Climbing, Motherhood and Body Image
When I was 16, I wanted to get breast-reduction surgery. Yes, you read that correctly. I remember sitting in the waiting room of the doctor’s office for my annual exam with my mom. “I’m going to ask the doctor to schedule the procedure,” I said. My mom looked at me, smiled, and with a perfectly calm voice she said, “Okay, we’ll see what she says.”
Contrary to how it might sound, I wasn’t packing DDD breasts or had some medical condition that I needed fixed. I only had a B or C cup on a good day—but to a climber, that may as well have been a DDD cup. I was probably the only 16 year old girl in the world who felt this way.
Like most women, I’ve struggled with body image at times throughout my life. At 14, my chest was flatter than Kansas, and I felt like a skinny little bean pole with short, boyish hair who could get away with a trip to the men’s room without raising an eyebrow. The day I started climbing, it seemed, I started blossoming. All of a sudden, I had much bigger breasts than most of the girls I climbed with and competed against.
Unfortunately, my chest was the only thing that grew. My toothpick arms lacked any definition, and my sunken, bony shoulders looked like most people’s elbows. To make it worse, I was convinced that my breasts made my skinny arms look even skinnier.
Meanwhile, my fellow female climbing peers had flatter chests, strong-looking shoulders, super-muscular arms and V-shaped backs that looked good in sports tops. I was convinced that if I ever stood a chance at climbing well, I would need to make myself look like them.
Being a professional athlete, my body was my vehicle to performing well at my profession. I was meticulous about my diet, had a very regimented training program and climbed as much as I could. It’s cliche, but I knew my body inside and out. Often, I equated my fitness level and body image with being a better climber. I made excuses: overhanging climbing was harder for me because of my large breasts and skinny arms. I couldn’t do cross-over moves, or even see my feet as well, because of the two Tetons getting in the way. Deep down, I knew I was constructing excuses that seemed somehow more rational, but the reality was, I was motivated more by insecurity over the way I looked.
I’ve since overcome my insecurities about my breasts, although if I’m being honest I still pine at times for those muscular shoulders and chiseled, sexy, strong-looking arms…perhaps with more training 🙂
Having a baby has introduced a whole new set of body-image issues. Giving myself and my body fully to another person has been a huge lesson in letting go. Gaining 30+ pounds, feeling my body sag and droop like never before, were foreign feelings and somewhat unsettling. I thought I’d bounce back quickly and be able to be in control of my body once again. But, as I’ve written about, my physical recovery has been painfully slow. I heard over and over that breastfeeding is the best way to lose the baby fat. And while Theo and I struggled with breastfeeding, we kept at it this whole time, something that I’m proud of, but hasn’t yielded that weight loss magic.
Through running and climbing, I honestly thought I’d be skinnier by now. Activities that used to get me in shape seem to only make a small dent in my fitness level. My belly still sticks out a bit, my skinny jeans don’t fit, and, of course, my breasts are even bigger since I am still nursing. Perhaps if I stopped nursing my body would bounce back quicker, but I’m not sure that’s the lesson I’ve learned in all of this. Theo is still wanting to nurse and I’m happy to continue as it’s something we worked really hard for and I actually enjoy it.
Motherhood has been a great lesson in acceptance and looking at the bigger picture. Before I was pregnant, I was a professional climber who would sometimes tie my fitness level to my happiness. The distance I could run or hike. How much suffering I could endure. The number grade I could climb. It was probably my way of masking some of my insecurities.
Of course I love climbing and pushing my body as much as I can. It puts a smile on my face. It has taught me countless lessons about self-drive and forgiveness, shown me the world and instilled respect for our natural environment. It has introduced me to my favorite people and places on the planet. It fuels my dreams and helps me set goals. It burns inside me no matter where I am or what I’m doing. It has made me who I am today.
