SNOW // 01 JUNE 2023
TRANS SKI MEMES
“It literally just started out with me wanting to entertain myself,” explained Valerie Arcara, the creative force behind Trans Ski Memes. “There’s all these absurdities. Skiing is an absurd sport in a lot of ways, and honestly, much of the trans experience feels a little bit absurd at times. Even so, I don’t want to be any other way. I feel happy and healthy. All the changes to my life– my mental state, my body, my social situation– everything is night and day better since I started transitioning. Ten out of ten would recommend.”
A passionate backcountry skier, Arcara was altitude training before she even left the womb. “My mom, when she was pregnant with me, hiked to the top of Mount Marcy which is the New York State high point,” she laughed. Whether it was strapped into a backpack on hikes, or riding up the chairlift at twenty months old, Arcara’s family cultivated her love for the mountains from the beginning. “I’ve been a skier for as long as I can remember; I have no memory of not being a skier. Skiing has always been a part of my life because I’ve got a dad who’s more or less obsessed with it.”
Raised in New York City, Arcara didn’t exactly grow up in a ski town, but that wasn’t going to stop her father’s frenzy for the sport. Winters were spent skiing in Upstate New York and Vermont with an annual visit to her father’s old college haunts in Colorado. Honing her skills on both the icy East Coast hills and powdery Colorado mountains, Arcara’s ski ability snowballed.
When she wasn’t on the mountain, biking around the city and bouldering in Central Park served as outdoor escapes for Arcara. “I get really stressed out in loud environments,” she explained. “I’ve always gravitated towards mountains, forests and quiet places. So I always knew that I wanted to leave the city and go out west.”
Familiar with the Rockies from trips with her family, Arcara ditched the city after graduating high school to attend the University of Colorado at Boulder. Surrounded by mountains, she was able to turn skiing into a regular practice as well as discover her passion for art. Presented with the opportunity to pursue the subject in an academic manner, Arcara dedicated herself to her studies. “As an artist, I’m very practice oriented,” she explained. “I’m a big believer in having things in your life that are meaningful [and] that you take seriously, whether they have any economic value or not. For me, skiing is top of that list. It’s very important as part of my annual rhythm to go out, be skiing regularly, have a lot of fun doing it, but to also take it seriously.”
Versatility remains a top priority for Arcara so she can approach the mountain each year with more confidence and precision. She’ll look for the hairiest conditions on bad snow days, skiing icy moguls and dodging rocks, training her movements to be meticulous. “Skiing brings the whole body together in a way that’s mentally, emotionally, and socially gratifying. Because when you ski with friends, you ski with family,” said Arcara. “For me and my dad it’s a really important father-daughter thing. Every year he’ll fly out to Colorado and meet up with me somewhere, and we’ll spend a long weekend just messing around the mountains together.”
By adopting skiing as a practice Arcara finds fluidity in the snow, and is better able to express herself on her skis. “You can tell a lot by the way someone skis,” explained Arcara. “It tells you what their relationship with the mountain is and about their relationship with their body. I’m a pretty good skier, and I feel like there’s a lot that I can say without words through skiing. Even if no one’s listening, you’re still putting that out in the world. It’s a form of [communicating with] yourself, a form of learning and self reflection.”
“Skiing has always put me in my body in a really healthy way,” she continued. “Pretransition it was really the only time I ever felt comfortable in my skin: when I was skiing or pushing my body to its physical limits in the mountains. I became a bit of an outdoor masochist. I’ve dialed back a little bit since transition. I don’t need to hurt myself now, but it definitely was a centering thing that got me through [hard times], so winter has always been my happiest time of year.”
From the age of five or six, Arcara had what she can now identify as cross-gender thoughts. However, as is the case for most children, she was more concerned with being a kid than taking a deep dive into gender identity. “It wasn’t a huge thing for me before puberty,” explained Arcara. “But then your body starts changing and your hormones start changing, and suddenly existence is pain, and that’s kind of weird.”
An expert on male to female hormone replacement therapy by the age of seventeen and struggling with severe gender dysphoria through her teens and early twenties, Arcara stuffed her feelings away and played the role she felt she was meant to fill. Reflecting back on her previous macho act, Arcara can’t help but laugh now at her vehement denial. “I was scared of any word that started in trans, like transportation or transcendence or transfer, was triggering for me. Oh, no, not that. We can’t think about that.”
Finally, in Fall 2020, Arcara’s subconscious was fed up with dealing with her bullshit. “I had this crazy, hyper detailed dream that I was in a very feminine body,” she recalled. “And I caught myself feeling comforted by that. It freaked me out, and I woke up. I was like, ‘okay, you’ve been dealing with gender issues your entire life, and you know it.’ It scared the shit out of me.”
Arcara’s friends flocked to her rescue, providing the space and support she needed to reflect on her gender. Within a couple months of her psyche’s revolt, she began her transition. From childhood, there were multiple times that Arcara almost came out to herself, but she was never quite ready to make the leap. Arcara shrugged, “I just needed time, I guess.”
Starting her transition in January 2021, skiing became a grounding place for Arcara as she ventured into the unknown. “The first few months of transition are just like, ‘what am I doing and what the hell is going on? Why are people looking at me like this?’” she explained. “Skiing, it doesn’t matter. Everyone’s wearing so much clothing. No one’s really paying that much attention.” The timing also worked out that a majority of Arcara’s gear had worn out from years of use by that season, so she upgraded her ski fit to be cuter and boost her confidence on the slopes.
