Taking up Space in a Sport that Wants Me to be Small

Written by Ruggette's Platform Consultant & Ambassador Emmie Hine           

             “You naughty girl,” the man with the single quickdraw on his harness sneered as I righted the water bottle I’d accidentally knocked over. I froze for a split second, then, muttering something about knocking all of them over, moved as far away from him as I could in the small lead cave. As I tied in for my next climb, I had to ask if his line was going to cross mine. “No,” he said. “I want to see you do it, darling.” I gritted my teeth and pulled onto the 7a, trying to find my flow state, but my skin crawled as his eyes raked up my back.

            Still, I flashed it. 

            The next time I saw him at the gym, he didn’t say anything to me.

            A year ago, that French grade would have meant nothing to me. I was fortunate to spend my junior year studying in the U.K., getting exposed to new gyms, new crags, and a new climbing culture (and some school, I guess), mostly through the Oxford University Mountaineering Club (OUMC). Many things, from the trad ethos to the gritstone, were very different. Other things were unfortunately similar, and some of my experiences have thrown similar elements of U.S. climbing culture into harsh relief.

            In the spring, after months of work by Barbora, one of the wonderful OUMC committee members, the club held its first Ladies’ Night (open to all femme-identifying climbers) as part of a This Girl Can campaign by the Oxford University Sports Federation. It was the first because there was a significant amount of opposition from male members of the club when the idea was proposed. Objections started with “women in the club don’t feel oppressed,” progressed to “no one will show up,” and finally deteriorated into “but it’ll cut into my climbing time.”

            Therein lies the heart of the issue. Men don’t want womxn to take up space, especially at the climbing wall, and this doesn’t just apply to hosting womxn-only events. I feel this every time a man cuts in front of me—often without a glance, like he just assumed that I didn’t want to get on that boulder anyway—and every time a man assumes that my male climbing partner climbs harder than me. Often this assumption is coupled with the assumption that we are dating; one man nodded sympathetically after my friend fell off a boulder I had just climbed and said, “Don’t worry, man, my girlfriend also climbs harder than me.” Womxn climbing hard hurts male egos, so they try their best to diminish our accomplishments, to make them—and us—seem smaller and less powerful than we are.

            One prominent example of this was seen in Outside’s article titled “2017 Was the Year of Women’s Climbing.” The article extolling the historic accomplishments of Margo Hayes, Anak Verhoeven, and Angela Eiter also discussed the immediate downgrading that came after their groundbreaking climbs, a phenomenon seen as far back as Miriam O’Brien’s ascent of the Aiguille du Grépon in 1934. Womxn pushing boundaries is often coupled with men pushing right back, and so we see men trying to diminish their accomplishments, in the process preserving male dominance of climbing—and their egos—as womxn are sidelined.

            Another groundbreaking moment for climbing came with the release of Free Solo, which won an Oscar and brought climbing into mainstream cultural discussion. Amidst the breathtaking shots of El Capitan and nerve-racking unprotected moves, one moment in particular struck a chord in me. When discussing his girlfriend, Sanni, Alex Honnold says, “Having the girlfriend in the van is awesome. She’s cute and small and livens the place up a bit, doesn’t take up too much room.” What’s great is having her “in the van”—not on the wall. Though they do climb together, Sanni’s primary role in the film is the girlfriend on the ground cheering him on. By confining his description of her to how she fits in his #vanlife, Sanni is literally reduced to the physical space she takes up, cementing her role as the domestic partner there to support Honnold’s accomplishments. This uncomfortable focus on how her physical body serves to her male partner’s benefit is reflective of a culture that reduces womxn to our bodies’ physical appearance, when the focus should be on what they enable us to do.

            This toxic culture has concrete effects on the community. In May of 2018, it was revealed that Joe Kinder cyber-bullied Sasha DiGuilian until she was forced to publicly call him out to end it. Joe focused many of his posts on body-shaming Sasha. The screenshotted post from Joe’s page that Sasha shared, where she is Photoshopped to look heavier and thus mocked for not having the stereotypical outdoorsy build, is a concrete example of the entitlement male climbers feel they have to female climbers’ bodies, one also seen in GQ’s infamous climbing photo shoot. It featured three named male climbers, Daniel Woods, Jimmy Chin, and Sam Elias, as well as several scantily-clad female models, labeled “a couple of cute friends.” In the photos, they are watching the men climb, lounging in vans, and (most perplexingly) being sprayed by a hose while topless. In these images, womxn—physically small, slim womxn—exists to serve male climbers’ aesthetic preferences, to be the hangers-on, cheering from the sidelines and making them feel strong. There was backlash from the climbing community, but GQ stood by their story. However, this attitude is actively harmful because it perpetuates the view of womxn solely as eye candy throughout the climbing community. Towards the end of my sophomore year of college, I went to the gym with another member of our team and his younger brother, who was on a college tour. At one point during the car ride, the brother began talking about how he had been getting into climbing and how much he was enjoying it. “One of the best things about climbing,” he said, “is that girls look super hot when they climb.”

