She told me that because I chose to be half-naked in an offwidth, I was setting a standard for all girls. She said, “I think it sucks that you’ve got to be half-naked for people to pay attention to your pictures because you don’t. What you’re doing is cool—but heck, if they can get a photo of a chick doing something cool half-naked, then (duh) that one’s better.”
“Congrats, but come on—offwidth in a sports bra?”
I came back from my climb, breathlessly excited about a route I’d finally sent when I found these messages. My pride slowly disappeared and I felt embarrassed, my gut twisted in feelings of sadness and disappointment. I slowly worked the knots out as I let each comment sit with me for a few days. Almost three weeks later, I’m still dwelling on all of this, and as I try to record my thoughts, the knots have returned three times the size.
It obviously makes me uncomfortable. As much of an incredibly short-sighted comment as it was, and as much as it deserves to be ignored, I still think that the topic can’t be. I went back and forth between feeling like I had a right to defend myself and thinking “I shouldn’t have to defend myself!” I kept silent day after day, just thinking about what was said. I made attempts to try and look at it from every possible angle. I discussed with some friends. I vented to others. Writing about it meant sitting down and going through what I was feeling, instead of sweeping it under the rug and moving on.
So I’m talking about it. Let’s get awkward.
I’d posted a picture on social media that Ron Nance had taken of me in July, during my first attempt at climbing Human Chew Toy, a 5.11d offwidth in Stone Fort, Tennessee. I was wearing a sports bra and jeans.
I’ve unapologetically posted many climbing photographs on social media channels; in some of them I’m wearing sports bras. Heck, some of them I’m wearing the occasional booty shorts. I could give you a rationalization for each—bras and shorts because it’s summer and my body runs hot (it’s a temperature thing) and always has. Skinny jeans in the winter because, quite frankly, I’ve never had the extra money to shell out for actual prAna climbing pants and these are simply the ones I’ve owned and climbed in for years. But wait, why do I have to rationalize what I’m wearing—to anybody?
So, let’s talk about slut shaming. What is slut shaming, exactly? According to Geek Feminism Wiki, it’s “the act of criticizing a woman for her real or presumed sexual activity, or for behaving in ways that someone thinks are associated with her real or presumed sexual activity.” Oxford Dictionary defines it as: “The action or fact of stigmatizing a woman for engaging in behavior judged to be promiscuous or sexually provocative.” I deeply wished I lived in a world where Oxford Dictionary didn’t have a definition for this term, but I do.
Slut shaming is the act of making any person feel guilty or inferior for certain sexual behaviors that deviate from “societal norms.” It’s possible we’ve all been on either end of this, unintentionally or maybe intentionally (especially during our adolescent years). Sometimes, we make comments to friends—especially when we think that the party mentioned might never hear it. It’s easy to judge. It’s easy to be the mean girl, or the jealous girl, and make a witty remark about someone else. Hopefully, as we get older, we all realize the weight that our words hold.
So why is this an issue?
Slut shaming is a problem because it has become such a pervasive role in young adult culture, and it’s becoming more and more commonplace. This was a personal experience, but its consequences go beyond that, to shaping societal views and conversation based around sexual harassment, rape and abuse. This has existed for YEARS and will continue to do so until we have more open and honest conversations about it. Real world issues can’t be fixed unless they’re addressed. This is nothing new, and with the rise in popularity of social media and Internet bullying and trolling, its continued growth scares me.
Let me clarify: You don’t have to use the actual word “slut” to be guilty of this act. You can be either male or female. You also don’t have to be someone who actually physically partakes in the act of sex to be a victim of slut shaming. You can be a virgin. You can be a climber. You can be an athlete or model or sex worker. You can be a student. You can be young or old. You can be a police officer, a teacher, a politician, nurse or mother. Women and men from all walks of life can be victims, whether it be a public or private insult.
And the thing is, this issue should interest all people because it affects every one of us. No person is excluded, regardless of how they dress. You don’t get a special immunity because you do or don’t dress a certain way.
If you have ever been cat-called walking down the street; if you have ever been or known someone who has been sexually harassed, assaulted or a rape victim; if you have requested access to birth control; if you have had or know someone who has had an abortion; BASICALLY IF YOU’RE HUMAN, you should be concerned about this.
