My daughter recently competed in her first indoor rock climbing competition, thereby proving once again that my kids are infinitely more badass than I. Climbing is a great sport, full of great people. Climbing, like any sport, selects for participants who have the characteristics to enjoy it. In this case: independence, perseverance, focus, and not necessarily fearlessness, but the willingness to "feel the fear and do it anyway" which I find so very baffling.
My daughter discovered climbing right around the time when her dad and I separated, so it gave her an extra measure of refuge, critical to my girl who is so interior and pensive. The gym became her space, filled with people who accept her and support her. The gym's inhabitants form a subculture united by a unique language (her coach's pre-competition advice consisted of nuggets like, "So maybe you're the bomb-diggity on slab but you don't really rock the stem so much...go with your strengths, right?"), nomenclature (the fellow climbers have nicknames like "Rhino" and "Callous"), and a breathtaking predisposition to <5% body fat. Most importantly to her, it is a land where her sister and I remain nothing more than occasional and timid tourists.
Most importantly to me, there's a beautiful sub-sub-culture at the gym: strong, focused, supportive girls her age. Middle-school-aged girls. Need I say any more? All of my fellow alumnae from Our Lady of Lord-of-the-Flies Jr. High: You get me. Being miserable, bullied, and alienated in middle school is a hallowed American tradition. Finding a cohort of girls like this--brave, funny, tenacious, with blisters on their fingers and chalk dust on their faces--is the real reason that when I look at my budget every month, my daughter's gym membership is non-negotiable. I would sell plasma before I would cancel it.
Even better, there are actually some older girls climbing. Wholesome, fit, female role-models all the way up to my age! It's like Lean In: The Boulder Edition.
I was standing next to one of these amazing women while we watched the competition. She's my age, and her husbands and kids all climb, too. Nuclear-family-envy aside, I admire them.
We were watching the women's competition, and I commented on how much I enjoyed seeing the place overrun by competitive female climbers. She agreed, but then said,
"The only thing I don't like is the way some of these girls dress."
I looked around. The female climbers in the competition were wearing, for the most part, shorts or pants, jog bras and tanks. Some of their shorts were shorter than others, some had taken their tanks off and were wearing just the jog bra. Not coincidentally, it was over 90 degrees inside the place. I dripped sweat just from spectating.
"Really?" I said. "I hadn't noticed."
"Really?" she said, in a tone that was either dubious or reproachful, or both. "Some of them hardly have any clothes on! It's like they're showing off!"
Now, I'll be honest, maybe part of the reason I hadn't noticed was because for every one female climber, there were maybe 10 males, and they were mostly sweaty and ripped and gymnastic and--wait for it--shirtless. So I was ¿como se dice? not at a loss for distraction.
"Do you think some of the men are showing off ?" I asked.
"That's different!" she said. "I want these girls to be good role models for my daughters."
I could feel the pulse starting to hammer in my temples.
"But they are!" I said. "I look around and I don't see women showing off. I see strong, athletic women wearing clothes and gear appropriate for rock climbing. Just like the men are. Do you think any parent here is worried that all these shirtless guys are setting a bad example for their sons? Or are husbands worried that their wives are ogling all these fit young men?"
Let's just say she was less than receptive to this line of reasoning.
But I suspected underneath it all what was really meant by "good role model" was "asexual." Female climbers who are "good role models" have to be fit, but they can't be sexy. And the corollary, I guess, is that male climbers don't have to worry about being sexy, because women watching the competition certainly wouldn't be thinking about them like that. Hence, male climbers are free to be shirtless and sweaty and ripped because that is what rock climbers do. And female climbers who are sweaty and ripped better cover that ass up, because that is what women do.
As the mother of two daughters, it is so hard to explain this, the way the world will assign sexuality where it isn't and deny sexuality where it is. It is hard to explain what appropriate attire means (and who gets to define appropriate, anyway). That while clothing in no way implies sexual consent, ever, people will infer things anyway. And honestly, that's true of every aspect of our public personas, particularly as women--jewelry, makeup, clothes, posture, weight, age--all of these things are taken as cues by other members of our sprawling, complicated, polymorphous society. Cues that are often mis-read, to confusing or funny or even disastrous effect.
In the end, all I can offer my daughters is this: Dress yourself--in fact, do everything--consistently with who you truly are. Not who people want you to be, not who someone else is, but your own beautiful glorious strong shining self.