But perhaps one thing that I was missing was experiencing true content in climbing without the achievement and progression that landed me recognition in the climbing world. To be honest, I don’t know if I can claim to have ever found that simple, pure content unattached from achievement in climbing, or if I have it has been quite a while. But being and becoming a mother has helped me achieve a much healthier perspective.
There are many days when I want to wake up hours before Theo, go for a run and get in my training. That would be a true athlete; that is what I used to do, that would get my flat belly back. However, when I take a step back, I realize that’s not what climbing has taught me nor what it truly means to me. It’s not the flat belly, the burly arms, or the hard ascents. It’s the happiness that it brings me that truly means something to me. I didn’t start climbing to get burly arms, I started because I loved it and found it to be the most fun, rewarding and incredible activity on the planet.
Too many times in my life I’ve pushed harder and sooner than I should, chasing false climbing goals for the wrong reasons. Motherhood has been a lesson in being a beginner again. To own a role as deeply as I’ve owned being a climber. Being a mother has reminded me a lot of why I fell in love with climbing—it is an incredible way to experience the world. Motherhood has helped me appreciate climbing and life with a beginner’s mind again—which is one of the most enjoyable ways to spend your days. When you have that beginner’s mind and approach, everything is new and exciting. Theo teaches me this every day—each day is a new adventure for him. There’s tears and tantrums, but moments of ecstatic joy and discovery.
Bringing that beginner’s mind to something that I’ve been doing for over two decades has meant rekindling a love and passion that is just part of who I am, it’s woven into me. Motherhood has taught me how to love another being more than I thought possible, and in turn, that has helped me love and appreciate myself—including my new body.
Those smaller breasts at 16 might have made me feel more “normal,” but it would have been masking the true me. My true me, right now, has a little belly, even bigger breasts than normal and stick arms. But I like those stick arms now. After all, they’ve hoisted me up some of the hardest routes in the world. And my big breasts are nourishing my little boy. Those are two things that I’m happy to be proud of.
Great read…thanks for taking one for the team. Self image is an interesting game whereas we end up feeling like parakeets in the end! Quite a deep conversation really – hitting hot topics like true freedom and sexuality, power and submission. This is the beginning of a project here in New Paltz, NY..the lovely Shawangunk Ridge, about power and being a female. http://www.photography4girls.com/about/
I hope you enjoy the thread of thought.
Thanks for the comment and kind words Cassandra! And thanks so much for the link – super awesome! All my best!
Thank you for writing this. I´m looking foward to my first baby being born in just five weeks. It has been hugely challenging to give my body over to someone else, and its tempting to think it´s temporary. It is good to hear about how you´ve adjusted and changed your perspective. I look forward to exploring the mountains and seeing them through new eyes with my son in the coming years.
Thanks for your comment Liz, really appreciate it. And big congrats on the little one coming shortly! It’s a huge learning lesson and a big adventure, but so far I am amazed each day and couldn’t imagine life any other way. Best of luck with your little one!
I can definitely identify with this! Large-breasted climber chica still nursing my 19 month old. Learning to be gentle with myself and enjoy every moment on the rock and with my son. Thank you for being so candid!
Thanks for your comment Adrian! And high five for still nursing – quite a feat 🙂 Thanks again for your comment, I really appreciate it. All my best.
Thank you for sharing! I am all the way over in Sweden. Im lying in my bed, fat and ready to pop my second child in 2 months. I started climbing after my first child(age 20) and Ive been struggling so much more with the way my body is changing this preagnancy then the one before. I am thinking about all the time I am losing not climbing. Reading your post made me reflect on what I am actually doing and not on what I am missing, so thank you for that! Keep taking care of yourself and Theo!
Hi Linn! Thanks so much for your comment and congrats on your second kiddo! Super exciting. I totally can relate, it’s hard to think about what you are missing out on. I definitely struggle with that at times. Thankfully Theo is a constant reminder on what I’ve gained 🙂 Thanks again for your comment, really appreciate it! And you’ll have to let me know how it is having two kiddos! All my best.
