How to talk about women’s diving? What kind of narrative can convey this incredible divergence of expectations and preferences, while not falling into clichés or infantilizing such a diverse environment? How does one not reduce the subject of diving women to taking care of hair and nails while diving?
I must confess that I have a problem with similar topics. I feel that we should have more space for ourselves in diving, that we deserve more attention, but when various pro-female initiatives repeatedly appeared, the most common topics were those unfortunate beauty issues – hair, nails, skin, how to look sexy and what equipment best suits a woman’s figure. And after many years, I have to honestly admit – I find it repulsive. I feel some kind of deep discouragement when I think that everything I do, all my underwater achievements, suddenly in 5-minute conversations can be reduced to such secondary issues. I feel sadness that women themselves can reduce their diving achievements to such aspects. Why is it that attractive looks and beauty are becoming an axis around which we revolve, when the history of diving clearly shows that we have much more to show and offer?
We unanimously repeat that we don`t care about depth records, that we don’t need to prove anything, that all those manly, “hardcore dives” don’t interest us at all – In other words, we send a clear message to our male colleagues that we in no way intend to even compete with them in hard, difficult dives, that we know our place and don’t intend to go any further. What is the point? First of all, our male colleagues don’t need such care, and secondly – why are we limiting ourselves in our ambitions? More women divers are observing from the beginning, that standing out and being overly ambitious is frowned upon for some reason. I have a huge problem understanding and accepting this need to soften our diving image, when I know perfectly well that in the companion where such topics are raised, there are many amazing women divers with achievements – when it comes to depths, explorations, cave diving, photography, science. We are in no way inferior to our male colleagues, so why do we strenuously try to pretend otherwise?
Whenever I listen to and read similar discussions that accompany the slogan “Women diving,” I have the irresistible impression that we ourselves allowed to be reduced to the role of some decorative accessory to diving. The image of the stereotypical diving woman necessarily needs to be softened with something – and most often we ourselves apply all kinds of beauty issues here. For some reason, we don’t talk about our diving expeditions, explorations, projects, achievements or dreams that go beyond the accepted norm. We don’t talk to each other about women who excelled in sport diving and wrote their history – record-breakers like Vera Van Sheik or, more recently, Karen Van Der Oeven, or explorers like Jill Heinerth, Sabine Kerkau, the late Agnes Milowka. And when it comes to exploration, I need to mention real Iron Woman, Katarzyna Turzańska and her amazing achievement in the exploration of insanely difficult and inaccessible Tatra Mountains caves. We don’t even talk about the insanely important scientific achievements of legends like Sylvia Earle, despite the fact that almost all of us certainly heard of NOAA!
Why does this irritate me so much? I’ll refer to a very fresh example – at this year’s Baltictech I went again to a lecture by Sabine Kerkau – an amazing woman whose dives are creating history of wreck and cave diving. Sabine has been a huge inspiration to me over the years. Would it even occur to me to ask her how she takes care of her hair during her expeditions? How could I ever reduce her amazing achievements to an interest in such trivial, unimportant matters, when I can ask her about her choices regarding equipment configuration, gas selection, and the logistics involved in diving in such remote and hard-to-reach places? How would that even reflect on me?
And I asked myself – how would I feel if, after one of the dives from which I was coming out so delighted and proud, someone asked me “gee, what are you doing to keep your hair to shiny despite diving?”. And guess what? I would feel like someone had slapped me in the face. It’s not about the type of dives, because each of us can feel pride after completely different dives. It’s about the principle – it’s not the permanent manicure, not the waterproof makeup or the shiny hair that made us proud!
Then I thought about other women whose names went down in the history of diving through their achievements- those more contemporary, such as (from my, Polish backyard) Elzbieta Benducka, Verna Van Shaik, Karen Van Der Oeven, Jill Heinerth, the aforementioned Sabine Kerkau, Agnes Milowka, as well as those who made diving history from the very beginning, such as Penelope “Mossy” Powell, who made the first ever cave dive in Britain, Donna Tobias, who became a Navy diver in 1975, Lottie Hass, who in the 1930s was already famous as a diving underwater photographer, or – going all the way back to the 1920s – to Amelia Behrens-Furniss, who combined her career as an actress and stunt woman with her work as a professional diver, working in insanely heavy equipment! And these are just a few names, the very beginning of a long list! More than one book could be written about Sylvia Earle’s scientific and aquatic achievements. Irena Stangierska’s photographs are admired by people all over the world. We are able to leave our mark on diving in all its forms – from records to explorations, from science to art.
The history I mention so much was reflected in the creation of an organization that was established in 1999 – the Women Divers Hall of Fame. It was established to recognize and honor the achievements of women who were pioneers, inventors and made extraordinary achievements in various fields of diving, while providing support in seeking a specific type of work related to diving – whether in the military, professional or scientific fields.
I suggest you visit the Women Divers Hall of Fame website https://www.wdhof.org/ if you still have doubts about the achievements of women divers. Next to the profiles of all the female members, you can read how they became so prominent in the history of diving that they ended up in the ranks of the WDHoF. So now think about the women I wrote about above, see what achievements the members of the aforementioned organization have, and imagine that we could meet and talk to them.
Would we ask them how they took care of their nails? What conditioner did they use to keep their hair shiny? Or would we want to hear “Mossy” talk about her historic dive in the Wookey Hole cave, how she dealt with putting on a navy diver’s outfit that was far too big (and equally heavy!) for her, how she felt going through the previously inaccessible siphons of the British cave, what impression the dive made on her? Would we like to know what Sylvia Earle saw during her walk on the ocean floor at a depth of 381 meters? Or how Verna Van Sheik explains she her choices for the right gas mixtures for her 200+ meters dive? How did Amelia Behrens Furniss felt when diving in a hardtop, heavy suit in the oil tube?
Why aren’t we discussing what helium gas mixtures work better for extremely deep dives performed by women? Why aren’t we looking for speleo harnesses that are more comfortable for us (because they are better suited to our lower center of gravity)? We do not wonder how to organize a women’s only diving, scientific expedition that will bring tangible benefits for the protection of the aquatic environment? We don’t enjoy the achievements and successes of our female colleagues who have amazing accomplishments in diving, we don’t cheer on women who break records, discover new wrecks, or explore caves in remote countries, describe new species of marine animals and explore the ocean floor? And why aren’t we talking about our ambitions, ideas and plans, making it clear that we not only want, but also can reach for more?
I’d like to believe that talking about of She – Pee or heating systems for cold waters dives are like the swallows that bring the breeze of the upcoming spring. Unfortunately, the following years, during which the narrative on women’s diving has not changed have emphatically shown that change is not coming. Should we wait?
What if I don’t want to wait any longer? The pioneering women I mentioned above have already proven that we are not limited to the role of diving ornaments. Amazing women show that we are continually writing the history of diving by adding fascinating chapters to it.
We don’t have to accept less or be anything less.
Finally, I want to invite you to follow the series I am hereby starting, in which I will present the most outstanding female representatives of the diving community along with their achievements. You will read about true legends, pioneers, champions in their fields, holders of records and outstanding achievements in both diving and science.
Coming up next week – the one and only Sylvia Earle.
About the author:
Daria Dobrowolska has been involved with the IDF since the very beginning of the federation. She is a Staff Instructor as well as Technical Diving Instructor at the trimix and advanced wreck levels, but she is most proud of her Full Cave instructor certification. In diving, she appreciates remote cave trips and fascinating macro of tropical seas. You may know her as the author of our training manuals.
Outside of diving, she enjoys spending her free time hiking in the mountains and traveling, always with a book in her backpack.