“Oh, it’s like the Yellow Pant Complex,” my friend Natalie told me while I was awkwardly turning the guidebook map to find our way to the Asteroid Belt for some bouldering in Joshua Tree.
“You know, how only really strong climbers get to wear bright, yellow climbing pants.”
The more I thought about my belonging as a climber, the more I questioned what it meant to be a real climber. Is it pushing the frontier of climbing grades? Is it being a full-time dirtbag? Is it acting, dressing, or looking a certain way? Is it wearing yellow pants? Can I not just be myself and a climber?
I realized as I was building myself up, I was missing a large piece of the puzzle. While introspection, a dedication to self-love, and creating a validating support system are important steps to combating impostor syndrome, it is just as essential to address the culture within climbing that contributed to my feelings of phoniness. With the expansion and newfound accessibility of climbing, many new faces are entering the climbing scene. This has shown me that I don’t have to fit a specific mold to be a climber. There is an opportunity here to create a safer space outdoors for people who historically haven’t been represented due to cultural norms, financial capability, and representation in media.
After my weekend in Joshua Tree, I cradled my steaming mug of champurrado, a traditional Mexican hot chocolate and masa drink, and made my way down the hallway to my mama’s room. While the conversation started with the rock-scrambling rollicks of the past few days, it ventured into childhood, outdoor play, and if my mom had ever thought of rock climbing as a kid. We began talking about the colonia in Oxnard where she grew up after her family relocated from Mexico, a predominantly Hispanic community of migrant workers. There were no gyms, no beautiful outdoor places to climb, and, notably, no encouragement for her to pursue adventure sports as a woman in a traditional Mexican household. Even if there had been some fortuitous rock gym or crag nearby with easy bus access, would she have felt like she belonged when she was surrounded by white, wealthy men with expensive gear and plenty of time on the weekends to spend rock climbing? For women like my mom to feel welcomed in a sport like climbing, organizational support, access, and strong female mentors are just as crucial to combatting impostor syndrome as fostering an internal sense of belonging, confidence, and self-love.
I was sharing my experience of living in Catalunya, Spain, with her. I moved to Barcelona two years ago to shift my focus to lead climbing and try my hand at traveling solo in a new country. I found myself at crags I had only seen in climbing films. A rush of excitement and ebullience was followed by a sudden feeling of dread: What am I doing at Oliana, a notoriously difficult climbing destination, when I’ve only sport climbed a handful of times in my life? The encouraging faces to my left and right assuaged my worries, but I still felt like a total outsider when I found myself crying on the wall, too scared to clip the next bolt or accidentally back clipping in front of my idols.
It wasn’t just in Catalunya where I felt a feeling of inadequacy in the climbing community. Impostor syndrome followed me like a shadow; my inner critic constantly undermined my abilities even when I was competent, prepared, and perfectly qualified. When I began climbing at a rock gym, I was not muscular enough. When I began bouldering outdoors, I was not brave enough. When I began dressing girlier, I was not serious enough. When I began posting on Instagram, I was not strong enough. When I refused a post-send beer, I was not climber enough.
Impostor syndrome impacts women, and especially women with overlapping marginalized identities regarding gender, sex, race, ethnicity, culture, class, and ableness, the most. It’s harder to feel confident and worthy when we don’t see many people like us in our fields. Additionally, adventure sports are notoriously intimidating and elitist, with histories dominated by men due to barriers to entry. Lack of inclusion in concert with a significant barrier to entry makes it easy to see how this phenomenon has influenced the women of climbing.
How can we overcome impostor syndrome as a community? Is this even possible?
I encourage women to look introspectively at their relationship with the climbing community and that the climbing community as a whole looks outwards. Together, we can cultivate a positive atmosphere by elevating one another and bringing awareness to the fact that there are still so many hoops that women, especially women of color, have to jump through while pursuing a hobby like rock climbing. Next, we need to highlight examples of women from all backgrounds who have succeeded in pushing past these obstacles so that others can follow in their footsteps. Bit by bit– or as they say in Catalunya, poc a poc– we are getting there. There were no mentors for women like my mama, and only a handful of female role models for myself in the small area I lived in and the local gym I frequented. Now, there are new organizations, Instagram pages, festivals, youth programs, and opportunities that have emerged to encourage inclusivity in outdoor spaces. I am encouraged that there will be plenty of examples for the next generations of women to come, and that no matter who you are or where you come from, you can still be a climber.
So, grab your girlfriends and put on your brightest pair of yellow pants (or whatever gives you the most confidence), and be a part of this movement for change!
CLIMBING ABOVE IMPOSTOR SYNDROME
Grab your girlfriends, come climb, and join the change
By Anna Hazelnutt
5 minute read