You don’t look like a climber

“She’s way too thin!”

“She needs to wear more clothes. She only does that for attention.”

“You don’t fit the image we’re looking for.”

“That tattoo is a tramp stamp.”

“I can’t believe she’s wearing so much makeup for a race.”

“How do you run so fast weighing so much?”

Truthfully, I wish I’ve never had gotten the idea for this article or that I was making up the above quotes. While the stories I’m about to share will make for an interesting and possibly emotional read, the idea for this only came about because there have been female climbers that were the targets of negative comments. It’s not exactly a fun process to read the stories of inspiring women who have witnessed firsthand the downsides of being a female athlete. Yet, I believe this topic has to be further discussed and the following stories need to be shared.

Cloud Tower is one of the quintessential climbs in the Red Rocks area, and the crux pitch goes at traditionally protected 11D. My good friend Em was climbing in the area with three other friends. Em is a pleasure to climb with; she’s kind, funny, strong, and supportive. The four friends arranged to climb Cloud Tower together as two parties of two. Emily onsighted the previously mentioned 11D pitch as part of the first pair of climbers. She brought up her partner, and they began to converse with the party below them. Em then had the pleasure of watching the next party struggle up the pitch, after having insinuated that the pitch couldn’t be that difficult since she had done so well with it.

A few springs ago, I was climbing in Skaha Bluffs with my good friend Jeremy. We began at a moderate crag, full of climbers. After a warm up climb or two, Jeremy set his sights on a 10A on the left hand side. It was occupied by a group of three, who were stuck at the crux of the route. Jeremy and I made our way over and asked if they were willing to let us try the route when they were finished. After the party failed many times to pull the roof maneuver, they relinquished the route to Jeremy. Jeremy fell many times at the roof, and admitted defeat. The man who had previously been incapable of climbing this roof sighed and reached for an old carabiner to leave behind, without giving any consideration to me, as a small blonde woman, and my ability or even desire to try. 

Years ago, I dated a talented, ambitious, and renowned alpinist. I was reluctant at best to climb with him, despite the fact it is a driving passion in both of our lives. I was unwilling to allow my individual reputation to become entwined with his. He was a more prominent member of our community than I at the time, and I knew that anything we accomplished together would be ascribed to him. In fact, years later in 2015, we worked on a new route together in the Bugaboos, and people would consistently refer to to it, in my presence, as ‘Jonny’s route’.  

Climbing has once offered me a community that made me feel accepted and supported, but experience has ended my honeymoon period. I now understand that my ambitions come from my personal motivation, and in order to work for myself, I need to do what I want, when I want to, and not be influenced by outside judgements of my abilities or goals. That’s freedom.

As I prepared to write this article I asked a number of women if they think that women get more harshly critiqued than men. The unanimous answer was yes. Our bodies get critiqued like objects, we have to present the right image in addition to being the right age, too much makeup is a bad thing but not enough clothes and a tattoo makes you a tramp, and we may even get judged for a silly thing we say on top of a mountain above 10,000ft.

One thing I’ve heard multiple times within the past few years is that how a woman’s looks can attract or turn away sponsors. Being fast doesn’t always cut it. A little after winning Western States 100, Pam Smith approached a certain company about a sponsorship. After getting no response from the team manager she asked a friend at the company if he knew anything. The response, “You didn’t fit the image they were looking for.” Pam said she isn’t “sure what that means- “young, fast, hot?”, but she wasn’t it.  

As I discussed clothes, or lack there of, with a friend, she brought up the point that while women may get comments like “she only does that for attention” it’s a different story for men. “I’ve never heard anyone say the same thing about male runners who run half-naked. Have you ever heard someone say that Tony (Krupicka) does it “for the ladies”.. Really, it’s no one’s damn business how much or little clothes anyone wears or why they do or don’t dress in the way they do.” I couldn’t agree more.

While the sports fan in me is frustrated of the damage that the negative comments and critiquing of women has on women’s sports as a whole, the most harm is often directly done to the women on the receiving end of the judgement. It’s easy to get caught up in the climbing world and think that it’s a huge community, but the truth is that it’s pretty darn small. When a comment is specifically made about someone, there’s a good chance that person is going to see it. As much as I would like to believe that hurtful words don’t mean much, most of us know that it’s often the hurtful comments that stick with us the longest.

I was once told that the comments we make about people aren’t actually a reflection of them, but instead a reflection of us. While I feel that is true, the last thing I want to do is make someone feel guilty for having previously made an insensitive comment. After all, to be human is to make mistakes and sometimes say some really idiotic things. I’ve been there and it’s been immediately followed by a guilt hangover, but I acknowledged it and I’d like to think I’m a better person now. I think we’d all rather be the person who makes someone feel good by our comments instead of being the person who hurts someone’s feelings, or as Kaci mentioned, starts that “downward spiral” for someone.

There’s at least one person out there is thinking “these women just need thicker skin.” While I truly admire people who are unscathed by harsh comments, I’ve witnessed first hand that being sensitive can be a strength and huge asset to the world. For instance, because the women mentioned in this article know how horrible it feels to be hurt by people’s comments, they actively seek to make other people feel good while building a stronger sense of support and community for women. In a way, for women not born with thick skin, I think choosing to stay sensitive is part of what makes them so brave. It would be easy to simply think “People can be real jerks sometimes!” and then build up a defensive wall. However, it often takes a lot more courage to stay true to being a sensitive person. The realization that kindness and empathy can stem from that sensitivity, can actually be a huge asset to the world.

Asking for a climbing community where all women feel safe, supported, and encouraged is a tall order. Some may even say it’s idealistic. Maybe it is, but isn’t it worth a shot? All of us know how climbing in the beauty of nature has changed our lives for the better, so don’t we want more women to experience that? Can climbing be that sport where women learn to feel truly comfortable in their own skin? What if for every negative comment, there were ten positive comments? Could that make people think twice before saying something hurtful? I sure would have liked for that guy who asked, “How do you run so fast weighing so much?” to have been immediately confronted by 10 women. He’d never say anything like that again! So call me a dreamer, but there is one thing I’m sure of…there’s nothing more powerful than a group of women, along with supportive men, that come together for a common cause.

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