This is a story about climbing a rock.
I was a shy, introverted kid growing up. Around adults I was lively and friendly, but I didn’t know how to talk to kids my age. I was the quiet weird girl with the transition-lense glasses, who drew cartoons and wrote short stories about fantasy creatures. My best friend in middle school was a film-obsessed know-it-all girl with a pixie cut (which in those years was not a cool hairstyle). And I hated the way I looked. My worries about my physical appearance kept me from doing a lot of things I wanted, like learning how to surf, or climb, or skateboard, or do Junior Lifeguards.
It was difficult for me to grow up in my body, as a girl. I was never encouraged to be active or resourceful like my brothers or my male cousins. At family gatherings, my relatives would always comment on my appearance as a way to start conversation. Not, “Wow, you’re so much taller!” or, “You look so grown up!” like they would tell the boys. No, instead I always heard, “You’re really putting on some pounds, girl!” or the friendlier, “Have you lost weight? You look so much skinnier than you were three months ago.” It was, at the very least, extremely embarrassing. At the worst, it was soul-crushing.
When I was in middle school, I watched the cool girls from a distance with an obvious longing. They were everything I wished I could be: surfers, gymnasts, camping pros, horseback riders, sculptors. They wore thrift shop overalls and hiking boots to school, and they were friends with all the boys. They knew how to sew their own clothes and beat anyone at an arm wrestle. Their hair was long, wavy, and sun-bleached. And they didn’t give a shit about being liked.
They were the most fucking badass women I had ever seen.
Now me, with my Walmart t-shirts and rainbow Vans, was not like these girls. I was afraid to talk to them because I couldn’t walk a half-mile up a hill without breaking a sweat, let alone run all the way up Bishop’s Peak. I had never been an athletic kid, partly because it wasn’t a priority in my family, but mostly because I didn’t want anyone to watch my fat jiggle when I ran. I was more of the, “watch Disney movies and do crafts in the house by myself” kind of girl. It was lonely. My parents didn’t notice, because they thought I was an artist and that’s just how I rolled. But it was really, really lonely.
My self-esteem issues and the longing to be like those nature girls followed me throughout middle school, almost to the end of high school. The hardest thing for me, which kept me from thriving in a lot of “male-dominated” activities like surfing or baseball, was wanting to be liked by boys. That has always been a big part of my insecurity, even now in my adult life. I have always been an outdoorsy person at heart, but when I was younger I was convinced that it was “the boy thing”. Like when I joined Girl Scouts expecting to learn how to tie knots, and ended up selling cookies outside of Target. I learned by example that it was weird for a girl to like playing in the mud. So I never pursued a life like that. I believed that sort of stuff until I met those wild girls in middle school.
I became friends with one of them in seventh grade. We weren’t close back then, but she invited me to the beach and on hikes, and as scared as I was, I went anyway. It made me feel better to be included by someone active and fun, who could introduce me to other cool outdoorsy people like her. I was beginning to think I could do anything, and that my interest in the outdoors wasn’t so weird after all.
But I had a crush on a boy. He was friends with my new friends, and we had a couple of classes together. He could climb fences, make fires, and do cool shit with a butterfly knife. He was funny and popular, had a mop of messy curly hair, and I was crazy about him. I never said anything to him, but everyone else could tell. I thought he liked me too because he was really kind and we almost held hands once when we were doing an obstacle course. But then we went to a birthday party at a park that had a jungle gym. And, as I have already mentioned, I was not an athletic kid.
I didn’t have the arm strength to climb up the side of this thing. (I could never even do monkey bars). I wanted to. I tried to race the boys to the top, but I couldn’t, and I fell off. They laughed at me and pointed. I can’t remember where my new girlfriends were, but I know that I didn’t have any encouragement that day. So I decided to sit on the see-saw and just watch them. At which point, the messy-haired, wily boy I had a crush on shouted to his friends: “Dude, do you think she’ll break the see-saw?”