When the “Climb Like a Girl” campaign came out and videos and blog rolls exploded onto the scene, I remember really liking what they had to say. I even used the hashtag “#likeagirl”. I remember seeing a comment along the lines of “I don’t necessarily need someone high-fiving me for being a climber AND a girl,” emphasizing the desire to be acknowledged as a climber first and foremost. I get that. I absolutely do. I think the message got lost a few times, but what the campaign was promoting was female power and prowess. They were never trying to diminish the capabilities of the female gender by segregating it. They were also not trying to bolster a woman’s capability by patronizing a man’s.
The point is, they were pushing people to look past a woman’s outfit and cleavage and butt to highlight her ability, her mental fortitude and her intelligence. There is such a moral panic over how women dress these days that it was a really nice campaign, brought a lot of people together and most importantly, gave younger generations of girls a new way to perceive life and themselves.
It’s a catch 22, isn’t it? As a female climber, we want to be respected for who we are and not what we look like—and ESPECIALLY not for what we wear (or don’t wear). But if we appear a certain way to the public, we run the risk of being judged. Heck, let’s face it. As humans, we ALL run the risk of being judged the moment we step outside of our homes/apartments/vans and into the world.
It’s inevitably going to happen and with that said, if it has to, I want to be judged on the thoughts I have, the words I speak, and how I the treat people who come into my life. Judge me based on how I greet the person who hands me my cup of morning coffee or how I speak of my ex’s when they’re not around or how I treat my closest friends. I don’t even want to be judged on the grades that I climb; judge me on my determination. Don’t judge me on whether or not I failed or succeeded, but judge me based on how I handled that failure or success.
And definitely don’t judge me on what I may or may not be wearing that day. That fabric has nothing to do with the fabric of who I am.
I used to not have very thick skin. Growing up (and I know that so many of you will relate to this), I’ve always been self-conscious of my body. I have always been short, and what I lacked in height I certainly did not make up for up or downstairs (ask me today if I care about having small boobs—I can pass through the squeeze on The Warden much easier than anyone else I’ve seen). My hair has always lacked a style or definition and has always just done whatever it wants to. My eyes were too small. My teeth, too crooked. My legs, too beefy. All of these things are still true—and the only difference is, I don’t care. I don’t care what my physical body looks like to anybody else, because their opinion should not matter.
It’s easy to say that we feel that way—that we’re stronger than words, that we’re rubber and they’re glue, that it doesn’t matter what people say—but then to actually feel that way. God, it takes so long to get to that place. For me, it was well over two decades. And some days, I have to start all over again at square one.
But my skin’s a little thicker these days.
And, to tell you the truth, it wasn’t until I found climbing that I started building that confidence in myself. That was only within the last five years. When my sense of inner self started getting stronger and louder, I stopped caring so much about what I looked like to other people. I think that’s stronger than climbing 5.13 offwidth—in a sports bra or without.
Climbing itself is already such a gift. And then, it gave me a new toughness, the backbone I’ve always secretly wished I had. I should be able to climb in whatever I feel the most comfortable in without worrying about what other people are going to say or think. What other people are going to think or say is their own prerogative. What I’m going to wear is mine. You want to climb in some bootylicious booty shorts? Then go right ahead; I don’t care that you do it because it’s comfortable or you’re trying to market yourself for a brand or because you plain and simple forgot a pair of pants. You don’t have to explain those things to me or anybody else. Wear a bikini, if you want to. Send a bunch of routes in your underwear.
Personally, I think that life is too short to care what people do with their shirts.
For a moment, I had felt a sense of self was robbed from me, but then I remembered that nobody can take those things from me unless I allow them to. If there’s anything I’m going to flaunt out there in this world, it’s confidence, because I hope that that’s what women see first and that’s what sets the bar.
“Please don’t misunderstand, because I have a healthy self esteem. (Some might say too healthy!) I, however, am aware of this weird relationship that women have with self esteem. Somehow, you’re supposed to love yourself but just not too much, otherwise you’re full of yourself. You should be proud of your body, but don’t you dare show it off otherwise you’re a whore. We are told to be two different women and it’s hard to be either.” – Tatiana Cicchelli
Cover photograph courtesy of Irene Yee