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An indoor rock climbing wall.

Image: Hyejin Kang, Canva

Editor’s note: This piece discusses gender dysphoria and disordered eating

The strongest women in bouldering make a mockery of Lululemon leggings. Their bodies move in ways that even Lycra can’t contain, as they squat and sashay up the five-metre-high wall. Leggings are worn down until they burst at the knees. Sports bras are stretched when the reach requires a chest to achieve an unchartered width. White chalk seeps into the stitches of every jumper and masks the material’s shade, until it becomes a more subdued version of itself.

Bouldering is similar to rock climbing, but participants ascend without ropes or someone standing below to belay them. Instead of the safety of a harness, you have to learn how to fall. Bend your knees and roll onto your back, onto a thick mat that’s designed to receive your weight. Inside my local gym is one large circular structure with climbing walls on each surface, covered in colourful ‘holds’ that instruct a specific pathway to the top. These pathways use a grading system to indicate difficulty, beginning at V0, up to V15 and higher—which, according to would be ‘astronomically difficult’ even for Olympic level climbers. I’ve watched the entire gym, staff and patrons alike, start cheering when a regular completes a V9.

When I was a pre-teen with a thick side-fringe instead of a forehead, my parents organised a birthday party at a local rock-climbing gym. In the photos, I’m wearing an angsty red and black shirt under a bright blue climbing harness that sections off different body parts like meat cuts, while a trestle table of pizzas turn cold in the background. My only vivid memory from that birthday party is the frustration of relying on someone else to belay (hold and secure) the dangling rope while I climbed. Perhaps this could be blamed on my upbringing as an only child, but I have always hated sports that involve waiting for someone else to inform you that your body is ready to move. So, in 2019, when I started dating someone who boulders, I didn’t realise the difference between rock climbing and bouldering, and simply said I wasn’t interested. It wasn’t until months later, when he explained the absence of reliance, that I agreed to try.

After a few months of regular indoor climbing, I developed a crush on the pianist Ray who worked behind the front desk. He’s the kind of person who can make anyone feel loved just by sharing some of his enthusiasm with them. I soaked it in. His colourful jackets. His film recommendations. His barista hands. How capable they were of raising the temperature without reaching burning point.

When he stepped away from the keyboard or coffee counter, he climbed like a machine. Like the body had no room for memory, only forward movement.

The first time I saw him climb, I was shocked by the uncanny separation between the gentle man who hugged me each Tuesday night, and the muscular mass that propelled itself up the wall. When he stepped away from the keyboard or coffee counter, he climbed like a machine. Like the body had no room for memory, only forward movement. Watching him climb, I was transfixed by what Paula Lökman calls ‘gendered patterns of movement’, as Ray’s masculinity shifted into a practice of repetition that he used to greet and grip the wall.

I watched Ray and another friend, Jett, taking turns ascending the same slab and I tried to annotate their differences. Ray laughed before each attempt, then turned to the wall and picked a fight. Most of the time it looked like he might have the upper hand (until the exact moment that he didn’t). In comparison, Jett stared at the wall before approaching. When he climbed it looked like he was having a private conversation with gravity, which he had already observed so closely. My partner, aware of my skewed focus, explained to me, ‘Ray climbs with his body, while Jett climbs with his head’. Two different approaches, but still the ‘manliness’ of their movements hung from their shoulders like one of those dude-bro fitness singlets with thin straps.

I asked my partner, ‘What do you climb with, your body or your head?’, and he paused before responding, ‘Both—or maybe…maybe I haven’t worked it out yet’. Like in many sports, there are certain heights you can only ascend to after time.


When my partner boulders, he is elegant. He points his toes and twists on their points. He places his weight delicately and makes each of his fingers useful. Unlike many other climbers, you hardly ever hear his hand smack the holds. His knuckles don’t bruise from stubbornness. When his skin threatens to split, he stops, instead of pushing through and provoking an injury. Often while climbing, he’ll spot a red souvenir on the wall and announce ‘Ohh, bit of blood here!’ like a traffic controller holding a sign just before a roadwork.

Although my partner is a cisgender man, when he climbs, his masculinity is usually left with our chalk bags on the ground. I respect this approach, and on the day of his first climbing competition, it serves him well. Instead of throwing himself towards the wall like an adolescent making a bad decision, he holds each move with the same intelligent precision as one might hold a Rubik’s cube. While bodies with bigger muscles spectate and sigh, he ascends to the top, often on his first try. In bouldering, finishing a route on your first attempt is known as a ‘flash’, and it is flashy to witness his tender strength.

