Most women, at some point in their lives, get discouraged about their appearance because they may not possess the ideal body, according to societal standards. I was no different. I have always lived in predominantly white communities, and with that, feminine beauty typically meant white or light skin, tall, skinny, long hair, European facial features—the epitome of Eurocentric standards.
by Rebecca Ross (banner photo: Thumbs up on the summit of South Sister, Rebecca Ross Collection.)
Note: This piece is published in Volume 14 of The Zine, now available
I don’t fit those standards. However, when I was a teenager and even as a young adult, those standards of beauty had a significant impact and still do. Instead of embracing who I was—a short, physically strong black girl with black facial features—I tried to change my appearance to be considered beautiful.
While many of those traits were out of my control, I found that my physique was something I could change. I decided to focus on becoming more feminine by forming unhealthy habits. Over the years, I started hitting the cardio workouts hard and eating less. Running about six to twelve miles a day coupled with cardio kickboxing, ballet, or plyometrics, sometimes in the same day, and easily eating around nine hundred calories. I was always comparing myself to others who were skinnier—therefore prettier.
Over time, I started getting feedback from both strangers and people I knew. People would say things like, “You look so great,” or “Tell me what you’ve been doing,” and even statements like, “Most black women are usually bigger, but not you, you’re so tiny…” As much as I hate to admit it, those praises, so to speak, reinforced that thin and light skin were beautiful.
I can even attest to fainting, due to long bouts of fasting, more times than I care to confess. I had an unhealthy relationship with exercising and an even unhealthier relationship with food, causing a huge energy deficit. I didn’t care; all I knew was I was receiving lots of praise, and I finally felt “feminine.”
Lots of compliments were thrown my way, unexpectedly more from women than men. On the surface, I never liked being the center of attention; I could barely take a compliment, but deep down, subliminally, I craved the attention from being thin. Thin made me feel dainty. After all, women in the media are all thin; that’s what it means to be beautiful, right? At least that’s what I thought, and that was honestly how I felt—it was disturbingly ingrained in me.
When I think about it, it was periodically ingrained throughout my childhood at a very young age. What was more disturbing was that I found this positive affirmation of being thin on a daily basis, from random people on my way to school, coworkers, acquaintances, “friends,” true friends, and even doctors. They were all unknowingly fueling my detrimental way of living. They saw me as being naturally thin and “healthy.” I worked out and had an active lifestyle and didn’t eat fast food or a lot of packaged products, which translated to I was doing something right; I was the textbook standard of leading a healthy lifestyle—or so it seemed on the surface.
Little did anyone know—including myself—that years of working out hours a day and eating far too few calories led to irreparable mental and physical damage that would last for years to come. I’m still trying to reverse the damage.
I had been spiraling out of control and was in complete denial that anything was wrong or that my actions or views on beauty were completely irrational. Fortunately, mountaineering came to my rescue. Mountaineering was a sport I had no idea existed, except as the domain of mainly rich white men who climbed mountains like Everest.
In reality, my introduction to mountaineering was a lifesaver and an even bigger confidence booster. Learning the skills to climb mountains brought back that inner child. The child that wanted to do, and often did do, what the boys did and never once questioned the idea that I wasn’t beautiful due to my lack of Eurocentric features, because at that age, I never questioned the concept of beauty. As soon as I discovered mountaineering, I wanted to be a mountaineering badass or, better yet, a black female mountaineering badass who might help redefine the status quo. And just like that, it hit me: I couldn’t become that if I were too weak from dieting and lacked self-confidence.
Actually, I really don’t have any agenda on truly redefining the status quo or being a role model or even standing out. I’m sure there are many, many remarkable things women athletes have done that legitimately earn them the plaque of badassery. I’m just simply being myself or at least trying hard to be. However, I also know that being a black mountaineering woman means more eyes on me and, somehow, I seemingly represent all women and all women of color both simultaneously and independently. Not exactly sure how that’s fair, but that’s how things are.
