In April 2017, pro climber Sasha DiGuilian wrote a striking article for Outside Online about the battle that she, and athletes like her, constantly struggle with as they live in the dual worlds of their sports and the world of feminine ideals.
On one hand, her body, honed to perfection to climb intensely difficult rock faces, reflects the demands of her sport. Her upper body ripples with power, her shoulders are broad, her lats wide and biceps powerful. Those are what make her the extreme athlete she is.
Her fingers are cranked and calloused. They aren’t made to show off diamonds and rubies. They are, however, perfectly made to pull her powerfully up a cliff so steep that it would make an onlooker suck in his breath.
However, put her in a dressing room and she’s in misery. Like so many other athletes, be they body builders or ice skaters, and it’s time for tears.
Sasha wrote honestly about how challenging it is to find a single dress that, while slipping easily over her boyish size 0 hips, her huge shoulders will defeat the zipper.
What, You Aren’t Perfect? SHAME on You
Society frowns on women who don’t fit the norm. And women like Sasha, who aren’t the norm, tend to blame themselves first. Diet or work out to change it, before they realize, screw this.
Many female climbers make the mistake of becoming anorexic or bulimic trying to get “the look” of a climber, ruining their bodies, strength, teeth and bones in the process. While focusing on the look, they forfeit long-term organ health and possibly their tooth enamel or even all their teeth just to gain that look.
What Makes an Athletic Body?
My big brother, Peter Hubbel, was a legendary climber in Colorado. He had that spidery, lean, rippling body. However he couldn’t put on weight if he’d downed a gallon of bacon drippings every meal. Sometimes we can’t do much with the package we have. Sometimes we can.
Not long after the Rio Olympics, I saw an article which posted photographs from Howard Schatz’s striking book of athlete’s bodies (https://www.amazon.com/s?field-keywords=Howard+Schatz+athlete).
The images were stunning, a revelation. And beautiful.
From tiny gymnasts to massively powerful deadlift champions, each of these people was the best in their sport. Each body was unique. Some were missing legs. Each was proud. Happy.
And that was the whole point.
As a woman who struggled with eating disorders for four decades, who reads these stories of today’s athletes with deep heartache, for me this book was a gift. Schatz slaps us with the reality that power and beauty come in every size, shape, color and form-and gender.
As they should.
It’s Not Just Women Anymore
Let’s be fair- it’s not just women. Men and male teenagers have begun to suffer what’s known as Bigorexia, a condition that is just as damaging to the male sex as eating disorders are to women (http://bddfoundation.org/muscle-dysmorphia-body-image-in-men/). Our preoccupation with perfection is killing us off- especially as we are bombarded with air-brushed and altered photos of super heroes and models who actually look nothing like their photos.
I’ve read articles by men so preoccupied with their workout schedule that they will leave a holiday table to work off the calories, eschewing precious time with family and friends for fear of gaining an ounce. I can relate. I’ve been there.
There is no perfect body. There is only the body we have, and how we can make it as healthy as possible. Not with abuse, but with humor, patience, affection and respect. That is the body that will allow us to live rich and rewarding lives, not driven to distraction by standards that are not only patently unfair, but lies in the first place.
Let’s Go Play
If one female athlete alone has taught us about strength and beauty, that would be Serena Williams. Thirty-nine Grand Slam titles. Winning-While-Pregnant. Thirty-six years old. Possibly the greatest athlete of our time, in any sport. I can think of no one better whose potency, beauty, grace and immense staying power through criticism, racism, body shaming and scrutiny have taught all of us what a female athlete can and should do in the face of unfair societal norms.
Show society the finger, ladies- and gentlemen.
Then climb, kayak, run, paddle, hike, ride, MTB, camp, skate, row, SUP, cycle, do yoga, lift, go adventure and play to your heart’s content.
And when your muscles get a little bigger, screw it. Buy a bigger size.
I say, let’s play.