As a physiotherapist working in the same place for many years, one of the rewards – which admittedly can, occasionally, be a double edged sword – is getting to know patients so well they are comfortable sharing some of their innermost thoughts with you. Recently I was seeing a woman who was a ballet dancer. She has been retired for several years but the discipline she learnt from an early age continues; she is slim, fit and remains extremely active – a fabulous advert for her art. This week she was in reflective mood remembering the debt she owed to ballet – how it had transformed her life. At school she had struggled academically and her self esteem was at an all time low when she discovered she had both a talent and a love of dance.
The freedom she found in ballet unleashed a self confidence that she had never dreamt of before. This new experience came solely through the control, training and movement of her body. It gave her a new relationship both with herself and, through her performances, with the external world of the audience. She explained how it was only through understanding and using her body that she was at last able to express herself fully. It gave her a liberty, it let her soul sing. Movement, fitness, training and most importantly performance gave her not only a physical but crucially also an immense psychological and spiritual boost. Life was never the same again after her discovery of dance.
Given my PhD topic I was immediately aware of the similarities with women climbers in the nineteenth century. For many of them it was only once they began climbing that they realised what their bodies were actually capable of. Mountaineering, as ballet did for my patient, suddenly allowed women to glimpse a whole new world of possibilities. This was a particular revelation at a time when control of women’s bodies was central to many medical, political and social debates. Any woman who paid heed to medical advice, for example, knew that many doctors advised them to avoid extreme physical exertion for fear of infertility. Interest in evolution seemed to suggest that women’s bodies were arrested at a more primitive stage of development than mens and the Contagious Diseases Acts allowed any woman to be whisked way and subjected to internal examination to exclude venereal disease . The female body, therefore, was a contested subject in the second half of the nineteenth century. In the mountains though women found somewhere they could leave these debates behind, a place where they could truly experience their bodies for themselves; here was reality and truth, not opinion or conjecture. The views of scientists, doctors or politicians were of no relevance in the mountains all that mattered here was the physical and psychological ability and desire to gain the summit. Just as for my patient, discovering what they could achieve in the mountains was a revelation for many women. Francis Havergal, despite being more noted as a hymn writer than a climber, nevertheless became seduced by the mountains and noted how ‘no one can judge of what they can do here by what they can do in England.’
Another group of young women during their first Alpine trip in 1874 wrote ‘ there is something delightful in possessing strength and power and endurance… there is a buoyancy, a sense of freedom.’ Many other women had similar experiences; free from the restrictions of society the high mountains provided an exhilaration few had known before. It truly was another world. For some these encounters were life changing. As with ballet,mountaineering gave some women a new sense of self expression, fulfilment and spiritual renewal. While men, clearly, also experienced these sensations the difference in lifestyle and activity in the Alps compared to life in Britain was more marked for women than men. In the mountains women were freer to experience and explore for themselves what their bodies could achieve. Medical and evolutionary theories were just that – theories; in the mountains they were an irrelevance -superseded by the reality of what women discovered they could do.
And just to prove this is still as relevant today the photo above was taken a couple of years ago in the Mont Blanc Massif. It was the first time a friend of mine had been on glaciers or climbed in the high mountains but like many women before us she found it an engrossing and liberating experience. Society, both in the past and today, is very keen to shape what women should or should not be doing. Much of this revolves around their bodies- what they wear, how they behave, what sport, job or exercise is suitable – witness the recent curfuffle over Hilary Mantels view of the Duchess of Cambridge if you have any doubts! In setting limits on the body, the spirit is dampened. If women discover the ability of their body for themselves it can herald a transformation. It may even allow the soul to break out and sing – just as it did for my patient.