At the age of 16, Clair Marie became one of the youngest base jumpers in the world. More than a decade later, she reflects on everything she learned along the way.
Marie, also known as BASEgirl, jumps from dizzyingly high structures. She straps herself into her gear, secures her GoPro camera to her helmet, and jumps—flying through the air until she reaches for her ripcord and floats to the ground. Her rhythm and routine when jumping are highly refined from her natural talent and years of practice.
Growing up in a small mountain town outside South Lake Tahoe, California, Marie developed an insatiable love for the outdoors from a young age, trying her hand at everything from skiing to rock climbing, activities that helped train her to become one of the youngest BASE jumpers in the world. Although her sport has pushed her to travel to different countries—one of her favorite aspects of her career—for Marie, BASE jumping is about so much more than where it can physically take her.
When asked why she does what she does, Marie simply responds, “Because I love it.” But her journey to becoming one of the top female BASE jumpers hasn’t been without its struggles. As an extreme sports athlete (especially a female extreme sports athlete) Marie has experienced her fair share of judgment. Because what she does is undeniably dangerous, her critics have questioned everything from her athletic ability to the way she lives her life, comments she initially had a hard time dealing with. Responding to criticism that her visible injuries made her unlovable, she proclaimed on her website, “I don’t keep myself in a glass case in order to avoid sustaining superficial damage for fear that I will be less lovable or desired.” That statement of personal empowerment also touches on a larger cultural conversation about the representation of female athletes in the media.
Athleticism inherently demands at least some attention to an athlete’s physicality because the outcome of any type of sport depends on the physical ability of its participants. And in this close physical examination, it’s not a far stretch to also evaluate an athlete’s attractiveness. For female athletes, though, this often means focusing on their sex appeal over their ability in a given sport. As Marie explains, “Sex is in the media and that is nothing new. I think women across the board in many different activities and career paths are looked at more closely than our male counterparts […] I struggle with my feelings on this because I feel that the media and general public like to exploit and focus on attractiveness.”
For a female athlete like Marie, an athlete of extraordinarily high caliber and talent in her sport who lives for the freedom she feels when jumping from high structures, her photo representations also tend to fall into this paradigm. And Marie is quick to note a huge difference in her male counterparts’ photos: “Most men are portrayed as action icons and photos of them are mainly action shots of them participating in their sport.” It’s not difficult to imagine photos gracing National Geographic cover photos of world-class male rock climbers clinging to an impossibly steep rock tower, reaching for that ever-distant crevice—and then to imagine the just-as-common cover photos of female athletes skimpily clad to show off their freshly oiled abs and thighs.
But Marie does not want to demonize women who embrace their sex appeal. “If we overly shame sexiness then that is setting an equally bad example. If we say being sexy is a bad thing and [women] should be embarrassed about it, then this breeds an equal, if not larger, number of insecure women […] this, in my opinion, should never happen.”
What Marie does hope to demonstrate is that it’s healthy for women to feel confident in their looks and comfortable with their bodies. But this should not be the sole aspect of a girl or woman’s sense of self. And for Marie, that is exactly what BASE jumping has helped her further develop: her personal identity. “I have learned a lot of lessons over the past 11 years, but one of the most important was learning to trust myself, to be comfortable with who I am as a person and to have conviction in my decisions.” Even the harshest of judgments has provided her with a platform to move upward with a greater level of confidence. Because of this level of introspection, she has branched out to other modes of expression: She was featured on a TEDx talk and recently started her own sustainable clothing line, Reverence Design.
But perhaps her most admirable accomplishment has been learning to live her life for no one but herself. “It wasn’t until I reached the point of emotional exhaustion that I realized that other people’s opinions of me were none of my business. I came to a point in my life where I knew that I was happy with where I was and what I was doing, and I came to the conclusion that I can’t please everyone; I can’t please 50 percent of people, so I just stopped trying. [I learned] to trust myself, to be comfortable with who I am as a person, and to have conviction in my decisions.” When you watch clips of Marie flying through the air and touching down to Earth, you see a woman in full control, invigorated from the adrenaline rush, and you can’t help but share her sense of confidence.
Photo by Chris Bazil
This article originally appeared in the Wild issue. For more inspiring stories about women, check out What I Learned as a Woman Traveling Alone and The Journey of a Female Sommelier: From Paris to New York.