A few months ago, I went on a weekend trip to Shelf Road, Colorado, and felt like I’d landed in the middle of a Sports Illustrated bikini shoot that everyone had got the memo about except for me. I was awash in a sea of shirtless bros, babes in skimpy sports bras, and influencers clad in painted-on leggings and crop tops. And I get it—it was 70 degrees out—way too hot to be climbing slippery limestone in anything but your skivvies.
But a crag’s dress code can make total sense and still spark all your deepest insecurities; instead of peeling off my shirt and joining the bacchanalia, I hiked up my pants, pulled down my sweater, and hunted for a warm-up in the darkest corner I could find.
Like many people, I put on weight during the pandemic. Some of it gathered around the middle, thanks to that now-classic lockdown combination of Netflix and homemade sourdough. But a lot of it, I’ll admit, was muscle weight—a body composition shift that some people might consider a dream. Let me be the first to tell you that it wasn’t.
When I found myself severely underemployed during the spring of 2020, I started training for competition ice climbing to stay busy. I had visions of dropping pounds, getting six-pack abs, and finally having a lithe, elusive “dream” climbing body. What really happened was that I put on back muscle, got thicker around the middle, grew huge arms, and had to go down a cup size. In striving for a body I could finally love, I ended up with one I found grotesque in a whole new way.
For the first time in 10 years, I started wearing earrings. I grew my hair out from its longstanding bob because I was afraid I was starting to look like a man.
I want to be upfront that I have a lot of privilege in having a relatively low “set weight,” or natural default size. Still, you can have all the genetic luck in the world and still roil with self loathing every time you look in the mirror.
Conversely, you can wiggle and roll and still find yourself sexy as all get out. Case in point: I have a few climbing partners who are a bit bigger than me, a bit curvier than me—and way better at baring it all, wearing whatever the hell they want to be comfortable, and letting the world just deal. I would watch them climb and dance at the crag and actually enjoy beer without freaking out about the calories and wonder: Why can’t I have that confidence? For years, I thought it could be mine if I just lost more weight. Now, I’ve realized that climbing confidently in a sports bra has nothing to do with how much I weigh. It’s not about having a smaller body—it’s about having a healthier mind.
Over the past few months I’ve ramped up on a few techniques I’d been trying half-heartedly for years. Turns out mental health is like any other kind of training: It only works if you’re consistent. I’m slowly learning to appreciate my body where it’s at. And I’m happy to report that a few weeks ago I returned to Shelf Road—and climbed in a sports bra almost the whole time. Here are a few things that helped me.
1. Practice body neutrality
If you’ve spent years thinking negatively about your body, it can feel impossible to stare into the mirror, tell yourself you look hot, and believe it. Body neutrality has become a popular and emerging alternative to body positivity. Whenever you catch yourself hating on your body, take a deep exhale, and instead tell yourself, “My body is OK.”
Think of your body as a neutral entity—just a tool for helping you do the things you love to do. When you start to believe that, then try moving on to more body-positive affirmations.
2. Buy clothes that actually fit—even if you have to buy a new wardrobe every year
This year, I threw out all my old leggings and bought exclusively high-waisted pants. I chalked it up as an investment in my mental health—and it was one of the best ones I’ve made this year.
Bras getting tight? Pants cutting into your belly? Throw that shit out. (Or donate it.) Keeping tiny old clothes around won’t serve you. It will just remind you of a previous body. Your weight might fluctuate again, or it might stay the way it is forever. That’s OK. The trick to actually enjoying life is embracing where you are in the present. And that’s hard to do if you’re clinging to some arbitrary pants size from your past.
3. Stand up straight
When I feel insecure, I shrink. Most people do. Hunching your shoulders, dropping your chin, or sitting with your arms wrapped around your knees is the human equivalent of a dog tucking its tail between its legs.
When you find yourself feeling insecure about your body or trying to hide your stomach or thighs or whatever, you can slow the negative thought spiral by standing up straight, rolling your shoulders back, and lifting your chin. This posture (sometimes known as a “power pose”) signal to your brain that you’re in a position of power, not insecurity. Also try smiling, which not only relieves stress but can calm fear and nerves on the wall, too.
4. Realize good alpinists are good eaters
I once attended a climbing clinic in Bozeman, Montana, taught by Kitty Calhoun, a legendary alpinist who’s put up big first ascents in Kyrgyzstan and Alaska and first female ascents on 8,000-meter peaks in the Himalaya. I overheard her talking to some of the male guides teaching a clinic nearby. One of them had asked her how she became such a good alpinist.
“I’ve got this womanly weight to keep me warm, and I’m really good at eating,” she said with a grin. “A lot of alpine climbing is sitting in a tent eating chocolate while you wait for the weather. And I can eat at altitude even when all the guys have lost their appetite.”
That perspective stuck with me. And as I’ve gotten more into alpine and ice climbing, I’ve realized it’s true. Yes, I put on weight more easily than my male partners—but I can keep fueling and keep pushing the pace well past many of my male partners in the mountains, too.
5. Reexamine your body ideal
For a long time, I thought I wanted to be smaller so that I could climb harder. But the deeper I’ve looked, the more I’ve realized that it’s not about that at all. It’s about a deep-seated fear that if I don’t look a certain way, if I don’t “look enough like an athlete” or “look feminine enough” I’ll be judged and found wanting. It will be discovered and widely accepted that I don’t actually fit in. I’ll lose my community and my identity. I’ll be rejected.
Sounds like a catastrophic overreaction, sure, but our brains are good at that, especially deep down.
So think about it. What do you actually want? Do you really think dropping those pounds will make you climb harder, finally send that project, and therefore be celebrated and praised by everyone you know? Or do you want to enjoy climbing right now, just the way you are?
An unhealthy relationship with your body will plague you for your entire life—trust me, I know. Counting calories, thinking about food, and wondering if other people can see your belly fat all take a huge amount of mental energy. Conversely, learning to accept yourself where you’re at frees up tons of cognitive bandwidth. You’ll suddenly have mental space for bigger dreams and healthier relationships with your friends and climbing partners. You’ll be more present at the crag. And it’s those things—not changing your body—that are guaranteed to make you a better climber.
Note: Improving your relationship with your body or with food can be a years-long process. If you feel like you’re struggling with body dysmorphia, disordered eating, or low self-esteem, consider seeking professional help from a therapist or other licensed mental health professional. See the National Eating Disorder Association for additional resources.