My friend, Alex Theran, a fellow climber, shared her thoughts with me on the implications of being called a “badass”. She wrote, “I often plaster my social media with smiles. I erase the memories of very real struggles with a steady stream of upbeat posts and exclamation marks. I wonder if in doing that, I [am making other] women who do have a hard time think that they are failing and that they aren’t cut out for it. Whether ‘it’ is aid work or big wall climbing—messing up, underestimating yourself, overestimating yourself—it’s all part of the process of learning.”

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a “badass” is someone who is “ready to cause or get into trouble” or someone “of formidable strength and skill”. Urban Dictionary’s definition tells us that a “badass” is the “epitome of the American male”. Perhaps several years ago, given the context, it might not have been considered a compliment for women to be called “badass,” however, the word has undergone a re-gendering since its birth in the 1950’s. While it once celebrated the gunslinging, booze-swigging, rebellious tough guy, “badass” is now being used to praise strong female characters who are generally bold in many, if not all, facets of life. Amid today’s Walter Whites, John Waynes, and Han Solos, we are seeing a rise in real-life, public Katniss Everdeens than ever before.

We have Steph Davis, Lynn Hill, Emily Harrington. We have Megan Hine, the daring woman behind Bear Grylls; Balkissa Chaibou, the ambitious sixteen-year-old who is campaigning to end forced marriage; Malala Yousafzai, who survived a gunshot to the head, defied the Taliban in Pakistan, and is a children’s and women’s right activist. Not to mention that we had a 2016 female presidential candidate for a major national party, US women flew home with more medals than men after the Olympics in Rio this past summer, and the best rock climber in the world is currently a fifteen-year-old girl. Today, we continue to work on closing the pay gap between men and women, there are far less fictional designated damsels in distress, and there are more women now than ever before leading our legislative conversation towards real progress.

There is no question about it: being labeled a “badass” is considered a heavy compliment. Personally, I have always found it flattering anytime someone has used that word to describe me. A “badass” is considered a tough and uncompromising person, and I can often be both of these things. However, by using this word, are we asking strong women to prove something? Was Alex right about failing to live up to such a high caliber—does the word “badass” create pressure to maintain that status? Does it create an unreasonable expectation of ourselves and of each other?

Language shapes our perceptions and constructs the world we live in, right down to our internalized reactions. Expectations create a form of reality that isn’t actuality. Expectations are problematic because they can often be unrealistic, which leads to disappointment.

In May of 2016, I went on a four-week expedition to Africa with an all-male team. Though I have rarely been accused of being a fragile person, I felt a huge desire to demonstrate that I was as tough as every member of the team. Working alongside some of the best big wall climbers, it was hard not to feel like a total badass by proxy. When asked to join the team, I was told that I had an admirably high tolerance of suffering which would be crucial to establishing a big wall FA.

Expecting to learn how to big wall climb on a big wall expedition and be good at it was completely unrealistic. Big wall climbing came easily to the team, meanwhile, everything I did from cleaning pitches to jugging fixed lines was comparatively slow. Trundling massive death blocks into the jungle and hauling bags were grueling work, both physically and mentally, and I lacked the bandwidth for much of the labor required to get to the top. Towards the end, the difference between feeling twelve steps behind and being left behind became apparent and I labeled myself a failure. Many times throughout the expedition, I refused to cry in front of the team. I would hold back tears. Over the course of several weeks, this left me spiraling down a very lonely path.

When I returned home, I struggled to describe the four weeks of jungle sufferfest. I wanted to share my story, but I didn’t want to reveal the truth. I didn’t want to write about my most vulnerable moments because it meant reliving painful moments of failure. Not only that, but I was averse to asking myself why I felt like I couldn’t express these feelings when they had originally surfaced. I desperately wanted to leave behind huge moments of embarrassment at how hard I had struggled and move on, but the second half of the story would always be missing. And so I sat at my computer, uncertain of being transparent with not only my physical weaknesses but my emotional weaknesses as well. I sifted through hand-scribbled notes that were written alone on the jungle floor. I forced myself to capture my feelings as accurately as possible.