I remember saying something along the lines of, “Excuse me?” to which I was ignored. One of his smarter friends said, “Yo, that’s not cool, man,” and probably asked him if he knew I liked him (because everyone else did). And then the big bomb was dropped, the one that he said so quietly that his other friend had to repeat louder so I could hear. All of my worries, the reasons I stayed away from sports, the loneliness that followed me, the things I felt when I looked in the mirror, washed over my mind like a tsunami, destroying anything good that was left. I heard laughter, and shouting, and then: “Dude, Mandie, he said he doesn’t date fat girls! Can you take a hint?”
So, yeah. I didn’t feel good enough to be a badass nature girl that day. Or for the next four years.
The impact of “I don’t date fat girls” left a tattoo of never enough on my heart for years. I was constantly reminded of my weight every day, and I hated myself for it. Even in high school, when I tried out school sports and started dating, I was disgusted with my body. That spurred an ongoing battle with depression and a track-record of dropping out of sports mid-season. I believed that I couldn’t be myself or do what I wanted until I looked good. Rock-climbers looked good. Olympic swimmers looked good. Yogis looked good. There were never fat, ugly Yogis.
I am writing this from a very vulnerable place, because I went to the climbing gym for the first time last night. I have always wanted to learn how to climb, but in addition to feeling generally inadequate at sports, I have a crazy fear of heights and I am thoroughly intimidated by anyone who is better than me at anything. I still have a horrible record for the number of push-ups I can do, so that doesn’t help. But I wanted to do it so badly, that I wasn’t going to let my fear hold me back this time.
When I walked in, the place was crowded with college kids, specifically super ripped women and really, really attractive men. There were people ten feet above me on the harder courses, supporting themselves with just their arms, their legs swinging in the air like it was nothing. Suddenly I didn’t feel like climbing anymore. I was terrified; I didn’t want to be on that jungle gym again. I didn’t want to fall off and give up and be laughed at. I didn’t want to hear “I don’t date fat girls” ringing in my ears.
But then I got mad. I was never really fat. I was never incapable of doing the things I wanted. I was never at the mercy of those boys who could climb better than me. I learned how to surf. I can hike Bishop’s Peak now. I thought about the ballet training I got at AMDA for that short time, and how I can now do two hundred crunches. I have grown, I have learned, I have found a little more confidence. I still can’t do many push-ups, but I am getting there. Slowly.
So with a defiant rage I ran, without any chalk, to the first climbing course. And although I was afraid of falling, and terrified of the hot strangers around me, I climbed. I pulled myself up that wall like my life depended on it. And I reached the top. I lifted myself over the wall and looked back at the height I had just covered (and of course I was overwhelmed, because my fear of heights is really awful). But I realized that I fucking made it, without listening to the mean middle school boys who live in the back of my mind. I made it to the top. Then I climbed back down. Then I did it four more times. All the while, I was saying to myself: I am strong. I am a climber. I am a badass nature woman. I will be scaling mountains years from now. I can do whatever I want.
I still aspire to be like those girls in middle school. Luckily for me, we are still great friends, and I look up to them like crazy. But now I am a lot more like them. I have thrift shop overalls and hiking boots, plus I drive a Subaru. Practically the only thing I don’t have now that they do is the gas money to get to Yosemite. I was never much different from them, even when I was an awkward middle-schooler who drew pictures and rarely talked to anyone. I just didn’t know I was allowed to be like them. Now I know that I never even needed permission.
I am learning now that it doesn’t matter what I look like as long as I am strong enough to run. My body is my instrument, and I need the strength to do the things I have always wanted to do. To this day, I am still working on not letting the men get to me. Really I am working on not letting anyone get to me, but the guys are the worst for me. Through the snickers and chiding of the imaginary seventh-graders in my head, I will continue to do what makes me happy even though I’m not the best at it. My next challenge is overcoming my fear of falling. That, I think, is a lot better than having a fear of climbing in the first place.