A few months ago, my friend Summer (co-creator of the Brown Ascenders), whom I had just met at the Flash Foxy Women’s Climbing Festival, invited me to come out to a photo shoot that her friend, Michael Estrada, was doing for The North Face. She said it would involve a few hours of climbing and a small group of other POC climbers wearing North Face gear for photos that would be posted to their Instagram page. In return, we got to keep a piece of gear. Free gear? Climbing? Photo shoot? Of course, I was in. A few weeks later, however, when the pictures came out, when I started to see myface looking back at me from Instagram posts and blogs, when waves of climbing-related accounts requested to follow me, an odd feeling set in. I no longer wanted to post the gorgeous action photos of myself that required me to tag said company. I didn’t want to post anything. How did I become a symbol of women of color outdoors and what did that mean?
I remember when I started climbing. I was 13, perhaps even younger, when my best friend from 3rd and 4th grade came to Oklahoma. She had an uncle living in Tulsa at the time and he decided to take us climbing out in one of grottos outside the city. I remember the heat, the sound of the cicadas that I always associate with dense scrubby oaks and feeling slightly itchy as bugs and sweat prickle the skin.
The uncle tied my figure 8 knot, made sure my helmet was on tight enough, and talked us both through the safety commands. Then, I was off. The rock face had a large crack at the base, and I followed it up like it was a set of stairs. Large pockets of cool rock melted against my palms as I stretched them above my head. The buzz and heat of the day seemed to fade. And then, it was over before I knew it. I don’t remember any fear. Just dirt and a breathless exhilaration.
Later that summer (or maybe the next), I felt that breathlessness as I anxiously entertained the reality of starting high school in an entirely new place: Chicago. Maybe to distract me, more likely to get me out of the house for a few hours, my mom signed me up for rock climbing classes in the basement of a gymnastics gym in the west loop. In answer to my questioning skepticism, she said “He said you were fast…and you need some upper body strength” she said, pinching my skinny shoulder, masking her concern about how I’d defend myself everyday from leering strangers on the CTA and while walking the city streets. Little did she know that, years later, she’d be peering at me between her fingers, clasped tightly over her face, as I told her about my latest climbing escapade.
Something about climbing stuck. I think I’ve always loved the feeling of moving freely in my body. I pretty much failed at sports that involved team communication or extraneous objects (being an only child with clumsy hand-eye coordination makes most team sports a no-go). But dancing, gymnastics, now running, swimming and biking (now surfing?!) are beautiful ways to dip out of the mind and explore the breath and the simple miracle and privilege of watching my body move. Climbing was all of this plus a mentor-figure and an odd ball group of kids to *hang* out with (haha).
It’s only recently, however, that I’ve started to question the climber identity, especially in the era of social media. Identity seems to become increasingly rarified as a thing through the act of taking a picture and putting it online. Once the pictures of me started to go up, I felt that I had become a resolute category, one that I suddenly felt beholden to perpetuating. Self-concious of my insignificant pictures of snails and leaves, selfies with friends, I froze for about 2 weeks, worried that I had to start posting more pictures of me climbing. It reveals how easily this platforms lends itself to typecasting, to imprisoning ourselves to an identity, on top of the ways that intersecting identities have indeed shaped my story, my ability to be in outdoor space.
I wonder if the vanity enabled by art/technology (extending beyond camera phone photography) is a reflection of a media on itself. Are we simply using other objects to cut through the objectification of our own bodies, in a way that a double negative creates a positive? In other words, are we trying to see past the indexical qualities of our skins, hair, faces, that make raced, gendered, categorized lives? Trying to see the self that feels liberated in motion that lies beneath? Gain affirmation from our peers that our inner worth shines through? Indeed, by creating a form of social connection through self-reflection, I think we’re being necessarily vulnerable—an attempt at intimacy directly in the face of technologies of oppression, colonialism that have facilitated our own alienation. The risk, of course, is actually becoming the saleable object that we make ourselves into through the image—the object that is only an object and not its essence.
This is the strange feeling I have about representation. As important as it is to be seen at all, to demand a different way of being storied into historically exclusionary spaces, I stumble when it comes to the tangle of strings attached – to commoditize oneself as a “Woman of Color, Outdoors.” Even the need to hashtag makes me squirm—doing so it quite literally asking not just my community to find me, but everyone trying to market to me, a #Strong #Woman Of Color #Climber #Outside. (liked by North Face, REI, etc.) And yet, this is how we survive. This is how we get the money, the sponsorships, the “free” jackets, the swag bags which reallocate some resources to those most disenfranchised by these #White #Male #Outdoor industries. Yeah. But how do we live?
The contradictions continue to unfold themselves, seemingly stretched between being invisible and selling out; true to this blog’s form, however, I’m looking for release somewhere in the middle ground. And as I’ve learned from meditation, one of the most important parts of the practice–climbing or walking the middle way–is the “sangha,” the community that supports you on the path to liberation. Climbing itself connects me intimately to my surroundings, to my body, and breath. Yet it is the community, feeling in some ways connected to larger base of being and knowledge, that has been one of the most important factors in my love of climbing and outdoor adventure (communing with people, rocks, trees, all of it). Putting my image out there, I hope, is a way to nudge someone who wants to ‘just try it,’; I want to be the encouraging coach who will help you with that drop knee technique. It’s not just about the sport, but about being in our bodies and in spaces that feel good and nourishing to us with people who make us feel good to be there. So, climbing in community is, for me, a way back into myself.
As such, I’m understanding my connection to the outdoors as being more than just about me or my abilities, but about those whose shoulders I stand upon—the badass, queer WOC who brought me back into climbing when I was feeling disillusioned by all the whiteness around me, the Chicago coach, Dave Hudson, who made me feel like I had a home that I was always welcomed into at the climbing gym. Even those women of color who I never knew have been working their magic into the climbing scene, whether they’re the people I see coming in regularly, working climbs to whom I might just give the nod, or people like Emily Taylor, who has laid the ground for coaching young people of color, including most notably, Kai Lightner, for over 20 years.
By luck, I happened to meet Emily last week at the gym. I was just wrapping up my usual morning bouldering session and retrieving my bag from the cubbies by the door. I noted the woman standing to my right, noted that she was Black, that she seemed to be an instructor for some of the kids trickling in for summer lessons, and that I would be sure to smile or try to make eye contact with her before I left. Before I had the chance, however, she turned to me, held out her hand and introduced herself. I was taken aback, even more so when she said that she had noticed me, a Black woman bouldering hard. We chatted some and as I asked question after naïve question, her story came forth with a force I recognized. Years of being invisible, marginalized, never recognized for the decades of work and experience put into an outstanding achievement—it’s always the white guy that gets the credit. All I could think to say before we parted was precisely my instinct when I first glanced her way: I see you. Just as she saw me.
These are the moments when I remember what this work of representation outdoors is all about. It’s not about the sponsorships, the free stuff, even the (mostly symbolic) redistribution of resources. It’s not about the likes, although there’s something deeper there as well. And it’s not about the feeling of self-accomplishment or even retribution. Our representation is about being able to recognized one another, really see those women of color who for centuries have been responsible for building the ivory tower yet never get to look at the view. It’s about being able to clear a path toward healing with one another, with the elements. For once, let this not be for “them,” or for “me,” or the commodified #womenofcoloroutdoors, but for us.