Early in the 21/22 ski season Arcara was nearing the one year mark of transition and grappling with a recent breakup. That’s when she had an idea. “I was kind of lonely and needed something to cheer me up,” said Arcara. “So, I made a few ski memes just to give myself a giggle. I probably spent about a weekend coming up with all these ideas and I made like fifteen memes that ended up becoming the beginning of Trans Ski Memes.”
Inspired by other Queer ski meme accounts, such as Queercork and wap_the_whites, Arcara shared her creations on Instagram, never anticipating the response she would get. “I thought I’d be lucky to have 200 followers by the end of the ski season. I got 200 followers on the first day,” she said. “And I kid you not, the first person who followed me was Queercork. My ski meme idol took notice of me on day one when I made my first post and boosted it by posting it to their story. And boom!”
The account has continued to grow over the last year to over 2500 followers, accumulating a community of trans snowsport lovers. Over seven hundred people have messaged Arcara. They reach out with appreciation for feeling seen. “It’s been crazy just how many people have told me that what I’ve made has affected them in a positive and distinct way,” smiled Arcara.
Recognizing the impact of the page, Arcara immediately took a more deliberate approach to her posts. She reflected on the effectiveness of memes as a form of community building, stating, “The advantage of memes is that they are very digestible, very easy to distribute– it’s quick, it’s to the point, there’s a punchline right there. Memes in our current society are the most basic mode of comedy, communication, and persuasion.”
“I think where you run into limitations is satire itself,” she continued. “It’s a pretty basic form of humor that doesn’t really build anything. [However because of that simplicity], I don’t think that it’s difficult to make a meme account like this more constructive and hopeful in its message rather than cynical and embattled.”
To avoid falling into a pit of pessimism Arcara has crafted a persona by the name of ‘Backcountry Girlboss’.
Backcountry Girlboss is boisterous, showboaty, and unafraid to speak her mind. But no matter how rowdy she gets, there is an undercurrent of wholesomeness that defines Arcara’s approach to the account. “Even when I’m complaining about something, there’s still going to be a happy-go-lucky tone to it,” explained Arcara. “There’s going to be positive emojis and such. The color palette is always very colorful and fun. I don’t want it to be ‘let’s all be angry together’. It’s more about positivity, about supporting each other and having fun together.”
While the account has been great for laying the foundation for a trans ski community, its primary existence on Instagram doesn’t allow those members to connect with one another on a deeper level. Arcara wanted to bridge that gap, so starting with a small initial group of trusted followers, she created a Discord server. “We all became friends and it was really refreshing to have this silly little group of fellow trans skiers,” smiled Arcara.
With the success of the first group, Arcara started a public server open to any trans or gender questioning folks with an interest in downhill snow sports. Through this server of around sixty trans athletes, Arcara hopes to help members organize private meetups and connect with one another.
“Skiing is further behind than a lot of other outdoor sports as far as the gender dynamics. How women are treated in the sport, how trans people, gay people, anybody like that is treated in the sport,” explained Arcara. “It’s just so far behind. And I know so many people who have drifted away from skiing because they don’t see their queerness as compatible with the current culture of the sport. I hope that the presence of even a small number of trans people coming together and making this kind of stuff happen does something good for the community.”
Arcara’s drive to create more trans visibility in snowsports has her scheming new projects for the future. As well as posting her own clips online, she mentioned her intention to potentially create an all-trans athlete ski film, but was mysterious about her plans. “There’s some cool stuff in the works for next winter,” she smirked. “That’s all I can say right now.”
While trans specific ski media is still scarce, the last few years have seen an influx of ski movies centered around female skiers. At the start, these films featured exclusively cis-women, but creators soon realized that this approach didn’t capture the entirety of the femme-side of the ski industry. Newer projects, such as the upcoming “Advice for Girls”– which Arcara will be featured in– aim to encompass the full spectrum of womanhood, because every girl deserves the chance to be seen and shine. Needless to say, Arcara is stoked to be a part of the amazing roster of athletes defining the future of ski media.
Along with creating and participating in larger projects, Arcara wants to celebrate other trans skiers and snowboarders through her informal outlet Uphill Ice. “It’s a less silly way of staking out a place for trans people in skiing, promoting inclusion in the sport, and giving trans skiers a place,” explained Arcara. “You might not get featured in Ski Magazine because of prejudice and lack of prior exposure, but let’s make sure that at the very least your fellow trans skiers can celebrate you and have good skiers to look up to. My hope for it [is that] maybe some trans kid will see [trans skiers shredding] and just be like, oh wow– not only are there other trans people who are into the things that I’m into, but they’re good! I want young trans skiers to see someone like Hank Stowers, for example. I want them to see Hank and just be like, whoa, I want to be like them! If Hank can do it, if Hank can start to climb into the world of professional skiing, why can’t I?”
Tired of being shunted to the side by the outdoor sports community, there has been a recent emergence in the last year and a half of trans sports meme accounts, some inspired by Trans Ski Memes, each carving out a space for trans athletes. From Trans Bike Memes, Trans Climbing Memes, to Trans Hiking Memes, these accounts work to bring both joy and representation to the outdoor trans community.
“Trans Ski Memes has really been about aggressively staking out a little tiny piece of ski culture, to say ‘this is ours and this is us.’ We’re here and it’s okay. And if you want to be a part of that, you’re more than welcome,” explained Arcara. “Building a community around that is an important part of it. If me and my friends have some influence to shape what a trans skiing subculture looks like because we’re making the memes, it’s important to us that the right values come through: openness, inclusion, having fun, non-competitiveness, and learning from one another.”