I am very much aware of being the person who stands out. It’s not every day people in an outdoor-skills course see a 5´3˝ black female who, when it comes time to learn, is deadpan serious about scaling mountains. So, if people view me as a role model or I come across as breaking stereotypes, cool.
Mountaineering is also more than just being seen as a badass, but let’s face it, climbing mountains is tough business, and people who choose to do it are all badasses in my book. Mountaineering has taught me to find my voice; it’s taught me to discover and conquer my fears or at least manage my fears; it’s also taught me to rediscover myself—finding that person who loved being outdoors, but over time, life got in the way, and lists of responsibilities grew, which took away my connection with nature.
After getting introduced to a two-month mountaineering course that taught me basics skills of snow travel and climbing, I was committed. Although mountaineering is my primary focus, the organization also introduced me to a whole other world of outdoor sports: climbing at Smith Rocks, bouldering at my local gym, snowshoeing to remote fire-lookout towers, winter backpacking, and many others.
These activities left me with cravings, both physically and mentally. I also discovered communities of people who shared my same interests and were passionate about the outdoors. They were very quick to share their passion with me, judgment free—well, mostly. The kind of encouragement and affirmation I felt was genuine and inspired me to do more. I knew mountaineering was going to help me embrace a truly healthy lifestyle.
It wasn’t just the realization that I had to focus on being healthy and strong to engage in these awesome sports—there were amazing women I had been reading about who had already smashed stereotypes and achieved incredible goals. Women like Arlene Blum, who led an all-woman ascent of Annapurna in the ’70s, and Lynne Cox, who was the first woman to swim in Antarctic waters, became role models to me. I’ve seen women of all sizes, all ages, and all ethnicities accomplish things I had no idea were even possible. These included crushing V13, killing it at CrossFit, competing in Ironman Triathlons at the age of 60, peak bagging numerous mountains, and yes, even climbing Everest, to name just a few. I wanted to be strong and courageous just like them.
And it wasn’t just these fantastic athletes who inspired me. My mom has been and always will be a huge inspiration in my life, even though she’s no longer with me physically. She died when I was nineteen from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, but before she left, she gave me years of wisdom. At this moment in my life, her advice of “fake it till you make it” still resonates. While it’s not really a unique or even novel piece of advice, it’s something that I hear over and over again, mainly when I’m in situations where I feel way in over my head or overwhelmed, which is usually often.
I’ve found myself in a handful of mountaineering and alpinism courses where I’m typically the only female and most definitely the only minority, feeling inadequate, with thoughts racing through my head of “what am I doing here?” or something along the lines of “I have no idea what I’m doing…I’m an imposter.” Luckily my mom’s advice usually comes to mind. So, despite so much adrenaline pumping through my veins, I quickly volunteer to be the first to demonstrate, even though my heart is racing and I’m sure I’ll mess up the first few times. I learn by doing, and I wouldn’t take these courses if I weren’t serious about learning. Also, I’m sure the person after me will learn from my mistakes and gain some kudos or attaboy remarks. Whatever the task, I try to compete against myself and find ways to improve. During moments like those, what doesn’t pop up in my head is whether I look attractive while shoveling like hell for a placemat named Judy in a mock avalanche scenario. I don’t care. I’m in the zone.
During this process, my entire perspective on what it meant to be beautiful started to change. I stopped caring about counting calories and started eating enough healthy, wholesome foods. My new goal was to keep my energy levels up so I could lead an active lifestyle. Of course, I gained some weight and a lot of muscle too, forcing me to donate my size 0/00 clothing—and you know what, it felt great; it felt freeing!
