Emmie Harrison-West shares her experience of being a plus size climber, body positivity and how we can encourage people of all shapes, sizes and abilities into the sport...
Looking at me, you'd be forgiven for thinking that I didn't look like your average climber.
When I say 'your average rock climber,' I'm sure that you automatically think of climbing as being a 'man's' sport. The stereotype is that of a topless, tanned and rugged macho male with a slender, toned, and muscular physique. And that's OK - it's what we see in magazines, on films, and social media.
You certainly don't see climbers like me. Firstly, I'm a woman - and secondly, I'm fat. In a sport where gravity is your biggest enemy, you certainly don't want to have breasts or a big stomach weighing you down, right?
I first discovered rock climbing in late 2019 when I moved to Walthamstow, East London. My husband was a regular climber, and had been encouraging me to join him for months at our local climbing centre.
At first, I laughed in his face. Me? A size 14/16 woman, complete with 36DD breasts and a bulging stomach trying to scramble up a wall? I laughed even harder when I discovered that I'd be climbing without a rope.
My mind was cast back to the years of being bullied in school for jiggling when I ran around the field, or when my sports bra wasn't supportive enough to jump in netball without drawing some stares.
I could feel the burning eyes and smirks of the popular girls at school - popular because they were slender, had athletic figures and hardly seemed to break a sweat. Whereas for me, I broke out into a sweat trying to put my sports bra on.
It's no lie that I developed an unhealthy, toxic relationship with my weight and exercise. I was an emotional eater, and when I felt guilty about the food I ate - I'd eat more from the shame. Then, when I was exhausted from hating myself, I turned to exercise - and hated that too.
I made myself sweat until I felt sick. I saw exercise as a form of punishment, and never as a means of pleasure. Big girls like me weren't supposed to like exercising; they simply didn't just go on a jog, or go bouldering, they exercised to lose weight - because they needed to.
I'd convinced myself over the years, decades even, that I wasn't made for sport. That fat girls like me didn't have the arm strength, or capacity, to do something like rock climbing.
One day, I'd had enough. I was sick of feeling like I was stagnating indoors, afraid of a challenge for fear of what people would think of me. Sick of choosing a sedentary lifestyle simply because I was worried what I looked like in leggings. Finally, I agreed to go bouldering.
It didn't come without a fight, though. In the run up to my first session, I lost sleep from anxiety and dark thoughts. What would people think of me? Did I deserve to be there? What would my thighs look like in leggings?
Would they think I was too fat?
Since I was a plus-sized woman, I felt like I didn't deserve space to exercise for pleasure. I felt like I wasn't worthy to be scaling a wall in a climbing centre alongside my husband.
I'd dream up scenarios of falling off a wall, surrounded by the popular girls at school pointing and laughing at me. Or I'd reach up for a handhold and it'd snap off from the sheer weight of me, or I wouldn't be able to see where to put my foot next since my belly was in the way.
When I first walked into my local climbing centre, I hid behind my slender husband - but I was welcomed with open arms, by a woman. I watched her, predicting the moment when her eyes inevitably darted down my body at my bulging chest, and thick legs like everyone else's did. Hers never did, she simply asked what shoe size I was.
I felt myself smiling; she didn't cock her head in sympathy at me, or say she was proud of me for coming and wanting to lose weight. She didn't wish me luck. She grinned and pointed out the beginners wall, promising that I'd love every minute.
Taking a deep breath, I stepped into the cavern. I was mesmerised by the flurries of colour littering the walls that towered above me, marking out routes to the top.
I saw men, women and children skittering around the walls, dusty fingerprints lingering on just about every surface like a crime scene. If anyone looked over at me, I'd quickly cast my eyes to the ground, feeling my face blushing. I was convinced their eyes were lingering on my body, noticing how my curves mirrored the ballooning wall structure.
'You've got this,' my husband smiled, his chalky hands outstretched, guiding me to the wall. Looking up, I felt breathless. I had to crane my neck to see the top, and I was terrified. I couldn't stop thinking about what I'd look like from below...
Jug by jug, I shakily climbed the wall - knees trembling and fingertips aching. I made it to the top with a relieved sigh, but I was too terrified to look down and my confidence quickly evaporated. Closing my eyes, and remembering what I was told about safely jumping down, I leapt into the air.
