Girls, Women, and Climbing: Part II

Cover photo by Rachel Glass

The conversation to follow “Women, Girls, and Climbing” proved charged in some moments. I wrote the article with the intent to open communication channels between women and girls about the female body, competition, and climbing. My perspective offered a few reasons why a division between youth and adult climbers might better empower women athletes. I knew to get this otherwise hush-hush topic out into the open, I needed to start the conversation with an opinion.

That being said, I apologize if my article came off as dismissing the hard work youth climbers put into their sport. This was not my intention, but it was the potential affect. It was an invaluable growing experience for me as writer, and a woman, to witness the shortcomings of language and perspective. There is intention, and there is affect, and the two, in both written and verbal conversation, don’t always align. We can only hope to learn and grow from communication gaps.

Since putting my opinion out there, I’ve listened, observed, and absorbed the conversation to follow. The voices to chime in were from parents and coaches, competitors, and recreational climbers. Although the conversation happened within one community, the topics, insights, and overall heart that came through offer lessons expanding beyond Montana. I have thus decided to write a follow-up piece summarizing some of these invaluable takeaways.

“The fact the conversation was hush-hush before is mean-spirited, anti-feminist bullshit.”

This came from a woman fired up. She radiated with passion. And I totally agree with what she said. I think people were scared to publicly point out differences in a woman’s versus a girl’s body because the topic of a "woman’s body" has been hush-hush for centuries.

It was a no-no, shameful subject that has frankly left us, as females, in a weird disconnect with our bodies. I also think it was mean-spirited. Mean spirits are results of wounds unhealed. That is why I brought out to the open how the body of a girl on the edge of puberty could potentially bring forth the body-image issues a woman often inherits from our culture.

On the flip, I could have potentially brought forth body-image issues of girls by emphasizing the differences between a woman athlete and an athlete beginning puberty. As a thirteen and fourteen year old, I felt way too skinny. At one point I was 5’10” and 95 pounds. I was insecure about being an exceptionally thin basketball player. Teammates called me Bones and one coach even called me Ethie—short for Ethiopian. (Which blows my mind today, considering how inappropriate and politically incorrect this man’s behavior would be considered.)

I wish I could go back to my thirteen-year-old self and say, “You are right where you need to be. Enjoy every stage of your female life, because every stage is rich and powerful in its own way.” But body-talk was either a joke or an awkward subject.

Rather than being a hush-hush conversation today, I hope all females can talk openly about how the body changes throughout life and how these changes ask us to redefine our relationship to our sports, again and again. As climbing coach Taylor Fragomeni wrote in the conversation, “I would love to see [the changes puberty creates] become a more accepted conversation so that we don’t see girls resorting to eating disorders and self loathing (or quitting the sport altogether) because their bodies are doing a perfectly normal and natural thing.”

Which brings me to another great point made in the conversation, also offered by Taylor: “The highest value skill that the successful climber needs is adaptability, both mentally and physically.”

One of many wonderful things about climbing is how a diversity of body types can make a climb work. This was evident in finals. Five females, spanning three generations, each with her own unique set of circumstances, strengths, and weaknesses, climbed hard routes to earn her spot in finals. Each climber figured out how to make the routes work for her body, and this problem solving was the result of training hard and climbing smart.

I see this all the time while climbing with my friends. I’m usually much taller than my lady pals, and so the way I climb a route ends up being different than the way my friend will. On a route that feels scrunchy for me, I have to figure out how to keep my hips close to the wall, which usually involves flagging. For my friends on reachy routes, they usually use intermediate holds and high steps.

One of my friends, while talking about the article, said she, as a relatively short climber, found girl climbers inspirational. If they can find a way up a route with big moves, she can’t use the excuse that “it’s too reachy.” She’s inspired to work harder, get stronger, and use thoughtful technique to pull through the longer reaches.

Climbing invites each athlete to use her body in creative ways. Some routes may favor taller people. Some routes may have lots of crimps smaller people find easier to hold. The common denominator between all climbers is the fact talent takes dedication.