This is so brave, Beth.
Awe, thanks Kim! Appreciate the kind words 🙂
Beth, I hope I get to meet you sometime in life. There are so many good and true things you said here. I am a runner and also a mother and I climb when I get the chance. First of all I totally agree with feeling like you are starting a new after having a baby, at least for me I feel like I take advantage of every opportunity to run and climb. And I have recently been the opposite when it comes to breasts after nursing was over it was a big loss in that department, but I like what you said because it reminds me that I am still reaching my goals even if I don’t have the right chest or butt. So thank you, I know so many women who are in this boat and will benefit from your words.
Hi Marni – Thank you so much for your comment and reaching out, it really means a lot to hear from women in the same boat. It is hard for me to see the long road and bigger picture, but I am so much happier when I do.
Thanks again for your comment, I really appreciate it. If you are ever in Yosemite, give me a shout! All my best!
Thank you so much for this post. It came at a great time. I struggled with self criticism even before having my son and it’s only gotten worse. It’s reassuring to know that even one of my climbing Heros has the same struggles. It makes it feel so much less lonely 🙂 thank you for your bravery and honesty in posting this – a message so many moms need to hear.
Hi Tracie – Thanks so much for your message. You are definitely not alone! Trust me 🙂 Just by reaching out I know that it is a great comfort to me and a lot of other people out there, so thank YOU. All my best!
Thanks for this great post. In general, I’ve really enjoyed reading your blog over the last year and a half. All the interviews with pro female climber, and their decisions to have or not have kids have been interesting. It’s such an infrequently discussed part of the climbing world. And I’ve really appreciated the light you’ve been shining on it.
And now, being candid with all your experiences, good and bad, about being a mom is definitely a refreshing change from the dominant narrative about how it’s all beautiful and easy.
Thanks for your honesty and dedication to what you’re doing!
Thanks so much Emily, really appreciate your kind words. All my best!
Thanks for writing this Beth. I am actually really struggling with what you struggled with. I have been climbing only about 2 years and I am naturally really curvy (Latina girl, its the genetics!) I have double Ds actually. Climbing has helped me loose weight. It’s changed my life honestly. I love going out and bouldering but anytime my boyfriend (who taught me how to climb and has been climbing since he was a kid) and I take trips to Yosemite, bishop or jtree to Boulder for the season my insecurities pop up and they stay there throughout the entire trip. Going to these “Meccas” like camp 4 or bishop means that you get to see those women who are just super fit and really can climb. It’s like they weigh nothing! I struggle with it every time climbing season comes around. Sometimes I don’t even climb I’ll just watch. It’s like I’m 16 again and I don’t want to go to gym class. Very ugly feeling. I just have to accept the fact that I have a big chest and maybe certain climbs will be too difficult. (Which sucks because I like off -width for example but the chest makes it super painful sometimes) Anyways thanks for the honesty. its almost comforting to read about your struggle and trying to overcome it, even when you’ve accomplished so much. My mother always tells me the longest and most intense relationship a woman will ever have is the relationship with yourself and learning to love yourself completely. She says she still struggles at 65. The older I get the more I know what she means. Take care!
Thanks so much for your comment and reaching out Eilene! Your mom sounds like a very wise woman 😉 If you see me around Yosemite next time you are here, please reach out! Thanks again, all my best 🙂
Please keep on sharing this stuff. It’s so powerful for those of us who are athletes on a smaller scale to know one of our superheros is having similar struggles and realizations. I have gone through a similar journey with motherhood. My little guy took me on the shortest, steepest path to seeing what really matters. He is 7 years old now and I still catch myself sometimes missing my abs or my full strength. Upon reflection though, I know I am a much better (and fortunate) human being for taking this journey. Thanks again, and good luck to you in everything!
Thanks so much for the incredibly kind words Christine! I really appreciate it!
