Skiing down the snowy mountains of Virginia, Clare Moore learned to explore, to venture, to extend the limits of the possible and confront what Simone de Beauvoir once termed as the ‘timidity’ inhibiting women physically to be in the world.
I am used to coming in last place. That’s what life was like growing up as a non-athletically gifted girl in a family of athletic boys. Biking to school, foot races on the beach, playing HORSE at the basketball hoop on our street – whatever we did, I was always fifth. I didn’t care all that much about losing, though, perhaps because I was used to it, or perhaps because I excelled in enough other areas (math, reading) that my adolescent ego was satisfactorily satiated – or maybe it’s because enough years have passed since then that I have simply forgotten that I did care at one point.
There were plenty of reasons why I came in last: my comparatively smaller muscle mass, slower kinetic function, and lousy hand-eye coordination. On the one trip we took as a family to a mountain in California, I remember my brothers zipping down the slope on snowboards they’d learned to put on for the first time only fifteen minutes before. I remember, in contrast, my hesitation, my extreme care in making my way down the shallow gradient of the slope I chose. I see this memory now as part of a pattern of the intense caution which has colored my approach to anything physical for most of my life, a lens through which I still experience the world around me.
Simone de Beauvoir wrote in The Second Sex that a lack of assertive physical power in sports and physical exercise during female adolescence leads to a general timidity that follows women throughout their lives: “she has no faith in a force she has not experienced in her body; she does not dare to be enterprising, to revolt, to invent; doomed to docility, to resignation, she can take in society on a place already made for her.” In 2022, we take de Beauvoir’s understanding of gender and the world with a grain of salt, maybe several grains, but I do believe that in this, she was right. Our experience of the physical has bearing on our understanding of the world and ourselves because we experience life through our bodies.
Plenty has been written about this. Arctic explorers, mountaineers, natural philosophers, and poets all have something to say on the matter, and some of these people have been women – but not many. I am neither an arctic explorer, mountaineer, nor natural philosopher, but I, like de Beauvoir, am a woman who looks for herself at the intersection of the physical, the natural, and the psychological. I will never climb Mount Everest, though women do; my ventures are objectively mild but personally thrilling. I look for ways to push myself to what de Beauvoir called perfection within my own limitations, for even within our limitations we can know the world through our bodies. And at the borderline of these limitations, we find ourselves anew.
I was not cut off from the world of sports by my gender (except in Little League, but that is for another time). I had incredible access to sports, the access de Beauvoir dreamed of, and I was curtailed not by my physical inferiority but by a mentality of caution that proved impossible to overcome as a child. I would call it fear. On that snowboard years ago, I was afraid of going fast, of falling, of hurting myself, of losing control of my body. This fear prevented me from learning anything that day, least of all how to snowboard, and I never picked up the sport again (partially because I never wanted to after that first experience, and partially for the economic reality that a middle-class family of seven cannot afford the cost of skiing and snowboarding – but that, too, is for another time).
Fifteen years later, I developed a new fear. The child who failed to learn snowboarding was capable of learning so many other things – writing, drawing, piano, tennis, Latin, sewing, baking, scorekeeping for every kind of sport my brothers played. But as I approached thirty, I began to worry that I had lost the ability, inclination, and lust for learning something new, and that frightened me.
Nothing is newer than snow. It offers a striking freshness of perspective – the way it smooths out horizon lines, simplifies nature’s color palette, and takes away the clutter of a busy world. The cold wakes you up better than strong black coffee. The trees grow heavy and still, and there is a hushed quiet all around. The body is never more awake to both perfection and limitations than in winter, and so where else could I go to rediscover myself than a mountain in December? Snow remade the world every winter and offered to do the same to me, so I decided to place myself in the middle of my own limitations and winter’s yearly promise. I decided to learn to ski.
I drove from Washington D.C. to a small resort in Virginia, rented equipment, purchased a lift ticket, and signed up for a ski lesson. The instructor had a rugged mountain-man look about him, and he seemed like the kind of person who had tested his mettle against peers and mountains alike, à la de Beauvoir’s suggestion. He attempted to impart his wisdom to me and six other bright-eyed novices over the course of 45 minutes, with limited success I must admit, before releasing us into the wild with directions to the easiest green square on the mountain. I made my way ahead of the others to the lift, accompanied by the butterflies flitting about inside my stomach. After I managed to enter and exit the lift without falling, I found myself standing at the top of a gentle slope of snow with only one way down. With the path before me lined by the stark contours of bare trees, gazing down this little white hill in Virginia, I felt afraid.
