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Mind and Matter - Climbing and Body Image Article

© Sian Polhill-Thomas

Sian Polhill-Thomas explores body issues in climbing, and the growing culture of weight and shape fixation that some can be drawn into, or repelled by. TW: eating disorders, body dysmorphia, calorie counting. 


While researching for this essay I watched 'LIGHT', a film by Caroline Treadway, which depicts the dark underbelly of body image in rock climbing. In the documentary, Treadway articulately demonstrates how a few dirt bags drinking beer and making visionary first ascents turned into a collective weight-loss culture. The same can be said for most sports, for all participation levels. Freddie Flintoff talked recently about his battles with bulimia that started during his professional cricketing career and still haunt him to this day. When childhood idol Colin Jackson, who seemed to embody the epitome of athleticism, recently spoke about his battles with disordered eating during his athletic heyday, it didn't surprise me.

Sublime climbing on sandstone.  © Sian Polhill-Thomas
Sublime climbing on sandstone.
© Sian Polhill-Thomas

I look back at my own experience with body image. From carelessly running the 100 metre sprint hurdles in a red leotard at school sports day to competing in Belgium with the Welsh International Squad at the age of 15. A mammoth amount of hard work, dedication and sacrifice turned my childhood hobby into a profession, and the obsessive fat measuring, binging, and purging that took me away from it.

A climb one glorious day in Tunbridge Wells once again reshuffled and disordered the thoughts in my head. A beautiful sandstone route was the day's challenge, which ended in a loop of rocks; one you needed to weave your body through to complete the climb. The rock formation didn't allow for boobs and where others succeeded, my climb remained incomplete. Those complex anxieties you thought you'd tucked away, under your bed, in a box marked 'body issues', flood back. 

***

'I want to live my life with this sense of exploration I've only come to in adulthood'. Harrison spent his childhood grounded; the vertical life, enjoyed by his peers, was a no go. 'Overweight' and therefore deficient in the boundless physical energy most children of his age had in spades. Climbing trees proved a daunting prospect and running upstairs left him breathless. Having spent roughly 12 months counting calories and running long-distance, six stone was eventually shed from Harrison's adolescent frame.

The perils of youth and young manhood seemingly behind him, this slender new graduate was looking for a pursuit that engaged him both physically and mentally, and climbing seemed the obvious choice. It also unlocked a new dimension for Harrison, one that his childhood didn't allow for: the fear of ridicule that he had always skirted around. 

Climbing did for Harrison all the things that it's done for any one of us who have taken this sport up as a hobby. It occupies the mind to distract from the crippling self-doubt that follows you around a gym like the stench of stale sweat. There's a social aspect; at the wall, a foreign faction of people just as willing to nerd out over the latest twist-lock carabiners as you are. The mythical, and meditative element also appeals; a 'flow state' when you manage to transcend unattainable levels of elevation that a few months before never seemed remotely possible. So intense is the level concentration that you don't realise your achievement until you're lowered back down on the ground, or the firm impact of the crash mat breaks your fall and you look up at the 7ft Everest you just "conquered".

The author climbing at her local gym.  © Sian Polhill-Thomas
The author climbing at her local gym.
© Sian Polhill-Thomas

This new world gave Harrison a sense of vertical exploration that he'd only come to experience in adulthood. However, old ghosts can prove difficult to kill. Harrison admits that he spends too much time worrying about his body in relation to his hobby.

A hobby that, a quick Google search will tell you, gets easier if you get lighter. A BMI of 19.3 for women and 21.1 for men is suggested. Countless books and training manuals put forward eye-watering body fat percentages that will improve performance. The alluring effects of a 2kg weight loss are never far from Harrison's mind. Grappling with body dysmorphic ideologies, he acknowledges it's not really a helpful thought to have, but feels that it's a lot less hectic on the mind than the calorie counting days he underwent a decade ago. He instead tries to navigate his way around his new body, while the 'overweight' child from his past belays from the ground below.

What he consumes is no longer given too much weight. He doesn't step on the scales either. It also helps to avoid the topless contingent of climbers that drift up an overhang at the wall, high-fiving when they tick a climb. They remind him too much of the gym, an environment he'd rather avoid. Unwilling to allow his hobby to make him feel like he's pushing himself to a competitive level of physical endurance, Harrison instead prefers to focus on the experience: the form of expression, community and commonality that climbing offers.