I started to become more focused on gaining experience and the necessary skills for mountaineering. That meant taking advanced courses in a number of different fields so that I can be more prepared. Getting certified in AIARE was one of them, along with a six-day alpinism course to focus on crevasse rescue and multipitch trad climbing. These courses left me with no time to worry about whether snow pants made my ass look fat or whether that dehydrated meal made me bloated. Since I have Raynaud’s syndrome, I’m usually wearing two to three layers, two beanies, a buff, and an extremely excessive puffy at any given time. Of course I look fat; in fact, I usually look like a bright, soggy marshmallow in mountaineering pictures. However, my phalanges thank me for putting self-care above my ego to avoid frostbite.
After taking my basic climbing course, I had my sight on Mount Adams as my first true climb. I had climbed Mount St. Helens a couple times, but during the summer months, which downgraded it to a scramble. My friend and I made a plan and set out to conquer our first substantial mountain. Sure, it’s relatively easy and straightforward, and one can expect to hear that their neighbor’s grandparents climbed it last weekend.
While the sunrise unburdened our pain and torture, it was short lived. We knew the time was coming. We saw what must be the top, alas the summit…but we knew better. It was, indeed, the false summit—my most loathed memory of Mount Adams that I’m sure most climbers can attest to. We knew it wasn’t the summit, but our eyes tried so hard to convince ourselves that the mountain was a hop, skip, and a jump away.
We made it over the false summit and found the true summit, which seriously looked like it would take another day to get to. We pushed on and, slowly but surely, started up another slope, an icier one that gave me serious goose bumps the entire way. It was incredibly glassy; the spikes in our crampons were merely scratching the hard surface. All I could think was kick step like hell and please don’t fall, please don’t fall, please don’t fall.
I wanted to be rescued off that damn mountain so badly and swore I would never climb again. I mean, the sunrise was cool and all, but a potential icy fall that no one could possibly self-arrest no matter how hard they tried didn’t seem worth it.
We made it to the summit unscathed, got our victory summit pics, and quickly descended due to the blasting cold winds. It wasn’t the most graceful descent for me or the quickest. I despise glissading and managed to do an awkward half self-arresting shimmy down, ensuring that I would go at a snail’s speed. There was a queue behind me, all of whom were getting awfully impatient, but I managed to reach the end of the glissade path safely. There wasn’t much of a celebration; our minds were focused on food and sandals.
A year after, it was time to try Mount Rainier. Mount Adams was indeed child’s play; it was a stroll in the park in comparison. I’m in no way unfit; I’ve carried my share of heavy packs with added ropes on climbs. But carrying a sixty-plus-pound pack, which is more than half of my body weight, for five and a half miles was no joke.
I’m not sure why I thought once I made it to high camp I could just ditch my pack and collapse, giving my body a proper break that lasted longer than ten minutes. New to this specific experience, I didn’t realize digging a wind-protection pit for our tents would take hours to do, and melting snow for water would be an equally long process, both required operations before I could strip off my smelly, wet attire.
Luckily the next day was our “relax” day. And by relax, I mean spending hours practicing crevasse-rescue skills, hours melting more snow, and preparing myself mentally for the climb to the summit. I’m not going to lie—the thought of walking at night next to, and on occasion over, some impressive crevasses freaked me out a bit.
When 11:00 p.m. came around and our party was stirring, I was thinking of every excuse in the book to get out of the climb. “Is that another blister on my foot? Well, I surely can’t go now; my foot hurts way too much.”
Nice try, Rebecca; you can push through it. “Oh wait, my head sort of hurts; it’s just going to get worse. I really shouldn’t go.”
Try again. Before my fatigued brain knew what was happening, I was wrangled in with my team and butterflied into the middle of the rope.
I kept telling myself, I got this! This blimp of hell will be worth it. My favorite thing about an alpine start is that you can’t see how far away your destination is, so you can tell yourself it’s right around the next bend and honestly believe it. That is, until the sun peaks, and your heart plummets because you haven’t even put a dent in the elevation.
This time, I was too concentrated on not tripping on the rope and bringing the whole team down into a crevasse directly below us, or anyone else doing the same for that matter, to worry about how far away the summit was. One, two, three—pause. One, two, three—pause. Repeat. That was the best I could do to preoccupy my mind, staying in balance, to keep moving forward.