            “That’s not why we climb,” I responded, and tried to explain that most girls don’t want to be ogled when they climb; we just want to send in peace. However, he couldn’t conceive that something he saw as desirable (tons of girls checking him out while he crushed) could be unwelcome when the roles were flipped, that it shows that when womxn are in all-gender climbing spaces, we are being demeaned and reduced to the appearance of our bodies, while men get to focus on how hard they’re sending. That whole gym session, I was worrying that he was staring at my butt every time I topped out, and I climbed terribly.

            The gym is a place I go to feel strong, but men are determined to make me feel weak.

            I climb to decompress and feel strong—for myself, not for a man (or a woman, for that matter). I want to be totally focused on the top of the wall. I don’t have the mental energy to wonder if the men below me are rooting for me to top out because they want to see me succeed, or if they want to see my ass as I clamber over the top, and what will come after—if I have to turn down one of them when he asks for my number, what he’ll do after—if he’s the type of man who hurls his chalk bag 30 feet across a boulder field when he doesn’t send, what will he do when I tell him no? I want to be free from concerns about male behavior, but even when the men are behaving, I still have to worry about what will happen if they don’t. Some womxn face even more layers of worry–womxn of color face a heightened level of fetishization. It is imperative that womxn’s spaces take their needs into account, and that there be spaces dedicated to climbers of color. There’s a reason why, until June of 2020, there was a crag called “Slavery Wall” in Ten Sleep Canyon, Wyoming. A route called “Towelhead” in Clear Creek Canyon. When climbing is dominated by white men, it’s reflected in every facet of the culture, at great detriment to womxn and climbers of color. We should be having a conversation about spaces for climbers of color as well, and while it’s not the place of white climbers to lead that discussion, I plan to support and amplify the voices of climbers of color and ask other white climbers to do the same

            Physical safety is a foundational reason why affinity climbing spaces are important. There is safety in numbers. I know that womxn won’t make creepy comments about my ass when they think I can’t hear. Beyond the most obvious instances of harassment, though, womxn’s climbing spaces are supportive, positive, fun places to be. When womxn don’t have to worry about men’s behavior—when we are permitted to take up space—there is sorority, there is encouragement, and there are badass ladies sending the gnar. Womxn need a space where we can climb and relax without having to worry about how to politely ask the man spewing beta below us to shut up, or think about how to deflect the next guy who asks for our number, or shrug it off when men dismiss a climb a woman has just flashed as “soft.”

            Two terms after the first Ladies’ Night, the OUMC held another, as well as a womxn-only day meet. Both were a wonderful time, and the men on the club finally seem to have gotten on board after a survey made it overwhelmingly clear that womxn and other underrepresented groups do not feel welcome in the club. The thing is, “ladies’ nights” aren’t enough. You can’t change a culture by dividing it in half; though womxns’ nights are a wonderful refuge from an often-toxic culture, the toxicity is still there when we come back the next day. For things to truly change, we need to interrogate the toxic aspects of climbing culture, and truly commit to change. When prominent climbers like Honnold demean their girlfriends, or when yet another article undermining womxn’s accomplishments is released, or when sexist or racist language infiltrates the crag, climbers of all genders and races need to step up and call it out. The same applies to all affinity spaces in climbing. In the meantime, I’ll be crushing with my girlfriends every Wednesday night back home in Chicago (when my gym reopens, that is).

            Ladies’ nights aren’t everything. But they’re a start.


  • Sam

    @Katja, just because you have never dealt with sexist behavior from male climbers doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Emmie is sharing with us her experiences with gender-related harassment and discrimination in the climbing world and suggesting that we do something about it. How is that sexist? She’s not posting this to hate on men, she says herself that all she wants to do is send in peace. When someone’s harassing you while you’re climbing it’s really hard to do that.

  • Katja Broadbent

    Hi Emmie,
    I’m sorry and surprised to hear that you don’t enjoy climbing around men, or oumc men. I guess rhat you may dismiss my opinion because I’m old and haven’t climbed at e.g. Brookes in the last three years. However, before that I have climbed regularly at Brookes for the last 22 years. There has regularly been the occasional person who likes to give beta, but I just tell them I don’t like it. No one has ever been unwelcoming and it’s not as though I am a meek uncompetitive type at all. If someone needs encouraging, I encourage. If someone’s a rude idiot, I try to show them up. All perfectly fair and unrelayed to gender. I have met many great, supportive climbers through oumc of both genders and I find your article very sexist and blanket insulting to men. And, I am happy to say, that at the sport crags of the south west, and classic trad crags of the lakes over the summer, I continue to see many male female pairings about in which the grade that someone climbs has nothing to do with their gender. I also see plenty of trios, groups, same gender pairs, and lots of supportive language and body language. No one I have spoken to, likes the term ‘womxn’ however. Who are you trying to include with this word? It just sounds patronising and difficult to say.

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