Climbing and the body image struggle

“Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will.” ~Mahatma Gandhi

This may be one of my most personal and scariest posts that I’ve written yet, but, it’s kind of urging me to get it out there. That’s one of the weird things about being a writer. You have all these stories, or posts or words floating around in your mind at any given moment and some of them will just stop, scream at you to be written and then not leave you alone until you get them on a page. This little dude seems to gently poking me so I’ll pay attention before he goes apeshit.

I’ve had body image issues my entire life. There, I’ve said it to the whole interwebs. Doesn’t sound too surprising for a woman right? Sadly, I grew up in a society that dictates how women should look, how important their looks are and how this is what they should value the most, to put it very bluntly. Of course, most people won’t come out and say it like that, but it’s currently the way things are and it’s so deeply entrenched in our society (and I’m talkin’ North American society here), that most people don’t even realize to what degree their decisions are informed by this. I like to think that society is changing and I have also lived in a society (Germany) where I didn’t feel that my looks were scrutinized in the same way. So, society seems to be slowly changing and adapting to embracing all body types and most importantly scientists and healthy types are starting to realize – having a certain body type does not dictacte if you are fit or not. This seems to be surprising news for some.


A few of the many body types out there.

I’ve been active and sporty pretty much my entire life, from the first time I strapped on a pair of skis (or rather they were strapped on to me by my parents and my skiing addicted dad) at the age of four to the first time I climbed a mountain with my family at the age of five (I love you Mt. Albert Edward) to just yesterday when I biked two hours to and from work. Being active is not something I have to force myself to do because I love it – it keeps me healthy inside and out, it makes me feel like myself and it keeps me sane. That’s not to say working out and keeping it as a routine and getting out the door for a run or a climb is easy – but it’s something I love to do and want to do and that makes all the difference for me. It’s an integral part of my life that is so vital to me now that I will sacrifice other important things just to make time for it. Because at the end of the day I’m not much good to others or my work or anything else if I’m not first happy and healthy. That’s something I’ve learned the hard way.


Post-run happy work out selfie. This is what I workout for. The glow, not the selfie.

So, throughout my life my weight has fluctuated up and down due to various circumstances or stress or during my undergrad when I devoted all my time to my music degree and making muffins for my roommates (oh wait I still do that) and none of my time to my health and fitness (but hey it was a super fun four years!) I’ve always been strong with square shoulders and have developed muscles easily and for this, I’ve oddly felt self conscious my whole life. Although the ideal “fit girl” may have muscles she has a very particular type of muscles, not too much so as to avoid being bulky, not too little, and she has to have a size 2 waist, weigh no more than 130 pounds, have a slight frame and….shall I go on? We all know the type and if you are this type that’s A-ok and celebrate it! The point is, we should all just be able to love the type we are and work from there. When a woman (like me) who will never be 130 pounds or be a size 2 attempts to look this way, misery ensues. Looking like that (and for who exactly?) would require a 24/7 non-stop and totally not fun level of commitment that, for me is A) not even remotely worth it and B) not even remotely healthy because health is a holitistic thing.

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My very first month of climbing in the “kiddie pool” as my fellow climber Leslie calls it. I remember the pain my muscles felt after those first weeks.

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Two years later. I still experience pain but usually due to overuse or injury now. It never ends when you’re a climber.

I am lucky enough to have a partner who is not only a wonderful climber, but just an incredibly fit athlete with stunning muscles. I think he’s freakin’ gorgeous, but more importantly I love what he can do with his body on the wall. It’s graceful and skilled and beautiful to watch. His weight has not fluctuated in 20 years, unlike mine which fluctuates when I just look at a donut. My point is – we can’t compare ourselves to others or it will drive us to the brink of insanity. Let’s just celebrate each other. And celebrate ourselves for getting out there and doing something as awesome as rock climbing (or whatever it may be that you love and do).

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My boyfriend Zeke ripping it up on our epic day of beach bouldering in Portugal. I could watch him climb all day and often do.

Two of my main sports are climbing and running – both which tend to be a lot easier if you have a very light, very slender body type. Even my strong, fit and muscly boyfriend often jokes about how he would climb better if he was 10 pounds lighter or had smaller muscles. It’s a thing for men and women in this wacky world of climbing. Take for example, one of the world’s best female rock climbers right now –  Ashima Shirashi just turned 15 years old, is 4’5″ and 63 pounds. Guess what? The girl can seriously crush. She is incredible to watch. But she’s also 63 pounds. With the rise of women in climbing (which I LOVE!) the younger generation of teen girl climbers are now climbing at the same level as 20-30 something male climbers. Their bodies are perfect for it. So, will I try to compete with that? Well, I couldn’t even if I wanted to, which I don’t. But I’m sure as hell proud of them. Keep it up girls!


