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

40 thoughts

  1. You go Kathy. Seriously who cares what anyone looks like? All I noticed was a bad-ass, kind and confident Lady who I would love to climb with one day. I think the real standard that was set was something along the lines of..”It goes, boys” 😉 .

  2. Nothing should be able to deflate the standard set by well placed confidence, concrete ambition, and gentle humble-ness (is that a word?) regardless of our biological and social identifications. To view others as well as ourselves as the accumulation of such actions and thoughts that stem from the first mentioned set of factors above should be what stimulates progressive personal growth and growth in the community.

    I just discovered this, you, via my friend’s share on his FB feed and you know what? I absolutley love it. I still consider myself a baby climber and having just come back from an injury and a small but seemingly endless 2-month break, I am cautiously throwing myself at it again. So please do continue everything that you do because I love it all; all the clothes, none of the clothes, ALL the confidence, ALL the goals, ALL the laughter and life.

    Pssst: Baking is gods-send and I wouldn’t be able to go through life as well without it. This baking-dog-climbing combo thing, it hits home in just the right spot. :3

  3. I suspect the author missed the intention of comments made about climbing an OW in a sports bra. I imagine I would receive comments if I were to climb an OW in a tank top. She must really have thick skin.

    1. Agreed. OW with skin showing regardless of your gender = ouch!!

      One of my favorite climbing videos is Emily Harrington freeing Golden Gate on El Cap. She spent 2.5 hours climbing the monster OW pitch with a long sleeve shirt on and she had huge holes in her elbows and shoulders. OW climbers don’t mess around!

      I’m worried that some people are too sensitive to meaningless comments. Is it really empowering to women to always look at everything through such a gendered lens? I’m a girl, and I would still criticize “gym bros” with their shirts off, Solutions on, and beanies on… And it’s not because of sexism; it’s style.

      If I climbed an OW in a sports bra, and somebody asked me about it, I wouldn’t be offended… I’d likely say, “YES THAT WAS A DUMB IDEA, PLEASE GET ME A FEW BANDAIDS!!” 🙂

      1. I think what needs to be understood here is that climbing an offwidth in a sports bra is a sign of mastery. Depending on talent level, not everyone will climb it like they are trying to tear all their skin off. Kathy crushes it in whatever she wears. She’s enjoying herself. That’s what it’s all about.

  4. I love this. I have been struggling with this myself as a lady climber, and you hit the nail on the head. Keep doing what you do!!

  5. Thanks for writing. It’s important! If you were a guy and didn’t wear a shirt at all, no one would have commented. I look forward to the day where we can celebrate our strength, ability and for being kickass, beautiful women. It’s an inspiration to be all that we can be as women. I’m 52 and still working on all of the above.

  6. Kathy,

    Thank you for this insightful, eloquent, and hits-home post. As a fellow female who loves getting outdoors, I appreciated your honesty and thoughts on this issue that sadly is becoming more and more prevalent. Sometimes I catch myself wondering “is this top too revealing, will I be judged because of these new pants that are form fitting?….” and I usually shove those thoughts out the window on the way to my next adventure. Now, I can revisit your message and feel more in solidarity around this issue 🙂

    If it is ok, I would love to share the link for this article on my website.

  7. Hi Kathy. I just wanted to take a moment to tell you that I think your pics are stunning! Not only are they beautiful shots of a very daring and talented climber, they are also tasteful. I am a female climber myself and can totally appreciate the pics you post on all levels. I hate that for even one moment you were put in a position to question yourself. It seems the person you referred to as a “friend” isn’t that at all. A friend would come to you in private and expresse their concern, not publicly attack you. Please know there are people (both male and female) out here with the utmost respect for your abilities and look forward to more pics of your crushing talent. Leave that nonsense in 2015 and enter 2016 with every bit of self love you just wrote about!

  8. Linked here by a friend – I am an endurance athlete but a different sort, just wanted to applaud you and say how much I admire your strength and accomplishment and words, no matter what you wear. Keep on being awesome, please and don’t let the bastards grind you down. xx

  9. I think the whole issue is missed, no one is slut shaming or judging anyone. The issue is that a very good looking woman who is a mediocre climber at best can get sponsors and far more media attention then a ‘less pretty’ but more talented climber.
    It’s not just a female issue. An awkward introverted male climber who is stupidly strong might post a video of himself on some gnarly crimps but then some extroverted muscular male model climber swings on a jug and the public loves him.
    It might not even be just about the looks, for instance, some people just don’t like attention and can’t deal with people but they could be 20× more talented than a social media master who likes to post his breakfast contents all over the internet . Both considered professionals though one is just a professional billboard the other knows how to climb.