Thank you for having the courage to be so vulnerable in such a public forum. I am a mother to an almost 14 month old and a 2 week old. Both my babies were adopted so I am not adjusting to the changes of pregnancy. However, prior to our 1st adoption I struggled with frozen shoulder in both my shoulders for nearly 2 years and as a result lost a lot of fitness and strength. Now that we are parenting to little ones I no longer have the freedom to train and climb as I did previously. I can definitely relate both to equating fitness and strength to happiness and to those quiet thoughts about, “if I were a real athlete I would get up extra early to fit it al in.” Motherhood has been the most incredible experience of my life and taught me so much about living simply, about being selfless, about acceptance, and letting go of what I can’t control. And although I wouldn’t change anything about my life I do still struggle with thoughts about where I want my fitness to be and how I want my body to look. So thank you again for sharing a story many woman and many mothers can relate to.
Hi Nicole – thank you so much for your heartfelt comment. I am amazed by you, a 14 month old and a 2 week old!? Simply amazing. I am so sorry to hear about your frozen shoulder. I had a brief stint of that after my shoulder surgery and found it to be incredibly painful and limiting. Your words about motherhood teaching you about acceptance and letting go of what you can’t control really ring true to me. Thanks again for reaching out!
Thank you so much for this candid post, Beth. As I read it I felt like you were articulating much of what I’m feeling as a first time mother. I too thought i would bounce back very quickly due to breastfeeding and having an active lifestyle pre-pregnancy. Despite my efforts, I weigh the same as the day I came home from the hospital. As I become more comfortable in my new body, (and new clothes) I realize my priorities have shifted. I no longer wrap my identity so tightly in my fitness level or climbing adventures, but rather am seeing myself as a mother who is nourishing her newborn. I too have worked very hard on breastfeeding and am feeling proud I have overcome challenges. Climbing has no doubt taught me how to persevere through life’s challenges and as a result I have a happy healthy daughter. Thank you again for sharing your insights with the world.
Thanks so much for your comment Kate, I really appreciate it. Climbing is a great teacher of perseverance 🙂 and sounds like you are doing an amazing job with your little girl. Thanks again for reaching out, it’s wonderful to hear from you. All my best!
Wow that is just amazing thank-you. I hope you and the other female climbers out there realise hope much of an inspiration you guys are. I am at the other end my kids are grown up. One has been through a really rough patch and because of that I became so mentally and physically exhausted that I just didn’t have the energy to do anything. My child went away for a while. From that I had put on a hell of a lot of weight but being a single parent and really stubborn decided that I would get back into climbing. I might be one of the biggest female climbers but it has saved me. I still have a long road to go but love every second even if it does piss me off that I can’t do a move. Any yer big boobs are a pain in saying that we have them. . I know my boobs do get in the way but like my weight I am learning how to get around that and I am losing weight as the same time. I have meet so many amazing climbers who are supportive and a very good friend who has written me a training programme for the next two years as I have goal. I wish people like you had been around when my kids were growing up. So once again love reading your posts and thank you
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I want to echo what has already been said in the comments above – your honesty is refreshing and inspiring. I have a son who is only a few months younger than Theo. I hated being pregnant because of the loss of control over my body. I’m loving being a mom so much more than I ever thought I would but I still find it hard to accept the loss of my peak fitness. It has forced me to re-evaluate why I climb. The conclusion that I’ve come to is that I just love it too much to not do it! So learning acceptance is the name of the game…thank you for making me feel like I’m not alone!
Hi Amy! Thank you so much for your comment and reaching out! It’s is so great to hear from everyone. And I totally hear you about having a hard time letting go of the peak fitness, but glad that you love climbing too much to stop 🙂 That was my conclusion too! If you are ever in Yosemite let me know, we can get the little guys together! Thanks again, and all my best!