De Beauvoir believed that women’s access to intense physical sports was important not only for equality, but because these experiences taught boys something not only advantageous but essential for facing the adult world. Sports were how boys learned to question, to challenge, to rise above. Girls needed these experiences too if they were to become women capable of remaking society. De Beauvoir couched her ideas in too much violence and competition at times, I think. She saw value in the pitting of athletes against each other, in the violence of triumphing over one another, but we learn not from climbing higher than our peers, but from climbing itself. I take de Beauvoir’s principle out of the context of rivalry of any kind, whether against our peers, the natural world, or even ourselves. In literature, man – it is usually a man – is often pitted against winter. The body fights the cold, against a barren landscape that coalesces as a foe. A man lives (wins) or dies (loses). This feels like the projection of our own egos. Winter has so much more to offer us if we enter its landscape without the motive of competition in our hearts. Winter offers de Beauvoir’s principle transcendent of its worldly confinement: to explore, to venture, to extend the limits of the possible. The conquering pride not of defeating, but of remaking.
I skied down the slope very slowly. I skied it multiple times very slowly, each time with butterflies afflicting my stomach at the top of the slope, and this did not feel like remaking anything. I knew my fear would keep me a beginner, so I did the run again and forced myself to pick up more speed, and there I was: scared. I was scared going down that slope at a speed I’m sure wouldn’t even register on a police scanner. I remember the feeling – the tightening of my chest, the rush of wind against my frozen cheeks. I can summon it now as I sit at my desk – the nauseated sensation of falling.
There are a lot of platitudes about fear. The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. Fear makes us feel alive. Fear can be overcome. Many different articulations of the same sentiment, but I find none of them to be true. When I am skiing faster than I can, when I am focused on trying not to fall – on just to make it to the bottom of the hill – I am not alive. I am suspended in time. There is only this turn, this second, this breath, this snow beneath me. This thought: DO NOT FALL. When I reach the bottom and catch the lift back up and stand at the top of the slope once more, the fear is still there, right where it always is, in my chest. I know now that it will always be there. It was not the fear, really, that I was trying to overcome, but what de Beauvoir labeled timidity. I would not let the fear keep me from the doing – from new adventures, a deeper knowledge of myself, a deeper place in the natural world. I can do all of this while afraid; sometimes that fear is the catalyst to what I am seeking.
It is this fear that keeps me coming back to the slopes, run after run, winter after winter. In this, my third ski season, I am as afraid as I have ever been, though I hope a slightly better skier. I still get butterflies on the lift for my first run, for a new slope, for a path I know will be difficult for me. But that’s why I’m here. I ski because of the fear, because I have so much to learn, because I am looking for myself after every snowfall. When I am no longer afraid, I will probably stop skiing. But until then, I answer de Beauvoir’s call:
Let her swim, climb mountain peaks, pilot an airplane, battle against the elements, take risks, go out for adventure, and she will not feel before the world that timidity which I have referred to.
About Clare Moore
Clare Moore is an independent writer and scholar living in the Washington D.C. area of the United States. She received her M.F.A. from George Mason University and writes fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction. Her academic work focuses on gender and disability in the literature of J.R.R. Tolkien. When not at her desk, she is busy seeking nature’s mysteries in the great outdoors during every season. Follow Clare on Twitter @claremoore914
This essay was commissioned for our latest mini-series, Our Body’s Bodies
Everything is written on the body – but what does it mean to write about our bodies in the era of Covid-19? And is it possible to write about bodily experiences in the face of such pervasive and continued violence? Using different modes of writing and art making, Lucy Writers presents a miniseries featuring creatives whose work, ideas and personal experiences explore embodiment, bodily agency, the liberties imposed on, taken with, or found in our bodies. Beginning from a position of multiplicity and intersectionality, our contributors explore their body’s bodies and the languages – visual, linguistic, aural, performance-based and otherwise – that have enabled them to express and reclaim different forms of (dis)embodiment in the last two years. Starting with the body(s), but going outwards to connect with encounters that (dis)connect us from the bodies of others – illness, accessibility, gender, race and class, work, and political and legal precedents and movements – Our Body’s Bodies seeks to shine a light on what we corporally share, as much as what we individually hold true to.
Bringing together work by artistic duo Kathryn Cutler-MacKenzie and Ben Caro, poet Emily Swettenham, writer and poet Elodie Rose Barnes, author Ayo Deforge, writer and researcher Georgia Poplett, writer and poet Rojbîn Arjen Yigit, writer and researcher Hannah Hutchings-Georgiou and many others, as well as interviews with and reviews of work by Elinor Cleghorn, Lucia Osbourne Crowley and Alice Hattrick, Lucy Writers brings together individual stories of what our bodies have endured, carried, suffered, surpassed, craved and even enjoyed, because…these bodies are my body; we are a many bodied being. Touch this one, you move them all, our bodies’ body.
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