    1. So you’re saying that people who are better at marketing themselves are more likely to get attention? Have you watched the NFL these days? Sounds par for the course and makes sense from the sponsors’ perspective.

      Maybe she and other climbers, male and female, get more media attention from being attractive and wearing less clothing. Maybe it’s even intentional. Judging by this whole blog post, it’s not. But why does it even matter? If that’s the most comfortable outfit for someone or if taking their shirt off gives them that extra level of psyche, should that person feel guilty that they might get extra, “undeserved” media attention for it?

    2. I agree with these sentiments. For a long time, I didn’t notice the controversy of how female climbers were portrayed until my husband made fun of my Climber Women calendar.;) He pointed out how the women climbing should’ve be recognized and portrayed for their exceptional climbing skills… And how the pictures chosen of these women were often on climbs easy for them and often not even on the crux, rather they were good body shots. Thereafter, this opened my eyes to every picture that demonstrated a male climber screaming through hard technical moves, and soft female climbers effortlessly hanging on good holds (but looking good!). But could this be one and the same?? After all, as I woman, I will confess; most women are attracted to power.
      Nonetheless, it would be nice to feel as though female climbers were commonly recognized for their skills in the sport. Indeed, 5.11d offwidth is an applaudable accomplishment!!! No strings attached to that comment. I don’t care what you wear, girl!

      Annie Semmelroth

  10. Shut up stupid climber bitches! Ya’ll barely lead a 5.7 and then ya gotta RUN yer over-fit asses to the nearest coffee shop or the nearest group of (climber only) guys and brag about how you are now a ‘lead climber’…..then, 2 years later, after you realizes that no one gives a shit, you move back East to the Adirondaks (or where-the-fuck-ever) defeated and return to work a daddy’s hippie barn. At which point, of course, you spend the rest of your lives bragging about how you ‘went out West’ and became a lead climber. Climbing SUCKS!!! Also, climber chicks have ZERO sense of humor.

    1. Hey buddy, you sound a little pissed off in your reply. Most times when I’m attacked like this it’s from a guy with self esteem issues or a chauvinistic dick who hates Everyone. People are usually tearing others apart instead of building them up. Keep the Hater’Aid to yourself! Because Frankly , nobody here gives a *u*k about your negativity!
      Tree and Rock Climbing girls Rock!!

  11. Hi, i don’t know you but enjoy your climbing pic’s and yes duh if your looking great in the pics then shame on them jealous people
    keep on doing what you obviously love doing and block out the social negative that sadly goes with this social media
    you stronger than them simple fact x

  12. First, well written and congrats for the climb.
    I don’t completely understand this.
    I’ll try to leave the gender discussion outside, but first it needs to be acknowledge that sexism is a thing and most of this derogatory behaviors are targeted, sadly, at women.
    I think we all are being judged by what we say, what we think, as a climber for how hard we climb, as a student for how good our grades are, etc. As you said we always going to be judged. And I think we are going to be judged by what we wear because after all we wear things after conscious thinking.
    I will usually say people who’s posting pictures of themselves on social media, writing articles and/or commenting on those articles, care for what they’re showing.
    Best regards

  13. Kathy, you’re rad, whether naked or completely covered in lycra and athletic tape! Keep doing what you love and life will love you back, whether you are half naked or not!!!

  14. I love this read so much I wanted to comment!
    I am tree girl, 11 year female tree Climber. In the southern state of Florida! This post has taken an exact copy my inner soul for all to read! I hope all the girls out there trying to find the strength to stand up to judgemental humans read this! Climbing has changed my self esteem immensely! I wear bikinis on a daily, I take my shirt off at the end of a long day. I work certain jobs in my sportsbra if I want to! But I am not allowed to do so at the local brush dump…..I do Anyways!!!!
    Never Ever be ashamed to show your body or be yourself! Those sarcastic de-grading comments should roll right off your back! That’s all on them.. We need to stand up for girls , that it’s okay to be female , have a body and show it! You are not a whore! Your are a Beautiful Sister whose Confident and Fearless!!!
    Rock On Beautiful Girls!!!

