Hannah MitchellBASE Digital Writer Hannah is a Lake District-based journalist and all-round outdoor lass with a particular fondness for rock faces.
Gender disparities still exist in many aspects of life, and sports, the outdoors and adventure is no different. Pregnancy and motherhood are areas within our community often overlooked or misrepresented. But, thanks to a growing number of women publicly sharing their journeys, we are seeing those misconceptions slowly dismantled. Albeit one step at a time.
One of those women is Olympic climber Shauna Coxsey. In an exclusive conversation with BASE, Shauna shares her insight and experiences of remaining active and adventurous during pregnancy.
In 1988, Alison Hargreaves climbed the Eiger Nordwand whilst six months pregnant with her first child, an ascent that Hargreaves considered to be relatively conservative. In that pre-social media era, and owing to her relative obscurity within the mountaineering community at that time, no one raised an eyebrow. Fast-forward to May of 1995, and Hargreaves was thrust into the international spotlight when she became the first woman in history to summit Everest, doing so alone and without bottled oxygen. She received high praise, her tenacity and strength applauded.
In a radio transmission from the summit, Hargreaves said – ‘To Tom and Kate, my dear children, I am on the highest point of the world, and I love you dearly’.
Later that year, Hargreaves tragically perished whilst descending K2 after being caught in a fierce and unprecedented storm on the mountain. The media backlash that followed her death was one of judgement and criticism – suddenly Hargreaves was considered selfish, lambasted for leaving her children to put herself in harm’s way.
In this increasingly digital age of free comment on social media, it seems that regardless of the topic or reason, for those in the limelight it can be difficult to avoid judgment on a public scale. When it comes to pregnancy and parenthood, women are often critiqued for their actions.
Having begun climbing at age four, Shauna Coxsey is Britain’s most successful-ever competitive climber. She has racked up a myriad of medals, a Bouldering World Championship win and numerous first female ascents.
She was the first athlete to represent Great Britain in climbing at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and was awarded and an MBE for services to the sport. Yep, Shauna is about as accomplished and knowledgeable as they come.
The negativity has been loud but it’s actually such a small percentage of the comments
For about the last eight-and-a-half months, Shauna’sInstagram has been awash with videos and photos of her bouldering with a bump. The accompanying message has been a reinforcement of the fact that risks can be mitigated, activities are adaptable and that no one knows your body better than you. In short, motherhood doesn’t necessarily mean giving up what you love.
Scroll through the comments on her feed and you’ll find a positive chorus of praise for her calculated and careful approach to keeping up the sport that she has spent almost her entire life doing, throughout her pregnancy.
But, since her social media presence shifted from explosive, acrobatic movement and dynamic dismounts to controlled down-climbing and bump-friendly boulders, the transition hasn’t been without critique. Amongst the iterations of awe and inspiration, a handful have been quick to question Shauna’s judgement and undeniably expert opinion, albeit from behind their keyboard.
‘I knew it was coming,’ Shauna tells me. ‘I’ve been on social media a long time and know that anything you share is subject to judgement. I always try to share an honest insight into my life and that’s what I have continued to do through pregnancy. The negativity has been loud but it’s such a small percentage of the comments. I actually haven’t had any negativity in real life at all, which I find pretty interesting.’
In portraying an active pregnancy and early motherhood, of course Shauna is in fantastic company. In 2019, champion fell runner Jasmin Paris famously expressed breastmilk for her baby daughter at checkpoints along the 268-mile long Montane Spine Race, and in Patagonia film Lessons FromJeju, professional freediver Kimi Werner explores the ocean’s depths with the fisherwomen of a South Korean island, at seven months pregnant. Yet in Western society today, there is still a degree of scrutiny attributed to women who remain active and adventurous during pregnancy and motherhood.
‘It seems that there are gender disparities in the way that parents are regarded and the roles that they are expected to take in all areas, so it is inevitable that the outdoors is no different,’ says Shauna. ‘The outdoors was traditionally a male-dominated space. The role of child care was traditionally a female-dominated space. Although there are barriers being shattered and huge changes happening this history runs deep and it seems there’s still a long way to go before we are in a space where there’s no prejudice.’
Now in week 39 of her pregnancy, Shauna is still climbing and training (bringing an entirely different meaning to the phrase baby on board), whilst candidly sharing her journey and explaining to inquisitive followers how she adapts her movement. Shauna’s social media presence though is undoubtedly a very public platform. Responses to her posts from other mothers and mothers-to-be indicate that the judgement and criticism faced is not confined solely to the the internet or indeed those with high profiles.
‘I got a lot of grief from people for cycling and running all the way through both my pregnancies’ – comments one follower.
‘I’m trying to hide my bump in the gym to escape judgement’– says another.
‘I have had many women reach out who stopped climbing when their bump started showing,’ says Shauna. ‘Dealing with criticism and judgement is exhausting. It is so disappointing that many women choose to stop doing something they love, that keeps them fit, healthy and happy through fear of judgment.’
It is so disappointing that many women choose to stop doing something they love, that keeps them fit, healthy and happy through fear of judgment
Today, behind each awe-inspiring image of Shauna climbing is extensive consultation with medical professionals, the attentive spotting of her husband – fellow climber Ned Feehally – and most importantly, Shauna’s own intrinsic understanding of her body, ability and risk perception.
‘It is inevitable that women face different criticism to men when pregnant,’ says Shauna. ‘I think the judgement that women face during pregnancy is mostly about other people’s assessment of risk and lack of understanding of the woman’s capabilities both physically and in their abilities to assess risk and make decisions.’
Whilst general medical guidance is right to suggest that expectant mothers be risk-averse, this is highly subjective territory, dependent on existing skill and ability and of course any other health variables. Throughout her pregnancy, Shauna has emphasised the importance of this subjectivity, and acknowledges that not all mothers-to-be are able to maintain being active. Despite the nay-sayers and anonymous critics, Shauna’s openness has been generally well-received.
‘I had no idea if I’d feel good and want to or be able to keep climbing, so it wasn’t a pre-planned thing to share loads of climbing whilst pregnant content,’ she explains. ‘The response has been overwhelmingly positive though, so many women have reached out and it’s been wonderful to hear from women who have been empowered to keep climbing within their comfort zone.’
Being informed and adaptive, with a solid perception of risk and mitigation as well as an understanding of your comfort zones all play equally important roles in remaining active and adventurous (at whatever level) regardless of pregnancy or parenthood. But with public figures like Shauna sharing their stories in an informative and empowering way, perhaps fewer expectant mothers will give up the activities that bring them joy for fear of criticism or judgement.
I for one, hope to see a further shift in the narrative surrounding motherhood, and the misconception that being pregnant means always keeping your feet on the ground.
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