A little less than a week ago, I packed my backpack until its stitches were bursting with climbing gear and yoga pants, filled out one last time card at the climbing gym and said farewell to the Bay Area. It was hard to say goodbye to my friends and my family and the kids that I coach, like it always is, but we all knew it was for the better. Because I was going climbing.
I was in LaLaLand about the whole climbing trip for a minute. I left the Bay with stars in my eyes thinking oh, how perfect, I’ll leave this place right as the Vernal Equinox springs on us, I’ll leave the old, wintery version of myself at home. I’ll just leave, and all of the issues and struggles that have been calling my mind home will just move out. Yeah, that’s how it’ll go.
But we all know, that that is never how it goes.
Climbing, yoga, or anything else you do that requires love and curiosity will help you grow in one of two ways–they either bring your issues right up in your face, forcing you to look at yourself in a very honest way. These are the days climbing and yoga feels hard, too emotional and draining. Or sometimes, if you’re willing to let go a little, you will be rewarded with space. A moment or maybe hours of a quiet head, a settled heart, and a soothed spine, so when you get off your mat or off the rock, you can look at things from a more detached perspective. You’re further away. Both of these manners in which climbing and yoga go about healing you are going to get the job done, whether you like it or not.
I think a lot of people, including climbers, assume that climbing is a means to escape from the real world, from our issues, from our fears and insecurities. A running away of sorts. At first glance it looks that way, and even though I know this is far from true, I forget that sometimes. I always view an impending climbing trip as a break, a vacation, a way to get away from it all for a while. But that’s not how it is. Climbing is the opposite of all that.
It turns out I had a few issues I wasn’t dealing with back home in the Bay Area, and within hours of leaving, I was bombarded with the things that weren’t working so well in my life. My fears, the ways I was holding back, the things that I had buried deep in my belly all came bubbling up to the surface.
One of these things (the one that I am willing to share with the virtual world) has to do with my identity as a writer. I kind of forgot that I had submitted this (apparently) semi-controversial article about women’s experiences while climbing with men for the Touchstone blog, and that it was due to be published the day we drove down to the Joshua Tree area. I asked over 100 women to tell me a notable experience they had while climbing with a man. I got the full range of stories, from instances of blatant sexism and douchebaggery, to times of empowerment and when it wasn’t about gender at all, when it was just climbing. I thought it would just get published, maybe some people would read it, maybe it would piss of a dude or two, and then everyone would go about their merry ways.
But I was wrong. People really loved the article. People also really hated the article. I wondered why it caused such intense reactions, and what I realized was this–climbers hadn’t heard this before. Not in a formal way at least. In climbing, gender politics is rarely spoken of. We like to think that rock climbing is gender neutral, because hey, the rock we’re climbing doesn’t care if we’re male or female or a mountain goat. The mountains are also many of our sanctuaries, and we think that something as draining and disheartening as sexism shouldn’t have a role in a place that’s so sacred. But, the truth of the matter is that sometimes women are getting treated badly by men when we climb together. Sexism exists, even in our precious sport.
So, I got the whole spectrum of responses, from people thanking me for finally talking about this subject, to women claiming that I am a man-hating sexist.
The most upsetting thing for me was reading a blog post from a female climber that made fun of the article I wrote. I didn’t mind that she was mocking me, thanks to my writing professors in college I understand that pissing people off is just part of being a writer, and that someone making fun of your work is pretty much the best thing that can happen to you. So that helped my ego from feeling bruised. I also didn’t mind her vulgarity, because I know a thing or two about that myself. The thing that was disappointing about her article was this underlying attitude that we’ve heard a million times before–that women should stop complaining about the way they’re being treated by men. That being a woman who points out instances of sexism just isn’t cool, that it’s annoying. That women should just shut up already. That it’s 2014 and we get paid the same wage as men every so often, so what more could we possibly want?
I get it. I get that some people think it’s funny and ironic when you joke about things like tampons and PMS and how women are only here to make sandwiches. I get that it’s more convenient, chill, and laid back to make fun of it all. I get that feminism is like, so annoying and so 2013. But ya know what?
If I hear one more person poking fun at, mocking, or in any way suggesting that other women should quit talking about the horrible ways in which men are treating them, I don’t know what I’ll do. It’s just so goddamn disheartening. Especially when it’s coming from another woman.
I even had women who, in the privacy of a Facebook message or email, told me (and made sure that their names would be kept anonymous) that they had experienced many instances of sexism while climbing, but then once the article was published they jumped on the “women should stop complaining” bandwagon. This was the most heartbreaking part of it all. This was also the most revealing part of it all.
Why are women who talk about sexism seen as annoying? It’s just too complicated of a subject, we say. It’s just too messy, there’s no end. And why are we rewarding women that degrade other women for speaking their mind? In fact, these aren’t even women’s opinions or attitudes that are getting mocked here, these are their stories, true and factual, that are being made fun of. These are not opinions that are up for discussion or debate, these are things that happened–yes, believe it or not, sometimes women get treated like shit when they’re climbing, just like they do in many other situations. We all know this happens. But somehow, it’s okay (and rewarded) to make fun of women for simply talking about these experiences, for telling their story.
We have a looooooooong way to go.
It wasn’t just this one girl’s blog post. It was a lot of women, and a lot of men, writing endless comments about how the women who contributed to the article were just complaining, just being bitter.
To me, that is so sad. Some people didn’t even realize why being told that I’m “pretty strong for a girl” could be considered degrading. What if someone said that you’re pretty good at math for a girl? That you’re pretty smart for a girl? That would sting, right? It’s the same thing. I feel like this is Gender Studies 101 here, but for some reason a lot of people still don’t get it.
And I understand that women can be pretty demeaning to men, too (although, I think this happens far less often). But that’s not what my article was about. If someone else wants to write that one, be my guest.
At first, when the hate mail started rolling in, I felt like apologizing. I felt like maybe they were right. I felt like escaping. I felt like not being a writer anymore. That lasted about two minutes until I realized that this was actually good. That causing people to talk about something as important as gender politics means you are succeeding as a writer.
I remembered back to what one of my writing professors told me, her Southern drawl stretching the words: If y’all are gonna be writers, you’re eventually gonna piss someone off. Well, you’re probably gonna piss a whole lot of people off.
And then she would laugh, this great sound that would erupt from the core of her.
So in that moment I had a choice. I could choose to write about the easy stuff: who sent what, how small the crimp was on that one climb, how hard that guy had to try on a v14, who won what competition, how to tie a figure eight knot. You know, what all the other climbing literature is about. Or, I could tackle the stuff that I actually find interesting, the stuff that isn’t convenient or easy to hear. I could stop tip toeing around what I actually want to say, I could stop being so careful about making someone mad, even in this blog.
The choice was obvious and easy to make. Thankfully, learning how to write in rural south Georgia made my skin thick. Yeah, I cried a few times when a professor or a peer gave me a bad review, but thank God for it.
Thank God because now, not only do I feel like I’m getting better at writing about the hard stuff, but I can also live the hard stuff, face things with confidence and grace. Climbing does that, yoga does that, writing does that.
And now, at second glance, maybe this whole climbing trip is exactly what I wanted it to be–a shedding of old identity, a leaving behind of fear, an accepting of what is true about myself. It’s springtime after all, the season of rebirth. No one said that’s an easy thing to go about.
Yeah, seems about right, and I feel strong.