Beth Rodden On Climbing, Motherhood And Body Image

This post originally appeared on Beth's blog.

When I was 16, I wanted to get breast-reduction surgery. Yes, you read that correctly. I remember sitting in the waiting room of the doctor’s office for my annual exam with my mom. “I’m going to ask the doctor to schedule the procedure,” I said. My mom looked at me, smiled, and with a perfectly calm voice she said, “Okay, we’ll see what she says.”

Contrary to how it might sound, I wasn’t packing DDD breasts or had some medical condition that I needed fixed. I only had a B or C cup on a good day—but to a climber, that may as well have been a DDD cup. I was probably the only 16 year old girl in the world who felt this way.

Like most women, I’ve struggled with body image at times throughout my life. At 14, my chest was flatter than Kansas, and I felt like a skinny little bean pole with short, boyish hair who could get away with a trip to the men’s room without raising an eyebrow. The day I started climbing, it seemed, I started blossoming. All of a sudden, I had much bigger breasts than most of the girls I climbed with and competed against.

Unfortunately, my chest was the only thing that grew. My toothpick arms lacked any definition, and my sunken, bony shoulders looked like most people’s elbows. To make it worse, I was convinced that my breasts made my skinny arms look even skinnier. Meanwhile, my female climbing peers had flatter chests, strong-looking shoulders, super-muscular arms and V-shaped backs that looked good in sports tops. I was convinced that if I ever stood a chance at climbing well, I would need to make myself look like them.

Being a professional athlete, my body was my vehicle to performing well at my profession. I was meticulous about my diet, had a very regimented training program and climbed as much as I could. It’s cliche, but I knew my body inside and out. Often, I equated my fitness level and body image with being a better climber. I made excuses: overhanging climbing was harder for me because of my large breasts and skinny arms. I couldn’t do cross-over moves, or even see my feet as well, because of the two Tetons getting in the way. Deep down, I knew I was constructing excuses that seemed somehow more rational, but the reality was, I was motivated more by insecurity over the way I looked.

I’ve since overcome my insecurities about my breasts, although if I’m being honest I still pine at times for those muscular shoulders and chiseled, sexy, strong-looking arms…perhaps with more training. *smile*

Having a baby has introduced a whole new set of body-image issues. Giving myself and my body fully to another person has been a huge lesson in letting go. Gaining 30+ pounds and feeling my body sag and droop like never before were foreign feelings and somewhat unsettling. I thought I’d bounce back quickly and be able to be in control of my body once again. But, as I’ve written about, my physical recovery has been painfully slow. I heard over and over that breastfeeding is the best way to lose the baby fat. And while Theo and I struggled with breastfeeding, we kept at it this whole time, something that I’m proud of, but hasn’t yielded that weight loss magic.

Through running and climbing, I honestly thought I’d be skinnier by now. Activities that used to get me in shape seem to only make a small dent in my fitness level. My belly still sticks out a bit, my skinny jeans don’t fit, and, of course, my breasts are even bigger since I'm still nursing. Perhaps if I stopped nursing my body would bounce back quicker, but I’m not sure that’s the lesson I’ve learned in all of this. Theo is still wanting to nurse and I’m happy to continue as it’s something we worked really hard for and I actually enjoy it.

Motherhood has been a great lesson in acceptance and looking at the bigger picture. Before I was pregnant, I was a professional climber who would sometimes tie my fitness level to my happiness. The distance I could run or hike. How much suffering I could endure. The number grade I could climb. It was probably my way of masking some of my insecurities.

Of course, I love climbing and pushing my body as much as I can. It puts a smile on my face. It has taught me countless lessons about self-drive and forgiveness, shown me the world and instilled respect for our natural environment. It has introduced me to my favorite people and places on the planet. It fuels my dreams and helps me set goals. It burns inside me no matter where I am or what I’m doing. It has made me who I am today.

But perhaps one thing that I was missing was experiencing true contentment in climbing without the achievement and progression that landed me recognition in the climbing world. To be honest, I don’t know if I can claim to have ever found that simple, pure contentment unattached to achievement in climbing. Or if I have, it has been quite a while. But being and becoming a mother has helped me achieve a much healthier perspective.

There are many days when I want to wake up hours before Theo, go for a run and get in my training. That would be a true athlete; that is what I used to do, that would get my flat belly back. However, when I take a step back, I realize that’s not what climbing has taught me, nor is it what it truly means to me. It’s not the flat belly, the burly arms, or the hard ascents. It’s the happiness that it brings me that truly means something to me. I didn’t start climbing to get burly arms, I started because I loved it and found it to be the most fun, rewarding and incredible activity on the planet.

Too many times in my life I’ve pushed harder and sooner than I should, chasing false climbing goals for the wrong reasons. Motherhood has been a lesson in being a beginner again. To own a role as deeply as I’ve owned being a climber. Being a mother has reminded me a lot of why I fell in love with climbing—it is an incredible way to experience the world. Motherhood has helped me appreciate climbing and life with a beginner’s mind again—which is one of the most enjoyable ways to spend your days. When you have that beginner’s mind and approach, everything is new and exciting. Theo teaches me this every day—each day is a new adventure for him. There are tears and tantrums, but moments of ecstatic joy and discovery.

Bringing that beginner’s mind to something that I’ve been doing for more than two decades has meant rekindling a love and passion that is just part of who I am, it’s woven into me. Motherhood has taught me how to love another being more than I thought possible, and in turn, that has helped me love and appreciate myself—including my new body.

Those smaller breasts at 16 might have made me feel more “normal,” but it would have been masking the true me. My true me, right now, has a little belly, even bigger breasts than normal and stick arms. But I like those stick arms now. After all, they’ve hoisted me up some of the hardest routes in the world. And my big breasts are nourishing my little boy. Those are two things that I’m happy to be proud of.