Hi Beth, I also have D cups, 30D, but D cups nonetheless that always feel particularly swollen 2 weeks of every month, in fact, one of the nice things about my period is that i know that I get two weeks of slightly smaller not so sensitive breasts before my monthly hormone cycle hits again. Reading your post, i chuckled to myself, because the thinking was so similar to mine. My friends think I am being absurd, but the thing is, most other stronger girls don’t have such a large chest, and if i want to go running, i need to layer two sports bras, or a sports bra and a tank top with a sports bra. also, i’m asian, which means my chinese grandmother once told me that i could advertise for a breast enlargement pill as we were both watching TV. i’ve found that simple triangle bras without wires paired with a tanktop with built-in bras feel nicer, and work for places with short approaches, and on long car camping trips, to always bring simple tanktops for relief against the compression in the evening. I’ve been climbing for 5 years now, and have traveled a lot of Europe for climbing, (expat living in Germany), and very much want children in my life. Over the years with injuries and accidents, I’ve learned a bit of patience, and i look forward to accepting and discovering my body through pregnancies (i hope!). i’ve followed your pregnancy blog from the beginning, and i think its a great record of the experience. i hope to meet you someday! we were in fontainebleau at the same time this spring, as I gathered from your posts, but i didn’t have the luck to run into your crew (5’1” girl who really likes crack climbing, you and lynn hill are natural idols. astroman is a route on my dreamlist, next time i make it to the Valley 🙂
Hi Lisa! Thanks so much for the message! It’s funny that in junior high school it was a dream to have a large chest, and then when I started climbing it turned the opposite. It’s nice to hear from another woman out there that has similar thoughts 🙂 Thanks for the super kind words on the blog, I’m glad that you liked them. We are hoping to head to Font again this year as it’s just too perfect of a place for Theo and for us! Let us know if you are heading over there as well 🙂 Thanks again for reaching out! All my best!
Thank you very much for sharing. You are truly an inspiration Beth! I can definitely relate to your past being a girl with large breasts that has always been skinny despite how many boxes of pizza I engulfed. I am new to the climbing world and I am slowly taking on the new interest, but I have been a competitive volleyball player most of my life. Similarly, the sport changed the way I viewed my body, I was getting physically stronger and the results were reassuring. Becoming a first time mom at 23 has been a challenging yet rewarding journey (my son will soon turn 1 this November). I’m in the situation that I am still breastfeeding but I have lost too much weight where now I weigh far less than I did before I became pregnant along with the major insecurity I still cannot get over ->the excessive abdominal stretch marks and extra skin that I cannot seem to fix. It seems that whatever nutrition I am getting from food goes directly to him and instinctly as a mother I don’t mind that at all, he deserves every drop. After reading your story I do have to say I feel much better and gave thought to my insecurities acknowledging that I did give birth naturally to a 9.4lb baby haha and as mothers what could be more of a blessing than holding your little one so close and seeing them grow 🙂
Thank you for inspiring me to take one day at a time with an open mind and heart full of love & appreciation, God bless you and your beautiful family!
Thanks so much for your comment and reaching out Alba! And congrats on your boy and being such an amazing mama to him! All my best!
oh I’m right there with you – with the love of outdoors (although NOT your mad skill!), big boobs, body image stuff, a baby named Theo (4m!), trouble breastfeeding, a new appreciation for my bod and the beginners mind of babyhood. Thanks for giving voice to this story! Love that pic of you two on a rock, can’t wait to introduce T to the great outdoors, we got out on a few hikes before the weather turned for winter here in the PNW. Here’s to many more adventures to come with our Theos!
Thanks so much for your comment and message Jess! And congrats on baby Theo! Great name 😉 Hope you and T are doing well. Thanks again and all my best!
You have turned into a strong and beautiful woman, Beth…as well as an excellent writer and inspiring mother. You have a lot to be proud of. Would love to meet Theo sometime! XOs
Awe thanks Channa! Would love to have Theo meet you and the family soon! Hope you all are wonderful!