As I lay on my back at the bottom - cushioned by a crash mat - I started laughing. 'I did it!' I shouted. I'd never felt happier, or more alive. My husband grinned, high-fiving me as I got to my feet. My whole body pulsed with adrenaline and excitement. I'd found my sport.
Dusting myself down, I jumped back onto the wall - I couldn't stop smiling. I didn't have any room in my head for dark thoughts, or worries about what my bum looked like from 10ft up. I focused on where best to put my toes, my fingers, how to glance down at the best foothold for supporting my body in order to get to the top.
I started watching other people, their swift movements, and cheered with them when they overcame something challenging. After a few months, they started watching me for my technique. And if I fell, or my fingers slipped, I laughed and dusted myself off - eager to keep going.
Sadly, when the coronavirus pandemic hit, climbing centres across the world had to shut their doors to their dedicated communities. Before lockdown, I had reached my happy medium; I exercised to become stronger, and balanced it with a healthy diet. Nothing food-wise was banned for me, and I started to build up my shattered self-esteem, and began to love myself for the woman - and weight - I was.
I won't lie, but the dark thoughts started encroaching once again. I missed the feeling of conquering something tricky, and now I was back to stagnating indoors, the place I was when I had low self-esteem and despised myself. I turned to empty children's playgrounds and (safely) practised on mini outdoor walls, keeping the love flowing for my sport.
Thankfully, when my climbing centre reopened on Monday 12 April, I couldn't stop smiling. The dark thoughts flew away as I moved through the air, laughing and sweating while covered in chalk.
I know I will never be like the gym bunnies who dart up the wall, clad in shorts and a sports bra - but I've become proud of my body. Yes, sometimes my chest or stomach gets in the way, or gravity gets the better of me when it comes to an overhang, but I'm so proud of my body.
I feel stronger than ever, and I even amaze and impress myself sometimes. I'm hoping to start training on competition walls soon, or take my bouldering outdoors and join those topless male climbers, with the so-called "climber's physique", at the top.
I know now that I deserve to take up space when I exercise, and I always have. It was other people's perception of my body that was harmful, but I know that I have reached my own version of happiness and they have a big hill to climb to reach theirs.
I want to change perceptions of what a climber 'should' look like, quashing stereotypes and so-called typical climbing physiques. No one should ever feel ashamed to climb, or take part in something they love simply because of the number written in their clothes.
I'm Emmie, and I am worthy of being a fat female rock climber.
Let's face it, no one ever overcomes their fears or anxieties overnight - but it's definitely worth a shot. Here are my tips on how to overcome your demons when it comes to exercising:
- Find sportswear that actually fits - There's nothing worse than being conscious of your pillowing side-boob from a badly fitted sports bra, or constantly pulling up your leggings that are way too big. Spend some time researching the best sportswear for you that makes you feel supported and confident.
- Try it first - You don't need to dive into the deep end by shelling out big money for a membership straight away. Find a way to sample the sport you fancy a shot at. If it's climbing, make your way to an outdoor climbing wall at a playground like I did (and if it is safe to do so). The pandemic has meant so many sports have gone online too, so there will be tons of tutorials and practice classes online, on platforms like Youtube.
- Follow people like you - Social media is a blessing at times. There are millions of people online, and therefore definitely people that look like you. Fill your feed with social media influencers or users that you admire and whose confidence you aspire to mirror. I follow @fatoldclimber on Instagram, and you can check out UKC's interview with him here.
- Avoid tracking apps (if you can) - Tracking apps can be great if you want to track your fitness, and beat your personal bests - but they can be a curse, too. It is easy to become obsessed and addicted to tracking calories and steps, as well as easy to compare yourself to other people on the app and punish yourself for not 'doing enough'. Find your happy medium, and stay in control.
- If it doesn't make you happy, ditch it - Lastly, if an exercise you wanted to try out doesn't give you pleasure - you need to get rid. Some people love running marathons, while others love a brisk walk, or slow cycle. Exercise shouldn't be a form of punishment, but a means of making you happy. You can't force yourself to do a sport that you don't love, and life is too short - scrap it, and try something new.