Barriers formed by sexual construct in society and climbing
So I know that I’m not as pretty as Emma Watson, or as engaging as Laura Bates, but please try to maintain your attention for the next little while, because I want to wade into this debate with my ‘two pence’…
(As a brief aside, I googled that saying, and this was Wikipedia’s definition: “By deprecating the opinion to follow – suggesting its value is only two cents(pence), a very small amount – the user of the phrase hopes to lessen the impact of a possibly contentious statement, showing politeness and humility. However, it is also sometimes used with irony when expressing a strongly felt opinion.”)
Well done Wikipedia.
I can’t promise that this article will be evidence-based; it definitely won’t have a reference list at the end…I’d describe it as a more “anecdotally angled” piece. But I think that, as with the ‘Everyday Sexism’ project, it is the identification of actions that we take for granted - but that we should be questioning - which can be the most eye-opening. I want to acknowledge that there are barriers for men (really?!) as well as women in climbing…so here goes…
Language (verbal and non-verbal)
Language in our society is inherently masculine. Despite having studied English lit with an ardently feminist teacher, I think it is only within the last year or so that this has started to make sense to me. By defining our worth in relation to sexual language, it not only devalues women, but also serves to emasculate men.
Example: person(sex not specified) is trying to climb something. Maybe they’re not committing to a difficult or scary move. What would you say? “Come on mate, grow some balls. Stop fannying around. Stop being such a girl – man up and get on with it.”
I think this guy sums it up unbelievably well:
Suggested alternative: next time you’re trying to be cheerfully supportive, shout something like “come on mate, you can do this – your genitals, age and sex are perfect and totally non-related to your abilities at the task in hand!”… I guarantee they will climb a grade harder. Or at the very least, your girlfriend won’t beat you up and your best mate won’t be secretly crying inside.
This has been spoken about a lot in British climbing media recently – by women in the spotlight, such as Mina and Micheala – and by men hiding in darkened houses under pseudonyms on UKB. Something that seemed to cause particular contention last year was the CAC calendar that a bunch of female WADS made. It caused a stir because they were scantily clad and looking sexy…but this for me wasn’t the problem. It was more the justification that ‘just because women climb, they can still be fun and feminine’, and that in order to look “feminine” they were photographed pretending they lived in a caravan, mopping the floor in their bikinis. I’m not having a dig ladies, because I know it was made with such good intentions, but I would have definitely bought it if you were looking fun and feminine and climbing!
The OED defines “feminine” as:
“Having qualities or an appearance traditionally associated with women, especially delicacy and prettiness”
Traditional appearance has essentially been created by men, for men, and it holds back so many women today – regardless of age - who worry about being sporty because they risk losing their “delicacy and prettiness”.
Example: I was recently at a wall in Sheffield that begins with W and rhymes with berks. I was about to try a problem when two guys next to me said “ey up, she’ll show us how it’s done – she’s got bigger biceps than most lads!”. Whilst my other half tried to placate me - saying that he was sure they meant it as a compliment – I was embarrassed and annoyed at being singled out. I wanted to punch them with my oversized arms and say “ey up, you’ve got bigger boobs than most ladies”. But I didn’t. I just grumbled on about how it was somehow…surprising? threatening?...to these people that I wasn’t so traditionally delicate and pretty and that I enjoy doing stuff in my free time other than sewing and washing pots.
I don’t think anyone can deny that men and women are physiologically different. To make broad generalisations, men tend to naturally have more upper body strength, and women tend to naturally be more flexible. These are the facts, and these mean that we find certain styles of climbing naturally easier or harder… so when we first start climbing, men are attracted to ‘burly’ steep problems, and women tend to excel at ‘delicate’ slabs. With training, this can quickly change. However, I think it comes back to body image. Men find slabs ‘boring’ (read ‘difficult’) or don’t want to be seen struggling on something off vertical (even if it’s hard as nails!). Women are intimidated by the number of apes hanging around the comp wall and don’t want to seem ‘manly’ or ‘burly’ trying steep stuff. Realistically, I think both sexes are limited by a fear of failure – trying something outside of your comfort zone – something that you’re going to find difficult. But imagine if you were strong and had good footwork. You could climb super hard!!!
They can be really annoying. Men – when you are feeling heavy, trying a difficult project having eaten too much pizza the night before – have some sympathy for the fact that we essentially have two bags of sugar strapped to our front. Not only do they vary in size each month (combined with water retention I can vary in weight by about 3kg over a 4 week period), they represent a physical barrier. For example, on my first trip to Font, I was trying to turn a mantle when one of my boobs got stuck underneath the rock. It took a hell of a lot of shimmying to free the bugger.
In terms of logistics, having a piss at the crag can be really difficult for women. Men can whip out their willy and wee merely meters from the path, without anyone so much as batting an eyelid. If I squat down and get my arse out in a similar position, it’s likely that the police are going to get involved. One of my female climbing friends coined the phrase “I’m going to go and look for some danger” to mean, “I’m going to try and find somewhere where I can hurridly pee without a climber/tourist/passer by seeing my bits”. Another friend cunningly invented the ‘piss poncho’, ‘wee wigwam’ or as I like to call it ‘titty tarp’ – if she was in a tight spot, she would simply don said poncho and merrily wee whilst chatting to people in full view. Men – please be considerate of this difficulty. If your partner takes some time getting ready for a redpoint, it’s probably because she’s had to trek halfway back to the house in order to find a convenient spot for a redpoint wee. Thank you in advance for your understanding.
I could harp on about a number of other points but what I’d just like to say though, is embrace your bits (probably not literally, or at least not in public) and climb everything, everywhere (copyright Adam Ondra) – don’t let your fears or physicality prevent you from applying yourself fully to what you want to achieve!
- Ellie Pygall