***

Luke has just got back from climbing in the North Pennines. The four walls of his small London flat in lockdown have left him seeking vast, endless spaces — and who can blame him? The alluring nature of the gritstone crags offers no end of physical challenges, but it's also a welcome relief from the critical voice in his head.

Creating a mind-body connection where previously there's been a disconnect is just one of the many outstanding benefits of this glorious hobby, and one of the main draws for many of us, including Luke.

His body hasn't always been on board, its childhood outer skin formed a thick chrysalis that didn't embrace contact sport and physical exertion. It wasn't until he shed this claustrophobic layer that, at the age of 20, he even considered sport to be a possibility for him. A 'small, skinny, late-developer', the physical effects of climbing had a rapid impact on Luke's frame. 

'You see the hard work paying off', he told me. It seems that's the allure. It's come as a shock to Luke's friends who ogle in admiration yet grapple to get their head around the strapping climber that now stands before them, and on occasion it's quite a shock to him, too. 

He doesn't subscribe to the climbing BMI suggestions and body fat percentages that lie in wait on Google for any budding climber. He's not about to sacrifice 'fun pursuits' for this hobby either; he doesn't want it to become obsessive. You won't see him swerving a social drink because of an early morning climb — he'll face that rock hungover. But, somewhere along the transformation from skinny late-developer to climber, insecurity grew and it's never far from reach.

The meditative aspect of climbing helps Luke with this; the absolute silent concentration that takes hold of your mind and all its complexities when you're mid-ascent. The texture of the rock on chalked hands, the sun on your back, the smell of dried rain in the air. This hobby is his sanctuary, a place of escapism and exploration. A safe space, a haven. It's a positive pursuit, one in which he gets to fully and physically express himself, with no mental judgement. Something he waited until adulthood to do and something he's keen to keep hold of.

***

We've been warned a 'tsunami' of eating disorders are set to wash ashore post lockdown. Jackie Hall, an Arts Psychotherapist, who worked at an NHS Eating Disorder Clinic for children and young people, told me an isolated bedroom is the perfect breeding ground for disordered eating to grow. Being locked away in a room, unmonitored, desperately trying to assert some control over one's physical being is a common and worrying starting point.

BMI isn't helpful either. Numerous reasons stack up as to why it is not an accurate measure of health, but the main one, and the most worrying for sports hobbyists, is that it doesn't distinguish between fat and muscle mass. Yet BMI is still regularly promoted.

Sian setting up for her next moves.  © Sian Polhill-Thomas
Sian setting up for her next moves.
© Sian Polhill-Thomas

The government's latest 'get fit' push, waves BMI around like it's a necessary beacon in the dark storm of obesity, their message heavy-handed and somewhat triggering. Calorie counts on restaurant menus, smart phone apps that encourage health overhauls and the rest are all, no doubt, overwhelming and harmful for someone in the depths of an eating disorder.

Some people I spoke to for this essay informed me that any body issues they have or have had, play a little quieter in their mind when at the climbing wall. Some shared that their feelings weren't overwhelming enough to compromise their passion for this hobby. Others have taken the steps to create safety barriers and set boundaries for themselves to ensure that certain anxieties don't manifest themselves.

Some have found strength, some have found community, some meditation and some, whole new dimensions. I hope that all will be able to stave off stereotypes of size and weight, and climb for the benefit of themselves and their unique bodies. 



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3 Jun

"BMI isn't helpful either. Numerous reasons stack up as to why it is not an accurate measure of health, but the main one, and the most worrying for sports hobbyists, is that it doesn't distinguish between fat and muscle mass. Yet BMI is still regularly promoted."

It's still promoted because it does have relevance for the majority of the population, weight is weight as far as things like your joints are concerned, and the more body your heart has to push blood around the harder it has to work - pure physics. As the article hotlinked to states, yes there may be more accurate methods of measuring body health, but they're not practical for everyday usage. My skeleton and heart haven't changed since I stopped growing, yet middle-aged spread is making them work harder and wear out quicker. Change in BMI measures that easily.

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