For observers and participants alike, the significant male majority in climbing gyms, crags, and media is proof that climbing is in some way inherently masculine. This reasoning is reinforced by the fact that many women have a difficult time doing pull-ups. If women can't do as many pull-ups as men, the reasoning goes, how cold they climb as hard?
Climbers seem to forget that good climbing technique is in about footwork, not pull-ups. The masculine tradition that manifests at the crags today as chauvinism comes from climbing's history as a way for middle-class Victorian men to assert their masculinity (discussed in the history section). Portraying climbing as inherently masculine not only marginalizes the achievements of female climbers, it ignores the important work done by organizations like Chicks With Picks and Mountaingirlto create a social space in climbing for women.
Why is the work of these organizations necessary? We all know that climbing is gear intensive and a perfect fit counts. While cams and ropes may be unisex, harnesses, rock shoes, boots, shells, pants, gloves, and even ice tools are designed for particular body shapes. As a historically men's sport, only relatively recently have manufacturers begun producing women's specific climbing equipment. This includes not only the production of women's versions of men's equipment, it means the production of equipment men do not use that women need. Recent developments include sports bras and tank tops designed for the dynamic movements of climbing and special shaped funnels to facilitate peeing at belays among other things. Finally, while hygiene is often a component of backcountry living manuals, rarely, if ever, are the specific hygiene needs of women addressed. Even for men, it is useful to know how to instruct female friends or clients in the disposal of feminine products and the best ways to stay healthy in the backcountry. Most men are ignorant of these important skills.
In their choices of colors for women's equipment, manufacturers demonstrate the unspoken debate about the place of women in climbing. Some companies choose to use gendered colors such as pink, purple, or light blue in their shirts, shells, and pants. Other company's women's lines are more gender neutral, preferring royal blues, greens, and reds. These are two sides of an unspoken conversation. By wearing effeminate colors can women carve a feminine space in an extremely masculine world? or should women try to seamlessly blend into the climbing scene by wearing gender-neutral colors?
Most importantly we need to loose the assumption that climbing is gender neutral. It is ok that climbing is a masculine space. It is a way that men can celebrate male identity in a positive and constructive way. However, this does not need to happen to the exclusion or degradation of women. Often we do this quite well. Women in climbing media are far less sexualized and objectified than in pop media.
Despite the politically progressive worldviews of many climbers, climbing is not gender neutral. Take ice tools for example. More ergonomic leash-less ice tools have allowed for a revolution in ice climbing, but ergonomics are about body shape and for whose bodies are ice tools ergonomic?
The idea that women should quietly mesh into the climbing community, that there is no room for pink, purple, and light blue at the crag, rests on the illusion that climbing is not a masculine space. Both male and female climbers need to recognize the gendered elephant in the room and acknowledge the gender politics at work when we play.
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