Ashima Shirashi. 15 years old. Complete badass.

One of the world’s best male climbers is Adam Ondra who comes in at a “hefty” 128 lbs even though he is 5’11”. The dude is just one stringy climbing muscle. He is also incredible at his sport. His body seems molded to the rock. But honestly, it’s not his body I admire the most but his grit. He has the mental strength of a gold medal Olympian, which, if climbing were an Olympic sport, he no doubt would be. But again, should I compare my body to his? Probably not. 😉

Adam Ondra

Adam Ondra. 128 pounds of sheer grit. Oh yah, and a little talent. And a hell of a work ethic.

Thank god my life does not depend on me being a professional rock climber or runner.

So society, I’ve decided I’m going to stop trying –  to live up to your ideals, that is. I’m done with that silliness. I’m just going to accept myself as I am. Is that okay? I’m just going to keep climbing even if maybe climbing would be easier if I was 15 pounds lighter, or had a completely different body type. I’m just going to keep running even if I don’t look the part. I’m just going to keep on striving to be healthy, strong and fit the rest of my life no matter how that may look (which may be amazing to some, good to a lot, not good enough to others, terrible to a few and well…let’s just forget the rest). I’ve developed some crazy back and arm muscles from climbing the past two years and sadly there is a part of me that is still self conscious about that. It’s hard for me to accept that I probably will always have to buy slightly larger shirts now because my latissimus dorsi aka lat muscles have gotten so big. I know there may be people who aren’t fans of that or think it looks weird. I know there are people who, even without trying think, “oh wow, I wouldn’t want that much muscle as a woman.” It’s sad but true because I think many of us have judged others’ bodies in one way or another throughout our lives. Like I said, these things are drilled into our brains from an early age. But, oh well. Enough is enough.


Back muscles! Photo from Shutterstock.

After all these years I am finally learning to embrace the beauty which is a strong woman and a muscly woman. I have SO much admiration for the kick ass female climbers that I see – their incredible strength, agility, grace, technique and general badassery. You guys seriously – you guessed it…rock! And you know what? I’m going to embrace strength because I love how it feels, and I’m learning to love how it looks. I love that I can do chin ups/pull ups now. I love that my core has gotten so strong that my body handles all back pain 150% better now. I love that I can pull myself up a wall or a boulder all by myself. I love that even with this growing strength, at the end of the day it all comes back to your mind. Your mind is the most powerful tool of all which is why I realized – I need to change the way I think about my body. If I don’t, my climbing progress will stall, my negative body talk will effect me and my partner and I will just feel constantly frustrated and sad. Why would I want to live that way? It’s just not fun. Plus, I love food and I don’t want to feel bad about having a cookie now and then, as in most days. I eat healthily 80% of the time – really! But, chocolate.

run to eat

So, for anyone out there who is thinking about trying climbing, or any other sport and you think your body isn’t right for it? Screw it! If you love it – do it! The most important thing is to have joy in whatever sport you choose. And then learn how best to do that sport with your body specifically. There’s a great book for climbers called 9 out of 10 Climbers make the same mistakes and in one chapter it delves into how to climb for your body type. My partner is 6′ tall, very flexible, incredibly strong and has an ape index of +2.5 inches. I’m 5’5″, strong, not very flexible (thanks running), and with an ape index of -0.5 inches. For any of you non-climbers – a negative ape index is not a helpful thing in climbing. Naturally, he climbs in a completely different way than I do. He knows his strengths and his weaknesses and he knows exactly how to use his body on the wall. So, instead of stressing about “why can’t my body be like his/hers?” think, “how can I use the strengths my body has to make me a better climber?” For myself, I know I am good at moving dynamically and powerfully so I try to use my momentum whenever possible. I try not to spend too long just hanging and wasting energy. I’m not saying stop working on your weaknesses of course, but when that’s what you focus on and obsess about, trust me, it doesn’t make for a good climb. Or a good outlook on life either.


da Vinci’s Vitruvian man. Supposedly the perfect proportions but hey, it was 1490. I think we’ve learned a few things about perfection since then.

“Some of the world’s greatest feats were accomplished by people not smart enough to know they were impossible.”    ~Doug Lawson

Go out there and do what you think is impossible. Don’t let the world tell you what your body can and can’t do or how it should or shouldn’t look. Rock it people. Kristi out. Time for a run.





  2 comments for “Climbing and the body image struggle

  1. Star Weiss
    May 26, 2016 at 12:45 am

    I love that you are fit and feeling good about your strength—yes! And that we should all accept our body types AND our passions, and start from there. The 2 photos of you when you started climbing and now are indicative of some real work and commitment and love.]
    You rock!


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