When I was 14 years old, I went on my first climbing trip to the Sierra with a man in his late twenties, a mentor of mine. We piled into his small pickup truck, smashed between ropes and climbing gear.
Above the rearview mirror was a little sign that read “Baked Goods.” The words were circled and had an X through them.
I thought it was weird that anyone would hate baked goods, but I was thankful to be there, so I didn’t say anything. We stopped at a bagel shop to fuel up. I was a late-blooming child, and food was simple to me back then: you eat when you are hungry and play the rest of the time. I ordered two bagels with extra cream cheese and consumed them before we left the parking lot. I barely felt full after I finished.
“You aren’t going to climb anything after those bagels, Rodden,” he laughed. “That’s like two days’ worth of calories.”
I had no idea what he was talking about, but I felt ashamed and dumb, like I didn’t know an important rule of climbing, or eating. The seed was planted.
Two years later, in a crowded stadium after a World Cup competition, one of my climbing heroes told me that she lost five pounds before every competition, then gained the weight back afterward. I started losing weight before comps, too, only I didn’t gain it back afterward. Weight loss, I decided, was a path to the podium.
One of the problems was: it worked. At least I thought it did. I made the podium at World Cups and won the Junior National Championships four years in a row, but I couldn’t celebrate my success because I was busy comparing myself to my peers. No one ever explicitly told me to lose weight, but in my mind, being thin equaled success. So I scrutinized how my competitors looked and what they ate or didn’t eat. I wanted to match or better them.
My thighs were skinnier than my knees until my late teens. I didn’t get my period until I was 19. When I finally did, I felt like a failure—it meant I was gaining weight.
The climbers I saw in magazines were desperately skinny and usually scantily clad. I started to notice that most of my peers and competitors could still wear children’s clothing. I scoped out people’s teeth and tried to guess who threw up. My eating became so stringent that I would go to bed hungry every night and only feel comfortable eating prepackaged and preportioned meals, so I knew exactly how many calories I was consuming.
Sadly, my behavior was only rewarded. I performed better, and I got more sponsorships with each competition won. I was featured in movies or advertisements for first ascents and barriers that I broke. It was a win-at-all-costs system that, at the time, I was happy to be a part of. And it seemed that the culture was happy to have me there, as long as I was performing. I felt in control and empowered to manipulate my body to achieve the impossible.
But as I got older, nature took over. At some point, I no longer weighed as much as a child. I felt like an elephant as I matured. I started getting my period regularly. I moved from an extra-small climbing harness to a small one. Women’s bodies change. While men just seem to get stronger, our center of gravity shifts. We get hips and breasts. I felt that I was losing my edge.
I transitioned away from competition and toward big walls and hard traditional climbing. But one thing that didn’t change was my eating or how I felt about my body. I was ashamed of it. I pined to have a six-pack and muscular arms so I would “look good” in a sports bra.
At the time, I was married to professional climber Tommy Caldwell. At almost every photo shoot, I’d be asked to take off my shirt. Tommy was able to leave his on. “Can you suck in your stomach, Beth?” the photographer would ask. I hated wearing a sports bra without a shirt.
This was the same era when I established Meltdown, a 5.14c crack at Yosemite that would take over a decade to be repeated—by a man or a woman. It was the hardest trad climb ever established by a woman, and here I was, worried that my stomach was too big.
In my late twenties, after a decade of pushing the limits of climbing, my body started to break down. Tendons, ligaments, bones—they all started to collapse after 15 years of deprivation. My climbing cascaded from elite to elementary in a matter of months. Depressed and harboring self-harmful thoughts, I gained weight. I’d overhear people say, “What happened to Beth? She’s really let herself go.” Unable to perform, my pay was understandably cut. I felt like damaged goods.
I almost gave up climbing. I completely lost sight of why I’d started in the first place: because I loved it, and it was fun. Fortunately, with time and a lot of work and understanding about what is truly healthy, I rediscovered that climbing was not and should not be a send-at-all-costs culture. It required changing my inner dialogue and changing who I interacted with, both in person and online, and learning to walk away from unhealthy conversations. I had to normalize normal. It took years.
Losing weight worked for my short-term performance gains but was extremely harmful in the long run. We need to start celebrating a culture that values sustainability, longevity, and health. It’s time to let go of the unrealistic expectations of what our bodies should look like.
That doesn’t mean we have to lower our standards of what’s possible in climbing. Last year I went back to El Poussif, a boulder problem in France’s Fontainebleau Forest that I hadn’t tried since 2003. It’s everything I love about climbing: technical and subtle and requiring you to be strong and smart to be successful. When I first tried it, I naively thought I would do it quickly. But I got shut down, hard. When I returned 15 pounds heavier, I assumed I was set up for a similar spectacular failure. But I tried to silence those thoughts. I had been climbing well, better, in fact, than I had since before having my son, and was starting to realize that maybe weight isn’t the only path to success. I always thought my previously leaner body would be higher performing, but I had never done a direct comparison. After a few hours, I stood on top of the climb, elated. El Poussif showed me that I could climb hard—harder even than before—with a heavier body, a healthier body.
This year I started climbing in just a sports bra again. It’s been five years since I had my son, and I was tired of waiting for my prepregnancy body to come back. I am heavier and softer than I’ve ever been, but I no longer feel the need to suck in my stomach for the camera. I know that representation matters, and that a simple act like proudly baring a soft belly in a distorted culture can make a huge difference. I hope that all climbers—men, women, young and old—can see examples of all body types being celebrated in climbing. I hope that the climbing community can change.
Lead Photo: Randy Puro
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