Like any climbing, bouldering demands concentration, coordination and even ‘activates intense emotions (such as fear, pride, lust, anger, and more)’. This emotionality is often overlooked by beginners. I find myself feeling secretly satisfied when I see an overconfident bro struggle on a climb that requires balance and technique, after ‘sending’ (completing on their first try, without falling or resting) a series of other routes. Watching their egos flex like a back muscle, I remind myself that masculinity (a performance, not an inherent trait or a gender identity) doesn’t defy gravity, and that ‘strong’ bodies are not necessarily those that look a specific way. Strong bodies are bodies that are learning. In her research about gendered movement in exercise groups, Paula Lökman states ‘body-power does not necessarily equal strong muscles’. Perhaps being a powerful climber simply means that you can keep going when emotions obscure the distance between your hands and what they want.

Still, it’s the not-men at bouldering who are my idols. Sometimes when they climb it seems like a dance routine they memorised years ago, and are now returning to with an enthusiasm that only nostalgia can cultivate. When I’m at the gym, there are a few specific women and non-binary folk I am always eager to share space with. They have different strategies and physiques, but they all wear their determination like a pair of sunglasses—you can barely see the colour of their eyes through the glaze of focus. When these people ascend, their bodies are not masculinity’s mannequin. They climb differently—not feminine necessarily, but they have their own postures and procedures. Rub their hands on their booty shorts before applying chalk dust. Re-position the ponytail away from their face. Wipe forehead sweat with the back of their wrist. Look left then right before stepping on the mat.

Sometimes when they climb it seems like a dance routine they memorised years ago, and are now returning to with an enthusiasm that only nostalgia can cultivate.

One such person is Louise, a friend I have never seen freshly showered—she’s always already surmounting a climb when I arrive. Louise is the kindest climber I know because regardless of how frustrated she is with her own project (the term used for a route you repeatedly attempt to solve), she still notices and applauds when I complete a beginner V1. One of my ongoing challenges at bouldering has been learning to accept tips from spectators. Sometimes when Louise shouts ‘move your foot up’ or ‘twist your hip to your right’ my brain turns magenta with embarrassment. I am not good at being supported. Yet, when Louise helps me choreograph the Beta (or, pathway) for a climb, my non-binary body can interpret and mimic her movements in a graceful way that I struggle to absorb from men.

When feminine people climb, they are trusting the wall in a way that many masculine boulderers do not. I watch men climb the wall like it is something they must conquer, but I watch women climb the wall like an antidote to being conquered. As a gender-non-conforming person, this suggestive binary feels deeply problematic to me, yet I still recognise myself switching between feminine and masculine choreographies while bouldering. Sometimes I recognise myself doing the same thing at bars and on dating apps. These fluctuating performances do not make me a man or a woman. In everyday situations, I perceive gender as a dance routine that many subjects learn, rehearse, and then continually replicate until they eventually forget that someone else invented the steps. Like gender itself, the movement styles of bouldering are practiced and refined, until they seem instinctual.

I know the faces of all the not-men who climb regularly. On afternoons when I attend alone, I feel like I am wearing aluminium foil and the male gaze has stuck to it. But the not-men ask my name. They grin at me while I chalk my hands. They make sure I feel like a human and not a metaphor.


My Dad asks me to take a video of myself bouldering so he can spectate. He is my biggest cheerleader—if not for his pain condition, I think he’d be accompanying me to the climbing gym like an over-enthused Soccer Dad. He’d hold the water bottle, the sweat towel, the video camera (on an awkward angle). I was a late bloomer at physical exercise. In adulthood, there is grief in me for the father-son relationship we weren’t able to have. To dilute this, I film myself climbing and text him the videos. He replies, ‘WAY TO GO’, followed by a thumbs up emoji. When I gaze at myself in these videos, I am shocked at the agility and grace of a body that surely can’t be mine. How my waist tenses when I reach, how it is no longer a circumference to measure or an indent to be grasped, but a landscape of achievement. I notice the hole in the knee of my leggings: No longer a sacred artefact, now a souvenir of strength. These videos capture a physicality that exists beyond the voiceover track of my thoughts. They document the body as capable, rather than constantly moving towards (or away from) capability.

I watch men climb the wall like it is something they must conquer, but I watch women climb the wall like an antidote to being conquered.

Often when I engage in exercise practices, it is with the aim of achieving a momentary escape from having a body. Unlike the anorexic pursuits of my youth, when exercise constituted an obsessive vendetta against my physique, these days I use physical movement to temporarily distract my overactive brain. When I go on long walks, I find myself floating outside of the body, my attention drawn to sound and warmth instead of my intended destination. When I pole dance, I can never tell my left from right, because being upside down scrambles my perception beyond any boundaries made of words. When I am trying to climb a five-metre wall, my hands are focused on what’s next, they are not waiting to be held.

This use of physical movement as a distancing technique between the physical self and the embodied self can be explained as a series of ‘body techniques’ that establish a separate ‘you’ for the self that engages in the activity. In her journal article ‘The Absent Body Project: Cosmetic Surgery As A Response To Bodily Dys-Appearance’, Debra Gimlin proposes that participation in group exercise classes offers a dissociative distance from one’s own body—like a short holiday away from your flesh sack. Gimlin says aerobics classes enable participants to ‘construct accounts of their bodies that, first, release notions of selfhood from the physical and, second, provide a lens through which they can negotiate ideals of beauty’.

