about reading the book is that she didn’t set out to be the the voice for female climbers, she was gifted and was able to find recognition for her incredible ability, it is only later on, when she entered competitions where the winning prizes for men were higher than the ones for women, that she started realizing she needed to advocate for women in climbing and competitive sports to be equally recognized. She also ran into a handful of male climbers with chauvinistic views about women’s abilities to climb, but through training and perseverance she proved them all wrong by shattering records and eventually gaining the recognition she deserved. At the pinnacle of her career she became the first human being do a free ascent of “The Nose” route on El Capitan in Yosemite Valley. Now she is dedicated to coaching young climbers, especially women, to achieve their goals, and continues to inspire women and girls to “climb on.” The core teaching from Lynn’s life for me is that as a first comer in a man’s world breaking barriers can be done without aggression and opposition. Instead, focussing on taking our skill to the next level gets us to prove our point gracefully and break the barriers more effectively.

Climbing Free: my life in the vertical world by Lynn Hill.

Climbing Free: my life in the vertical world by Lynn Hill.

Shortly after reading Climbing Free, I met up with my climbing partner Janice Greenwood at her apartment where we discussed my topic and dug through her vast library of adventure books and feminist writing. Among other great adventurous readings, videos and documentaries Janice recommended Rebecca Solnit’s essays included in two volumes titled Men Explain Things to Me and The Mother of All Questions. The essays were a revelation to me, her argument is that seemingly small aggressions of men against women, as is the case with “mansplaining,” are a gateway into a slew of more grave aggressions to oppress women. As she explains mansplaining “trains us in self-doubt and self-limitation just as it exercises men's unsupported overconfidence”(1). Which leads to the subordinate roles women often play feeding into all sorts of violent acts against them. She argues that recent terms like "Domestic violence, mansplaining, rape culture, and sexual entitlement are among the linguistic tools that redefine the world many women encounter daily and open the way we begin to change it." In this book she also references Virginia Woolf's writings in an essay titled Woolf’s Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable. After reading this essay I realized that through analyzing Woolf’s text, which often describes the meandering of the mind while walking, she is really talking about adventure; making a case that even a short walk through the city is a form of adventure and even a form of liberation for women, specially when we allow ourselves to get lost and make the range of experience seem limitless.

The Mother of All Questions by Rebecca Solnit

The Mother of All Questions by Rebecca Solnit

Another great resource Janice shared with me is the Outside Magazine May 2017 issue, which was solely dedicated to women in the outdoors. Aside from re-affirming the timeliness of my thesis, the articles within it lead me to important additional resources.  In the article titled We Are the Next Generation of Rippers, which speaks about the evolution of the Girl Scouts organization, the author (Florence Williams) references a 2016 study by Viren Swami from Anglia Ruskin University, which “found that the more time girls and women spent in nature, the better they felt about their physical selves. Being active and outside, he said, makes us focus on what our bodies can do rather than how they look.”(3) This is proof that inspiring women to be more adventurous can boost self-confidence and have a lasting impact on all other aspects of their lives.

A book that I ended up enjoying greatly is My Life on The Road by Gloria Steinem. Through her life’s story Gloria takes us into the experience of a traveling activist and the many learnings that come from opening up to people and learning how to listen to their stories. Through this book I began to understand that activism in itself is a form of adventure, and an important one, especially when movements and activists work in tandem with each other. There is a vast amount of  lessons to draw from here,  but if I had to choose 3 main learnings from this book I would share the following 3 quotes:

Taking to the road—by which I mean letting the road take you—changed who I thought I was. The road is messy in the way that real life is messy. It leads us out of denial and into reality, out of theory and into practice, out of caution and into action, out of statistics and into stories—in short, out of our heads and into our hearts. (4)
Polls show that what women fear most from men is violence, and what men fear most from women is ridicule. (5)
...one of the simplest paths to deep change is for the less powerful to speak as much as they listen, and for the more powerful to listen as much as they speak. (6)

In contrast with Bill Bryson’s memoir about his hike of the AT, I decided to read Wild by Cheryl Strayed. In her book she writes about hiking the PCT alone as a woman. This in itself would seem to set her up for a much different experience. But interestingly the everyday struggles are very similar, and like many others Cheryl goes on this quest as a way to heal herself and move past a difficult time in her life. What I find most interesting is that a lot of people who embark on long journeys like these end up using the experience as a beacon or reference in their lives’ timeline, a testimony to the life-changing aspect of these experiences.

Finally, after watching Caroline Paul’s Ted Talk titled To raise brave girls, encourage adventure—where she speaks about how we put girls into gender roles early in their lives and how to combat it—I decided to purchase her book: The Gutsy Girl: Escapades for Your Life of Epic Adventure. From it I was inspired to create a Women Heroes list, which includes women in sports, activism, politics and science. As the list grows I am inspired to see we are moving in the right direction, but I am conscious that there is so much more to do, reaffirming at last that this is the thesis I should be pursuing.
 

References:

  1. Solnit, Rebecca. Men Explain Things to Me. Page 6

  2. Solnit, Rebecca. Men Explain Things to Me. Page 21

  3. Williams, Florence.  We Are the Next Generation of Rippers. Outside Magazine, May 2017. Page 68.

  4. Steinem, Gloria. My Life on The Road. Page xix.

  5. Steinem, Gloria. My Life on The Road. Page 180.

  6. Steinem, Gloria. My Life on The Road. Page xxiii.

Alexia Cohen