Alex’s words prompted a heavy question: Why had I been so afraid in the first place? Why was I afraid to reveal parts of who I really was during such an important process? Had I been afraid of showing the world a softer side, or was I more afraid of showing the world that I wasn’t the hard woman I had perceived myself to be (and let myself be perceived by others)?

Throughout my years climbing, I was accustomed to being the “cool” girl in the group, the one who gave no fucks, who tried hard, and at the end of the day, could out-eat all of the guys at dinner. These distinguishing characteristics made it easy for me to make friends, and after the Africa expedition, I began to realize why. There is something very appealing about a woman who walks with her head held high, who exercises both strength and power, and in a sense, simply “acts like a man.” She is known as the “cool” girl, a persona that our patriarchal culture has many women feeling like they have to be. The “cool” girl can put back a few with her male counterparts. She laughs at the crude jokes and even makes a few of her own. She shows very little of her feelings, and if she has to cry, she goes outside.

In her post, Theran touches on a complicated issue. She says,

“The problem with being a ‘badass chick’ is that you tend to want the ‘badass’ designation to be louder than the ‘chick.’” Theran continues, “When you fail to live up to invincibility, it can be devastating.”

The “cool girl” persona is something of concern. Shannon Kelly writes about this phenomenon in her essay titled, “An Epic Rant About Gone Girls Epic ‘Cool Girl’ Rant,” for Talking Points Memo, where she explains, “It may begin when we’re young and impressionable and want to make ourselves ‘attractive’ to boys — and the message that being Cool Girl will help you achieve Peak Attractive is everywhere (thank those socially awkward movie-writing men) — but then, what happens? When we grow up and see things in the workplace, in our own families, in society at large and in our own social circles that deserve being called out — rather than doing the calling, is Cool Girl’s pull so strong that, even in the face of the health or safety of our own daughters and sons, we’d rather play it cool? Is that why things don’t change?”

The pressure to prove that as women, we are as capable as men creates a tendency to internalize a message that tells us that to be strong means to be unbreakable—that being hardcore and showing your feelings cannot coincide. We live in a society that continuously tells us that feminine traits, while expressive and emotionally complex, will not let us succeed. As women continue to carve out a place for themselves in climbing history, there is still an unspoken undertone that we have to remain stoic. Whether or not it’s a self-imposed standard, it creates an immense pressure to downplay the stress, the flaws, and the fuck ups.

Professional rock climber Mary Harlan of Carbondale, CO, says that in all of her years climbing, female partners have been most harsh on themselves. “If we didn’t accomplish a goal, there tended to be more self-deprecating talk amongst the women versus the men.” The ability to own failure and really talk about it can be much harder for women because of a pre-existing stigma that women are the weaker gender. On failing, Harlan says, “It’s when I am failing and I’m falling apart that I start to realize that the world is trying to teach me something.”

The more I explored what it meant to “act like a man”, the more the gender double edged sword became revealed to me. Habitual dialogue filled with misogynistic comments such as “man up” or “don’t be so sensitive” is ingrained in our culture from an early age. We’ve heard people cry out, “Don’t be such a girl!” which translates directly to: “Women are weak.”

The word “badass” reaches its limits in the sense that it implies that we must live up to invincibility. The truth is that we all have our breaking points, regardless of gender, and finding out what they are is what makes us human. Learning from our weak moments is humbling. Allowing ourselves to express our feelings is admitting vulnerability. In my eyes, there is nothing more “badass” than exposing a weakness.

Failure gives you depth. It gives you mental tenacity. It shatters the expectations we often feel trapped within, the expectations that our perceptions of ourselves create. Exposing our failures lets us fearlessly show the world that we are human. In celebrating those we consider “badass”, we tend to ignore emotional openness and whitewash over the tears. Let us continue to acknowledge and praise hard work, but remember that it takes more than that to reach a summit. Success doesn’t happen by accident. Nobody walks up the mountain to the top with a smile on their face the entire time, or without shedding a few tears, a little blood. Success is only half of the true story.