There have been times when I get off a route and a spectator makes a comment implying my height was the reason I successfully climbed it. I’m like, yeah, it had nothing to do with the technique and strength I’ve been honing in for years. The same applies to small climbers. You can be over six feet tall or under a hundred pounds and the advantages of these body types would remain dormant unless cultivated through hard work.

Bottom line: there’s no short cut to talent.

Adaptability can also relate to life circumstances. As I wrote in the article, adulting can often leave time and energy limited. Despite all the fluctuations in my work, body, and larger life, my passion for climbing remains constant. I’ve always found a way to fit in climbing, even if it’s only one day a week. As they say: if there’s a will, there’s a way.

We can spend hours deliberating over which climber has it “easier.” Short, tall, or medium sized? An established career to pay for bigger trips, or random gigs that allow for more free time? Being a young athlete or an experienced one? Living near a state-of-the-art training facility, world-class destination, or both? Genetically gifted or exceptionally motivated?

But I’m not sure if this deliberation serves anyone, because circumstances are perpetually changing. Relativity is the only constant. What’s most important, I think, is to keep the lens close. What are my goals? How can I achieve them? The sport is individualized by nature, with goals ranging from winning the World Cup to having fun with friends.

One of the commenters wrote, “If anyone [has] a desire to be [her] best self in a sport, [she] has to forget the sentence ‘I’m different.’” Maybe another way to think of this is to say, if anyone has a desire to be her best self, she has to embrace her differences and look for ways to adapt.

How many challenges a climber needs to overcome is individualized, and yet there are some commonalities within peer groups, which is why I think some climbing events, such as USAC sanctioned competitions, have age categories. In youth categories, a nine-year-old will have a different body and emotional tool-kit than a fifteen-year old. The same is true between a thirteen-year-old and a twenty-three-year-old.

“Girls, Women, and Climbing” examined how the differences between youth and adult climbers might merit division in competition. Yet it is here, with the word “competition,” where I’ve found the most powerful takeaway from the community discussion.

What has come through in the conversation is how competition may be a misleading word. Rather than thinking of local climbing competitions as “pitting” females athletes against each other, we may be better off shifting the rhetoric into a celebration of local female athletes—regardless of age, regardless of circumstances—being their strongest selves.

Looking back at former competitions in Montana, women’s enrollment has always been low. This may be because women climbers in the area, (myself included), focus more on outdoor routes than indoor events. It may be because women have felt stressed at competitions for reasons having little or nothing to do with youth. It may be because women are uncomfortable or disinterested with competition in general. It may be all or none of these reasons.

By shifting the rhetoric away from competition and into celebration, both at indoor events and in the sport at large, everyone may feel better empowered. This was the primary question, after all: do competitions empower both girls and women?

Taylor wrote, “I feel that if we can all try to live up to empowering each other (regardless of age) through positive vibes, encouragement, and good sportsmanship, the female climbing community would be much better off.” She also invited women climbers to recognize that they are role models to girls, whether they know it or not. “Here we are,” she wrote, “having gone through all these swift and immense bodily changes that they have not fully faced yet, still climbing hard, still trying hard, still having fun, and still (hopefully) acting in a positive and honorable and inclusive way.”

It can be weird or even hard to view yourself as a role model, especially if you feel like you still have self-work to do. People of all genders encounter body shaming on a regular basis and this requires continuous maintenance of self-care and love. We navigate stories of being “too this” or “not enough that.” Climbing has been a way I’ve come to know and love my body. I’m constantly learning to embrace my unique physique and keep my thoughts positive.

We’re asked—maybe even tasked—to cultivate love and respect for ourselves, despite what cultural narratives may tell us to believe. As woman, this work is done for ourselves and to be role models for the next generation of women—for girls. Climbing, including competitions, offers a way to continue the self-empowerment work together. If we shift the mindset away from girls versus women, or women versus women, we can make celebration and thus empowerment the primary goals together.  

I loathe confrontation; it literally makes me ill. Yet sometimes it’s necessary. I feel we have a better understanding of one another from this conversation, and as females and climbers of all genders, we can move forward with greater resiliency born from deeper empathy and respect for one another. Thank you to all who offered your vulnerability and wisdom. I’m a better writer, athlete, and woman for it.

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