  15. I absolutely get this!
    I am not great at any sport but I try… I love to get out there, climb, run, hike and whatever else pops up but I too get really hot and despite having that sports bra underneath I don’t have the confidence to remove the t-shirt I always wear over it!
    I have had three children, I’m in my late thirties and only discovered climbing two years ago – (I shouldn’t need to say I am only a size 8 and 5’3 as that shouldn’t matter but I got bullied for being small and was even told by some guy I had never met before that I had a boyish figure… So I get the comments you made about how you felt – too short, beefy thighs – all hit home for me! And yes, all the bullying and those comments are what influences your own body perceptions until we grow wiser and realise we can change that and those people were focusing on the exterior when it is the interior that matters x ) Basically I am still working on getting to that ‘I don’t care’ stage and reading this helped 🙂

  16. “Writing about it meant sitting down and going through what I was feeling, instead of sweeping it under the rug and moving on.”

    This. This is one of the reasons I love your blog and thoroughly enjoyed the couple of days we climbed together. Tackling hard stuff and getting real, both on the rock and just hanging out.

    Thank you for writing about the hard stuff that needs to be talked about.

  17. I feel the same way! This is great. I so dislike people taking offense to female climbers showing some skin. Men do it all the time (and no one complains there, nor should they), so why can’t we? I say if you’ve got an awesome body because you’re a climber and are comfy and proud of it, go ahead and post it! There will always be someone with a stick up their ass, but who cares. That’s not the standard we want anyway.

  18. A great post. On behalf of all women, climbers or otherwise, thank you for writing this. I regularly feel so hot in the summer that I need to take my top off and climb in my sports bra, and I never understood why that is a problem, just because I’m female! On that note, for some reason men who climb with their shirts off gets absolutely no stick for it. No one ever says they’re being slutty or sexual, it is just accepted that if it’s hot it’s OK to take your top off. And sometimes, just for the fun of it, at a bouldering gym, when it’s not even necessary.

  19. I live and so I am part of life. I try to be what my brain tells me is reasonable and outrageous. I find that hard to do at the same time, although I do enjoy trying. The spirit you bring to your life will always needle some, excite others, inspire and brighten most. The ones you make happy are who you give the time of day to, that’s who will make you happy. The others, kick their ass to the curb, don’t look back, never give a thought to them. “I once had a rose named after me and I was very flattered. But I was not pleased to read the description in the catalogue: no good in a bed, but fine up against a wall.” Eleanor Roosevelt

  20. That shame and embarrassment you feel when you realize that you are dressed inappropriately is called MODESTY. This is a good thing. Feminists say otherwise b/c they do not know the true dignity of women. I used to wear bikinis b/c that was the social norm and expectation as a teenager. Then I learned about the importance of modesty and that the mainstream is very wrong about many things. Anyway if anyone’s interested there’s a book called Dressing with Digital by Colleen Hammond that addresses this issue including feminism, which is a cause of the problem of immodesty…..end rant.

    1. Modesty is actually being unassuming or moderate in your estimation of your abilities – it has NOTHING to do with a societal restriction on dress that fuels sexism. I’m a proud feminist, and I have to say, comments like this are why sexism continues. The ‘shame’ and ’embarrassment’ are forced upon you. They aren’t actually present. As a woman/girl, you can be wearing long pants and a puffy jacket, and some a-hole can decide to objectify you. You can be wearing a school uniform required by your church, a tank top and shorts ’cause your doing hot yoga, the list goes on and on…

      If I want to be sexy, that’s my right. I can wear a sexy dress. If I want to be comfortable on a hot day at the beach and wear a bikini, I should be able to do that too… it has nothing to do with being immodest and everything to do with how you have decided to view my choice.

      The best example I can think of is there was an amazing photo of Alex Puccio climbing an extremely difficult route posted on Facebook. She looked amazing – so powerful. The first comment was from a guy, “where’s the tits”. It didn’t matter to him that here was a professional athlete doing something amazing. That’s what’s wrong with how society views women. You can be dressed ‘modestly’. You can be doing something unrelated to your sexuality, and you’ll be sexualized.

      And if you dare to wear shorts or a sports bra or a tank top or yoga pants (never mind that you are wearing them because they are useful for you activity), you get blamed for supposedly inviting unwanted comments, leering, etc. It’s an unfair, hypocritical environment forced upon girls… That’s the point of this post.

  21. Thank you for this. I deleted my FB due to the judgements. Not that I care what people say but just sick of it. And people just suck but funny how they don’t take a look in the mirror. But whatev….anyways you ROCK!! ❤

  22. It’s your body and your decision. Good for you for sticking up for what makes you feel the most comfortable.

    I spent over a year not climbing in a sports bra because I feared the judgement of others. Despite seeing other women climb in similar attire and despite seeing men climb without a shirt. I could go on and on about the double-standards of how bodies are sexualized and the inequality of the judgement of what one chooses to wear…

    What you are comfortable wearing when you climb only matters to one person: you.

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