THE FEMALE BODY IMAGE IN CLIMBING

If you have been active on Social Media during the past days, you probably came across Matilda Söderlund’s posting about body image in climbing – and the comments, shares, experiences. Matilda had received a quite rude message by someone telling her to be more aware of the impact climbing has on her physical appearance and that it makes her less feminine. It went viral, and started a discussion about body image in climbing. It’s great to have this discussion because normally this is topic is swept under the table, hardly anyone ever talks about it.

It’s not only about looking too muscular as a (female) climber and therefore not fitting in the social stereotype as a woman. Female athletes experience pressure to conform to social and sporting norms concerning body weight. And talking about weight in climbing, we learn quite early that being leaner and skinnier makes us better lead climbers. Several very successful climbers who also serve as role models for younger generations are so skinny that it doesn’t look and probably isn’t healthy anymore. And yet, you might have experienced it yourself – being lighter will help your climbing performance. Where is the boundary of being lean, maybe even skinny, but still healthy? As a climber, even if it might not always be present, we are in a constant dilemma of being told how to look like by society, and learning from climbing role models how to look like in order to be successful – skinny, muscular, strong, lean. The cognitive dissonance of this can have its effects on our physical and mental well-being as I will explain later on.

Since this is a topic which is so often swept under the table, it’s so important it is to address it, to share our experiences, to support each other. It’s still an occurring topic. It is so important to address, to be aware, and maybe even counteract it.

Yesterday I received this message (swipe). While I think this message was somewhere between pathetic and creepy 💩 it's (sadly) not the first time getting a message like this, commenting on how I "should look" or that I should be aware of getting "too muscular". It doesn't affect me and I don't care what those people think. I'm super proud of my body and what it is capable of. It's my tool that allows me to do awesome things, like climbing walls. But it has taken me a long time to feel the way I do about my body. And teenage me would have cared. ~ Like a lot of other girls, I struggled with body image when I was in my teens (I've been climbing and competing since I was 11 years old). I was "too tall, too skinny, my legs where too long, my shoulders too wide" and the list went on. Many athletes feel like they have both a social body image and an athletic body image - often times the ideal images of these two are both unattainable and impossible to combine. I felt like I couldn't satisfy any of these. E.g. for a whole summer I didn't want to wear clothes that showed off my shoulders (outside the climbing gym) and there was even a period of time where I didn't want to train my upper body because I thought my shoulders were "too masculine" 🤔🙄 That's definitely not the case anymore but it sure has taken time to get over. ~ And seriously. Let people do what they want & look how they want and let's kill the social construct that being strong and having a functional body isn't considered feminine. I don't train to look a certain way, I train to become a better climber and in doing so my body will adapt in different ways (just the fact that our bodies are capable of that is really cool!). And if I did train to look a certain way that would be just fine too. Ok, I'm gonna hit the gym now, bye 👋🏼💪🏼 Pic by @arveforce 👑

Here are some examples I have experienced myself – as a climber, as a friend or as a sport psychologist:

  • Coach to female athlete “Do you really still need to eat this bar of chocolate?”

  • Non-climber to a climber “Your biceps is so big. Can you flex it, so I can touch it?”

  • Coach to female athlete “Look at this skinny climber. If you want to be successful, you have to be as skinny as her.”

  • About a female climber “Have you seen her? Her shoulders are bigger than any of the guys. I bet she can lift her boyfriend up with only one hand.”

  • Discussions among climbers (!): “Would you rather be as strong as her and looking so masculine, or would you prefer climbing a bit weaker but looking normal?”

  • Well, and you have read Matilda’s post.

Have you experienced situations like this yourself? How did you feel? Well, you might realise that such questions or comments do not make us feel strong, confident or beautiful at all. Questions like this rather make us question ourselves whether we are doing the right thing, whether it’s worth putting in all this effort. They can make us doubt ourselves. Am I accepted the way I am?

The definition of “body image” and “body dissatisfaction”

Body image is defined as the internal representation of our outer appearance (Thompson, et al., 1999). Body image refers to our subjective personal interpretation of our body and has cognitive, emotional, and behavioral dimensions. It may change with altering situations and contexts (de Bruin et al., 2011; Tiggemann, 2004) and is influenced by prevalent cultural norms concerning ideal body shape propagated in the media (Levine & Murnen, 2009; Tiggemann, 2006).