In 2014, Hilary Clinton spoke at an event at New York University regarding leadership advice to women. Clinton shared a famous sentiment from Eleanor Roosevelt in the 1920’s that expressed “if a woman wants to be involved in the public, she has to grow skin as thick as the hide of a rhinoceros.” Later, in an interview with Time, Clinton went on to elaborate: “So even back then, this was an obvious point of concern and contention. Too many young women are harder on themselves than circumstances warrant. They are too often selling themselves short…But it is a process.”

It is indeed a process and a slow road to progress. It is the kind of process that warrants many conversations about social categories—categories that come from an uneven gender landscape. We take the first step by acknowledging unfair social structures that women face before we can make any true progress.

For fathers and mothers who have young sons and daughters: teach your children that they need not fit the cookie-cutter mold of what society believes “strong” men and women look like. Show your daughters that they have a right to a safe place to express their emotional responses, whether it be in the workplace or the mountains. Show your sons that it is okay to cry.

It’s a tender road we find ourselves on, wanting to be both strong and flexible to those who are watching. As a female climber and a female in general, it becomes a balancing act—learning to be a strong and autonomous person while simultaneously embodying the softer, more vulnerable side of human emotions. I express great gratitude as I applaud a growing feminist society for taking a word once rooted in maleness and turning it into one that empowers women of all generations, but I also ask that we all remember that you can be fierce and vulnerable synchronously. There is no rule that says we must draw a line between the two.

For women who aspire to be first ascentionists, climb big alpine walls, stumble upon uncharted paths: continue pursuing higher elevations, but do not be afraid to struggle. Do not be shamed into downplaying emotions, especially in difficult moments. Do not go outside to cry. For women who feel outnumbered in their profession, who choose challenging career paths that are both physically and mentally demanding, who feel like showcasing “manliness” is the only way to succeed: do not strive for less than what you know you can achieve by “manning up” to accommodate anybody. Strive for more, but do not sweep away your emotions. Instead, take your weak moments and turn them into inspiration. Do not go outside to cry.

Cover photograph courtesy of Erick Barros.

12 thoughts

  1. Very well written, and on a very important issue. I notice among all my female training partners that we are undoubtedly so much harder on ourselves, and much more so than necessary. Perhaps it is us trying to prove our strength. Rather than be like “strong men,” I hope our shift towards women’s rights can help redefine what it means to be strong altogether- for women and for men. Imagine what a feat that would be 😉


  2. A complicated subject, and I appreciate that you touched on a lot of important points. It is interesting that as much as one industry/sector differs from another, the behaviors your describing seem to be similar wherever you go. It is good to talk about it.

  3. Kathy, this is my favorite piece you’ve written.

    After what seems like a lifetime of being “one of the guys”, both as a rebellious teenager who would slash tires if a dude sold me bunk weed, to being ridiculously bold while training to be a physician, I’ve come to find my greatest strength is in the expression and sharing of feelings and experiences.

    All we’re taught is weak is actually the very essence of being female. It is our backbone, and others around us can greatly benefit from open displays of emotion and knowledge of our struggles.

    And I prefer to know you as more than a badass 🙂

  4. It is a difficult label to negotiate.

    I find there’s less pressure to perform when the label comes from non-climber friends. I can be more gracious, because just the act of climbing has earned me the label in their eyes. Being “badass” inspires me to be more daring when the label comes form a climber and also to be more critical of myself. It means I’m more likely to volunteer to be rope gun, to set out on a route that’s challenging yet doable. But it also holds me back – I don’t want to fall, I don’t want to give up, I don’t want to fail…

    I’m working on re-framing my own definition of “badass woman” and that’s a woman who constantly pushes herself to reach new levels and knows when to adjust her goals to be more realistic. This can apply to every day things – being a better friend/partner, lifelong learning, and, of course, climbing.

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