All was going fine until about 12,600´. My stomach started to churn, food and water seemed totally unappetizing, and I started to struggle to keep my eyes open. I was feeling the effects of the altitude. Shit!
Honestly, at that moment, I couldn’t say I was surprised. I’ve climbed a handful of mountains and am very aware that I am prone to altitude sickness. I knew this was a possibility. I mean, it’s Rainier—only half who try are successful!
My pace slowed down drastically. Every step, I thought I was going to hurl. I knew I was slowing my team down; the right thing to do was to turn around. So, at 12,640´, slightly relieved, I took in the views—that point was indeed the highest I had ever been, even if it was only marginally higher than Mount Adams.
Yeah, it sucked not to summit, but at the time, I was oddly okay with it. It happens to the best of us, and that’s one of the many variables of mountaineering.
Getting back to camp, I was a hot mess. Literally, it felt like a hundred degrees in the blistering sun. My hair smelled burnt, despite wearing my helmet, and my sore nose and feet felt like pummeled raw meat that had been left out to dry in the sun. I felt like crap and was sure I looked exactly how I felt. We all had seen better days—luckily it was undoubtedly a judgment-free zone.
Although, do I want to look cute? Sure! Do I want to be the smelly social pariah surrounded by 80 to 90 and sometimes 100 percent males? No! But who am I kidding—I’m probably going to be the one who smells. I can’t get myself to forsake my cruelty-free, locally sourced deodorant even though I’m aware that it has clearly forsaken me. I’m also going to have unruly hair and peeling, sunburnt nostrils and lips because, even after years of knowing those areas burn, I still forget about them. That’s how things typically roll, and the more confidence I gain, the more I embrace my incredibly quirky, disheveled, unflattering outdoors self.
I felt that I was finally true to myself. I also started to notice my arsenal of makeup dwindling on my bathroom counter, which my bank account, the environment, and my skin greatly appreciated. At first, nixing the makeup was only due to practicality. Bringing makeup on a multiday backpacking trip only added weight—yes, not that much weight, but when carrying a fifty-plus-pound pack, all those additional ounces add up quickly. It was also just plain time-consuming and silly to apply makeup every morning knowing that I was going to sweat it off or smudge my effort with a generous amount of sunblock and bug spray. I’m not trying to accomplish a deranged wet-clown look. So slowly, over time, I would leave my house wearing less and less makeup and, most often, forgetting to even put it on in the first place.
Even my wardrobe started to change. It changed from outfits that I deemed feminine and formfitting to comfortable, baggy rock climbing pants, T-shirts, a well-worn puffy patched up with duct tape, and socks with Birkenstocks—yeah, I often pair them together, so don’t judge me!
I didn’t feel the need to try to impress others by becoming someone I wasn’t meant to be. More importantly, I got to focus on what mattered to me: being physically and mentally strong in order to do what I enjoy because, after all, nature doesn’t care what I look like as long as I am capable of doing what I want within my ability.
I most likely will always have self-esteem issues, because I’m human living in a society that rewards specific features and races over others. And I most likely will contradict myself. However, I have found that the more time I spend outdoors the less concerned I am with looking a certain way. It’s not easy, but I’ve come a long way—thanks to mountaineering. Mountaineering has indeed changed my perspective on beauty—and strong is beautiful.
After graduating with a master of public health in epidemiology degree from Oregon Health & Science University, Rebecca was introduced to mountaineering through Mazamas in 2016, and she’s been steadily peak bagging ever since. She’s been writing about her climbing experiences on the Melanin Base Camp website and through a summer collaboration with Outdoor Project’s “Women In The Wild 2018” series. When she’s not mountaineering, she can be found bouldering at her local climbing gym, running, and volunteering with international organizations that focus on community health efforts.
You can follow her Instagram HERE.
Dig the words? Keep the dream alive by subscribing to The Climbing Zine.