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I was originally attracted to climbing not only because it pushes my limits, but also because it’s all about community and camaraderie.
Last year, at the climbing gym my boss told me that we were launching an only woman climb night and that I could be the host. Cue the classical music, the doves bursting into flight, and the clouds parting with an ethereal light. I was ready to rally. If there had been a megaphone I would have seized it and yelled out to all of my fellow climbers of neon plastic something along the lines of,
For a moment I glazed over and imagined a year from now this only woman climb night becoming so big that Beyonce and Steph Davis were there. The classical music playing in my head cut, however, as soon as my boss continued, “Yeah, it’s called Beta Babes.”
The soft light faded too and the apparition of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie pinched me. Beyonce and Steph halted in the middle of their duet, “I woke up like this. I woke up like—” I had no words. “You don’t like it.” He said.
When I’m climbing I focus, breathe, push the limit, quiet my mind, stay in the moment, and sweat. My goal is to stay committed to the act, the pursuit. When I’m climbing I am the movement. I am the action. I am the expression of the route. Nowhere along the way do I think to myself, “Wow, I’m such a babe.” Never in the middle of clipping, or in the throes of a crux do I say to myself, “You’re a babe, you got this.”
I had an immediate guttural reaction to “Beta Babes.” My body rejected the sound of it. I thought to myself, so, as a group of dedicated climbers, we will be referred to as babes?
Is it just a word?
Let’s see. “Babe” literally means a baby. Informally, it means an affectionate form of address, typically for someone with whom one has a sexual, or romantic relationship with. It can also mean a sexually attractive young woman or girl. I tend to fight my stereotypes—call me a feminist! I tend to talk back when I don’t like what I hear—thank you, mother. Being a “Beta Babe” is not exactly what I had in mind when I started climbing.
Referring to a group of women climbers as “babes” suggests that these women are helpless and need direction. “Beta” is a climbing term that means providing information about a climb. Common usages: “Thanks for the beta!” Or, “What’s the beta on this climb? I’m really stuck.” I tend to appreciate silence when I climb. I want beta after I have seemingly tried everything, and I specifically ask my climbing partner, or surrounding friends, for advice on what to do next. The joy comes from figuring it out for yourself. The point of climbing is the process.
It could be argued that in this way, the phrase “Beta Babes” suggests that we are not people with individual climbing goals seeking community, but that we are quite literally babies looking for answers.
The point of the gym hosting “Beta Babes” is to provide a space for women to feel safe and comfortable. It is a way for women to easily find community in the bouldering area, which can be an intimidating space for any climber. Like most sports, climbing is still dominated by men. We need all-women events because when someone you identify with does something, you are more likely to think that you can do it too.
When I first climbed in a gym I remember feeling pressure. I was suddenly my elementary self; afraid to change in the locker room, and terrified of breaking a sweat in front of the boys. This festering anxiety came from my desire to be what I thought was expected of me: feminine.
We live in a world where if a woman displays physical strength, has muscular arms, takes up a lot of space, or lacks any damsel-like qualities, she is automatically more intimidating and less feminine. The media subliminally teaches us, through advertisements and television tropes, that women should be passive and demure, which is the antithesis of bouldering.
But we don’t climb to be feminine. We don’t climb to be “babes.” We climb to break barriers. We climb to go against the grain. Climbing was established by rebels denouncing the status quo. We climb to get in touch with our nasty-woman side.
What ideas come to mind with a phrase like “Beta Babes”?
90210. Baywatch. An endless supply of SNL jokes. An endless supply of Sidney West’s jokes. I think the nice alliteration of the double “B” lulled everyone into a state of marketing sleep. “Women Climb Night” just doesn’t have the same ring to it. It doesn’t rhyme. It’s bland. It’s a pantsuit instead of a bikini, but at least you know that the point of the evening is to celebrate women climbing together.
Past boyfriends have called me “babe.” I do not want my boss or peers to refer to me as “babe.” To use “babe” in reference to an only women climb event would mean perpetuating the sexualization of women. Instead of watching a female climber on the wall and thinking, “What a babe!” How about, “She’s got great technique,” or, “That move requires a lot of strength. I bet she trains hard.” Or, “That woman is really going for it. I’m impressed with her tenacity.”
To illustrate why it is important to become allies for women in public spaces here is a list of scenarios that many women, myself included, have experienced:
- A smack on the ass from a man in the gym. (Yes, this actually happened.)
- A comment from a man like “No, I wasn’t paying attention to how you sent the climb because I was staring at your ass.”
- A guy catching me as I fell bouldering. It was completely awkward as his arms grabbed my side and around my boob. Spotting is appreciated under certain circumstances, however, in that situation, I didn’t request or need a spot. Plus, you never catch someone falling. You’re supposed to just make sure they don’t fall backwards.
The word “babe” suggests sexuality, informality, and naiveté.
When climbing we are already putting ourselves in a vulnerable place. We already feel exposed. Not only are we fighting gravity and the natural instinct to stay on the ground, but we are also contorting our bodies, and stretching our limbs high up a wall. Because of the precise movements, it is a spectacle to watch a climber, naturally.
It took me a little while to get over this. I used to feel incredibly uncomfortable and self-conscious in the gym. I don’t like the idea of being on display, so it has taken some time to get this out of my head. With exposure comes vulnerability. It takes courage to ascend a wall. It takes courage to ascend a wall as a female in spandex hoping that people are paying attention to your footwork and not your ass.
“Babe” suggests that we should be like the girls in the latest GQ spread of Joshua Tree. It suggests physicality. It does not suggest anything about preparation, intention, and drive. As women, we are subject to harassment any day, any time, and being labeled as “Beta Babes” sets us backwards.
Climbing is a practice in which I feel most unencumbered by societal pressures, but tell me I get the privilege of hosting “Beta Babes” and I’m deflated. Sexy/feminine/demure qualities are not inherently bad. But I protest these as the defining qualities of women who climb. Being sexy, feminine, demure—being a babe, is completely irrelevant to climbing.
Our society is set up through the male gaze. If we are labeled, “Beta Babes,” who does that phrase serve? It is a thin veneer of flattery to refer to women who climb as “babes.” It ultimately leaves a feeling of vulnerability and sexual objectification. There is an underlying violence because it threatens the integrity of women climbers. It threatens our competence.
What does “babe” have to do with climbing?
How does the title, “Beta Babes,” encourage female camaraderie?
I will not be afraid to cause a tsunami in the ocean of patriarchy. Even though some of my friends at the gym think “Beta Babes” is cute and catchy, even though my boss said the name has to be marketable, even though I tried to sleep on it thinking I would get behind the name when I woke up.
I never did wake up less educated on gender studies. I never woke up forgetting the implications of language. I never woke up dismissing the verbal and sexual abuse I have experienced in everyday situations.
I woke up without the desire to be the climbing community’s “babe.” I woke up feeling the energy of Gloria Steinem, Rebecca Solnit, Virginia Woolf, Andi Zeisler, Rita Dove, Anne Bradstreet, Rebecca Gay, Mary Wollstonecraft, Audre Lorde, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Gloria E. Anzaldua, and bell hooks. “Beta Babes” is not just a trivial phrase that should be dismissed as catchy and cute. It is conning women out of their fullest potential.
Because the patriarchy still rules and marketing is more important than integrity, the event is still called, “Beta Babes.” I stopped hosting the event months ago. Maybe after my boss reads this article the name will change. Because I’m not your babe, bro.
Update: After this article originally aired, the gym decided to change the name to “Women Climb Night.”
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