The Shape of a Climber: body image in rock-climbing
By Genevive Walker
Moments before being wheeled into the operating room, I look down at my chest that has freshly drawn Sharpie marks all over it, and I think to myself, "Am I making the right decision?" I’ve wanted to get breast implants for the past ten years, but now that I’m here, doubts are flooding my head. "Will this make me happy? Am I happy? Am I strong enough to handle the judgement and comments from my family and friends? Am I doing this for the right reason? Is there a right reason?" I've dealt with self-doubt and second guessing my abilities and decisions my whole life, but this feels different. Bigger. Somehow, I've made this $8000 decision that will undoubtedly have a huge impact on my life, and could potentially have lasting feelings of shame and regret.
Body awareness, your body’s ability to recognize itself in space through the information our senses, muscles, and joints send to the brain, starts to form throughout early childhood. As we get older, external environments begin to impact us more. Through our observations of these externalities, our body image - the mental representation we create about ourselves - starts to form and is heavily influenced by many factors, including family, friends, hobbies, life experiences, etc. It may or may not coincide with the reality of how one actually appears to others.
Growing up, I was always overweight, but it never really bothered me. I was an active kid, participating in sports and always playing outside, but I loved food. In the eighth grade, the image I had of myself began to change when I started to recognize my weight and assign emotional connections to it. I was told I would naturally lose the weight in highschool, but that never happened. I developed negative feelings about my weight and began to blame myself for the condition of my body. I started to constantly compare myself to others which led to a distorted perception of my own body and low self esteem. I dealt with these feelings by drinking, experimenting with various drugs, and slowly developed an eating disorder which continued through college.
I was introduced to climbing by a boyfriend in college. After we broke up, I continued going to the local gym on my own, connected with a great group of friends, and grew as a climber through mentors that continued to push me. Through my sense of belonging to a community, combined with the mental and physical challenge, my love of climbing grew. I was becoming motivated to become a stronger climber.
I started to realize the impact on my performance that years of drug use and bulimia had. I noticed it through the tiredness, bloating, hot flashes, lightheadedness, dizzy spells, and the dreaded tooth decay. One summer day, I fainted on an easy walk with some friends. After it happened a few more times, I realized how much of a beating my body was taking. If I wanted to continue rock climbing, I needed to make some major changes in my life immediately. It was a slow, difficult, and painful lesson to learn, but I came to the realization that I am not invincible and deserve more than I was giving myself.
From here, my obsession for climbing really started to take form. I had finally found something that was healthy and constantly encouraged me to become a better version of myself. In my eyes, climbing had saved my life, and I felt that I owed it my full commitment. The majority of my time was split between work and climbing. I spent most of my free time at the climbing gym or the crag.
My strength increased and progress evolved until I hit a plateau. I started to reevaluate my process and began looking to others for advice. I noticed the strong women around me were thin, lean, and full of muscle. I was proud to have overcome purging but knew I needed to do more if I was going to “level up”. So instead, I started to restrict calories, attempted extreme diets, and incorporated strict food regimes. I wasn’t purging and finally eating healthy, so I didn’t see anything wrong with it.
The media also plays a huge role in the perception of what a “climber” is. As much as diversity within climbing continues to increase, what is portrayed in the media isn't really reflecting this. As I looked through magazines and searched online for climbing resources, I was surrounded by beautiful, tall and lean, white pro climbers sending things left and right. I started questioning myself and wondering if I could ever be a "real" climber. I definitely didn’t look like this image I saw, and I never would. So I thought, maybe this isn’t for me.
Over the years, the same thoughts of self doubt have crept back into my mind. I've gone through many seasonal tides - highs of hitting milestones, seeing progress, and great successes, but with the highs come lows, feelings full of doubt, exclusivity, and unworthiness.
Two years ago, I met a friend who connected me to a network of women climbers from wildly varying backgrounds, all with different stories, exposing me to a more diverse community full of women of different shapes, sizes and colors, supporting one another through different avenues of encouragement and motivation. This was when my journey of self discovery really began.
What I’m learning is that climbing doesn’t fix everything. The same issues and insecurities we have in “regular” life present themselves in climbing as well. Many of us, regardless of gender, use climbing in a meditative way to stay present, but once we step down and untie, the flood of emotion continues to drown us again.
What can we, as a community, do to combat these unrealistic expectations that can eventually lead to unhealthy practices? Representation is one way to help the issue. Climbing can be very intimidating for newcomers, especially when they don’t feel like they belong in the space or have others to relate to. Reflecting and representing the continued growth of diversity within the sport through media outlets, industry jobs, and policy making positions will help change the narrative and make the sport more inclusive. Opening more dialogue around topics like body image is another way to tackle deeply rooted issues. My eating disorder and low self esteem made me feel like a loser and a failure. I allowed something to control me when my body is the one thing I should have control over. I hid my issues for years and tried to relegate the negativity to my subconscious. The problem is that those emotions eventually resurface, usually two fold, and develop into bigger problems down the road. Having a space to share our struggles and experiences with others would help combat the pressure to suppress those emotions and open up dialogue around solutions.
I thought about getting breast augmentation for ten years before going through with it in April. Not only did the lack of resources about climbing and performance delay my decision, but the stigma around plastic surgery weighed heavily. The fear of being judged and seen as “weak” lead to silence and an internal struggle that could’ve been avoided. I shared my story a couple weeks after surgery and realized many other women in our community went through a similar experience, were interested in learning more, or shared similar feelings and emotions around body image.
If the community can bring body image to the forefront, more conversation will continue to form, and we can work together to combat these unrealistic expectations that we chase. Climbing isn’t invincible to the issues that surround other sports and once we recognize that we can squash those perceptions and work towards a more inclusive community.
About the author:
Genevive began climbing back in 2012 when she lived in New York. Her first taste of climbing was a night climb in the Shawangunk Mountains (The Gunks).
Learning to climb on trad outside instead of the gym gave Genevive a strong foundation and head space that allowed her to push the limits over the years. Moving to Rumney, NH in 2015 provided immediate access to the outdoors further fueling her passion and excitement. Fast-forward to purchasing Honda Element, and a spontaneous solo road trip around the States. In addition, Genevive spent a great deal of time in Southeast Asia and Mexico to experience different cultures and styles of climbing.
In 2018, Genevive made a permanent pit stop in Colorado shortly after meeting her now fiance. The same year she began pushing her limits and ticked off her first 13 (Bigger Dog, 13b), with a handful to follow. Last year she also placed second in the female category for the most number of pitches in 24 hours (177 pitches) in the competition called Horseshoe Hell in Arkansas. Since then she’s been working with Space Below Your Feet, a female-owned guiding company, as a certified Single Pitch Instructor guide, and also teaching climbing and technical skills in different clinics.