When I am ascending a wall, I experience a splitting of selves; occupying a different ‘me’ than the person who will later order a veggie burrito. By participating in a physical task that requires the body to pay close attention to itself, I am temporarily distracted from the script that I rehearse and replicate in daily life. When improvising a new bouldering pathway, my brain is so focused that I experience a fleeting escape from my own subjectivity within a patriarchal system. In Feminism Unmodified, Catherine A. MacKinnon argues that ‘men are trained to be strong and women are trained to be weak. It is not not learned, it is very specifically learned’. Gender, as a costume I have learnt how to fasten, outlines specific patterns and pathways of embodiment. Yet when I’m halfway up a wall, the concrete slab doesn’t care about my gender identity. Whenever I boulder, or dance, or hike, or have passionate sex, the movement quietens my thoughts, and allows me to exist in my body without constantly overthinking my body.


In my teenage years, I collected Lorna Jane activewear like my mother once collected ornate teaspoons. She too outgrew her longing. My wardrobe was full of bright singlets with bite-sized slogans and black leggings where the circumference remains almost the same from ankle to thigh. This is my museum of sickness. These are the clothes I used to shrink myself, to measure the illness’ success and also reward it. Many have written about the correlation between recovering from an eating disorder and developing a new series of unhealthy coping mechanisms to manage the loss. It is grief quenched by substitution. As a teenager, my newfound loyalty to excessive exercise felt like an attempt to reach ‘recovery’ by successfully replicating a ‘fit’ aesthetic. In Women and Exercise: The Body, Health and Consumerism, Eileen Kennedy and Pirkko Markula define this goal as ‘a certain narrowly defined body type that then comes to represent the ‘true’ femininity’. As multiple therapists have since explained, my eating disorder trained me to pursue perfectionism: a trait that earned me various accolades at a young age, but made those achievements seem hollow. In hindsight, I don’t know whether my perfectionism grew from the eating disorder or if the eating disorder fed on my perfectionism.

At the beginning of her 2015 memoir Small Acts of Disappearance, Fiona Wright quotes from ‘Dedication To Hunger’ by Nobel Prize-winning poet Louise Glück:

It begins quietly
in certain female children:
the fear of death, taking as its form dedication to hunger,
because a woman’s body
is a grave; it will accept

For years throughout my adolescence, what Glück names a ‘dedication to hunger’ constituted part of my identity. Shrinking was my first thought every morning and guilt was my final thought every night. I wanted to make my body smaller to prove that I could gain control over it. Lorna Jane slogans announced Believe In Yourself and Never Give Up—but rather than motivational quotes, these were intrusive thoughts I could wear in public.

Lorna Jane slogans announced Believe In Yourself and Never Give Up—but rather than motivational quotes, these were intrusive thoughts I could wear in public.

There is a closet at my parents’ house full of clothes I can’t convince myself to remove. An entire bin bag bulging with activewear. I have not been committed to shrinking for eight years now, and yet, donating those items means accepting that I might be a ‘healthy’ weight forever. I tell my parents I don’t want to donate or dispose of such an expensive collection. This is not a lie, I did spend an excruciating amount on my pursuit of perfection. I hope I never fit in those leggings again, but still, they are a shed skin that preserves the story beyond my own remembering.

Throughout my life, inhabiting a body has constituted an act of reaching. Reaching for an overpriced and unethical activewear brand. Reaching (then hesitating) for the salt and vinegar Pringles in the supermarket aisle. Reaching for an alternate place to reside, especially during chronic pain flares when it feels like my nerve-endings are trying to evict me. Reaching for the Epsom salts when I am in the bathtub after a pelvic physio appointment. Reaching for distance, when I am dancing with closed eyes and my instinct is to stretch as tall as I can possibly be, fingertips grazing the tops of my expectations. Recently, my body has been reaching for the next holds on a five-metre wall. I still don’t know if I climb with my head or my body, but I hope that I climb with femininity’s choreography.

Anna Davey, an Olympic level boulderer who climbs at my local gym, often trains while wearing a weighted vest. Her training partner fills the black apparatus with sandbags, and she climbs like a mother koala carrying a bloated infant on her back. Many people, especially those who identify within a scope of femininity and/or beyond cis-normative categories, wake up wearing these weighted vests. Sometimes when I am standing before a V2, I am not analysing gravity or negotiating the best route; rather, I am internally debating my own capabilities. Sometimes when I am swinging for the next move, I am hyperaware of the eyes of men waiting for their turn. Sometimes, I am heavy with my own expectations and the day I’ve endured is too tiring to cry about. Sometimes I wonder if my determination to become smaller was a misunderstanding. Maybe all those years I spent trying to abandon literal kilograms, I was truly feeling overwhelmed by the invisible weights I wore, and my inability to explain their impact.

An earlier version of this essay was shortlisted for the 2021 Deakin University Nonfiction Prize.