Body dissatisfaction occurs when there is a mismatch between our image of our own body, particularly body shape and weight, and the body perceived as ideal. Body dissatisfaction is associated with drive for thinness, dieting, disordered eating patterns, and the development of clinical eating disorders (Hargreaves & Tiggemann, 2003; Goldschmidt et al., 2012; Shroff & Thompson, 2006; Stice et al., 2011; Stice & Shaw, 2002; Stice, Ng, & Shaw, 2010). Disturbances of body image are particularly widespread in North America, Europe, and other developed countries. The estimated cost of body image disturbance in our society – independently of whether we do sports or not – is out of proportion as high as it is and it is manifested through, for example, cosmetic surgery, diet products, and mental and physical illnesses (Thompson et al., 1999).

We distinguish between the athlete’s ‘sporting’ body and their ‘social’ body. An athlete might e.g. be satisfied with their body shape and figure in the social environment, but dissatisfied with their body in the sporting environment, or the vice versa (de Bruin et al., 2011).

The risk of sports

Generally, doing sports, among others of course climbing, is associated with a many positive implications, such as physiological and psychological well-being including cardiovascular fitness, better mood, and self-esteem (Bartholomew, Morrison, & Ciccolo, 2005). However, sports also involves a certain amount of risk. Research shows that the prevalence of eating disorders and disordered eating is higher in athletes compared to non-athletes (Holm-Denoma et al., 2009). Particularly female athletes are more prone to compulsive exercising and pathological weight loss methods, such as abuse of laxatives and diet pills, self-induced vomiting, and fasting, with the aim of attaining superior physical condition and achieving top sporting performance (Bratland-Sanda & Sundgot-Borgen, 2012; Currie, 2010; Torstveit et al., 2008).

In the general population, the lifetime prevalence of the eating disorders anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa is about three times higher for females than males (Hudson et al., 2007). The typical age of onset of eating disorders is between 14 and 25 years of age (Baker et al., 2012; Hudson, et al., 2007). This goes align with what e.g. Matilda Söderlund said:

“Like a lot of other girls, I struggled with body image when I was in my teens (I’ve been climbing and competing since I was 11 years old). I was “too tall, too skinny, my legs where too long, my shoulders too wide” and the list went on. Many athletes feel like they have both a social body image and an athletic body image – often times the ideal images of these two are both unattainable and impossible to combine. I felt like I couldn’t satisfy any of these. E.g. for a whole summer I didn’t want to wear clothes that showed off my shoulders (outside the climbing gym) and there was even a period of time where I didn’t want to train my upper body because I thought my shoulders were “too masculine” 🤔🙄 That’s definitely not the case anymore but it sure has taken time to get over.”

I’m not saying Matilda had an eating disorder. But what she points out herself is that our teens are a very vulnerable time where we question ourselves, our body, what we do and who we are. In such sensitive socio-psychological developmental phases, we are more likely to develop e.g. eating disorders, particularly if the discrepancy of our social body image and athletic body image is really big and we don’t experience support by our coaches, friends and family.

The consequence of an unhealthy athletic body image

As I have said earlier, being lighter in lead climbing has its benefits. However, research emphasises that in sports that require leanness or low body weight (e.g. lead climbing), the pressure towards low body weight is likely to be magnified. These athletes are more critical of their sporting bodies compared to their social bodies and have stricter sporting body ideals (de Bruin et al., 2011). Athletes from leanness focused sports (such as lead climbing) report higher rates of disordered eating and eating disorder symptoms compared to athletes from sports that do not have body weight or body shape requirements (Byrne & McLean, 2002; Torstveit et al., 2008). Even if there is no explicit data for climbing, you can see the impact of the sporting requirements.

Generally, athletes from leanness focused sports reported higher levels of body dissatisfaction and greater disordered eating symptomatology regardless of participation level. Elite athletes reported higher levels of body dissatisfaction and greater disordered eating symptomatology regardless of sport type. There are no differences between recreational and noncompetitive athletes (Kong & Harries, 2015).

What is also interesting is that more than 60% of elite athletes, particularly female athletes feel pressured from coaches concerning body shape (Kong & Harries, 2015; Muscat & Long, 2008). Also parental and peer play an important role in athlete’s body dissatisfaction if they propagate thin ideals – again, particularly for young females (Francisco, Alarcao & Narciso, 2012; Eisenberg & Neumark-Sztainer, 2010; Field et al., 2011).

Last but not least, if you watch the media coverage of women in sport, also in climbing, there is still often a focus on appearance (e.g. bikini photos, lots of make up), rather than performance, regardless of sport type (Weber & Carini, 2013).

To sum it up, our social and athletic body image differs, with the effect of this constant cognitive dissonance possibly having an impact on our mental health. It’s important create awareness of this topic, and openly talk about it. Thanks Matilda for bringing this topic up.

If you have any questions, leave a comment underneath or send me a direct message.

As always, here is the link to the literature. I pointed out the different articles throughout the text, so you can further read the papers if you are interested.