In October of 2013, I attended the Online News Association national conference in Atlanta, Georgia. I had been bouldering for six months, and that budding fixation was matched only by my professional obsession with journalism. I learned a lot on that trip — namely, that I didn’t want to pursue a fast-paced career in digital journalism.
I had a lot of fun, though. There were drone showings, Google Glass demos, and Twitter debates over such lofty topics as the pronunciation of “gif.” (It does, proclaimed the alleged “creators of the gif,” sound like the peanut butter.)
What I remember best, however, is Ann Friedman’s keynote speech. Ann is a well-known journalist, public speaker, and pie chart philosopher who writes about gender, media, politics, and culture. Three days after I first entered a climbing gym, Ann published her first Shine Theory oeuvre in New York Magazine’s The Cut.
The article begins, as every think piece should, with Beyoncé. Rather than focusing on Her Majesty’s greatness, however, Ann delves into Bey’s relationship with her Destiny’s Child co-queens.
Kelly Rowland, you see, had trouble celebrating her former bandmate’s solo success. Instead, she felt inadequate by comparison. In her 2013 single “Dirty Laundry,” Kelly comes clean about the confusion and anger she felt in the years following Destiny Fulfilled:
While my sister was on stage, killing it like a mother—
I was enraged, feeling it like a mother—
Bird in a cage, you would never know what I was dealing with
Went our separate ways, but I was happy she was killing it
Bittersweet, she was up, I was down
No lie, I feel good for her, but what do I do now?
Forget the records, off the record, I was going through some bull—
Post Survivor, she on fire, who wanna hear my bull—?
In “Shine Theory: Why Powerful Women Make the Greatest Friends,” Ann argues that Kelly’s experience is far too common. “Few women are unlucky enough to have their successes measured against Beyoncé’s,” she writes. “But that feeling of resentment rather than joy at the personal and professional achievements of another woman is something most of us can relate to.”
Ann goes on to discuss the social, historical, and economic factors that encourage women to envy and compete with one another. “When we meet other women who seem happier, more successful, and more confident than we are, it’s all too easy to hate them for it,” she posits. “It means there’s less for us.”
But wait — that’s not true at all! There is plenty of joy, success, and girl power to go around. The heart of Shine Theory is this: “I don’t shine if you don’t shine.” It goes to follow, then, that if you shine, I shine too! There’s no need to compare ourselves to other women or be intimidated by them. Instead, we should celebrate our sisters — and ourselves too.
Ann writes for high-powered working women. She talks job promotions, professional networks, and salary negotiations. I haven’t spent much time in the white-collar world, and neither have many of my readers. Still, Shine Theory applies to us dirtbarbies too.
There are many powerful women in climbing, and our numbers continue to grow. Still, the crag is not a spotless haven of equality. The social issues that exist outside of climbing exist within it too.
Ideally, our sport would be free of sexism, racism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, and all the other -isms and -phobias that toxify social climates. In many ways, climbing is an incredibly inclusive community — but it’s still not as inclusive as it can be. As we work toward the goal of terminal wokeness, it’s important for women — and humans in general — to support one another.
For a long time, I was intimidated by other girls — not just in climbing, but in general. I couldn’t let go of my middle school lunchroom baggage, and I struggled with low self-esteem for years. I assumed other girls didn’t like me, and I didn’t feel worthy of their friendship anyway.
When I got older, I felt nervous around strong women — in Spanish class, in the flute studio, in the newsroom, and eventually at the crag. I wanted to be like those women. I wanted to be their friend! But I was weary from comparison, scared of rejection, and certain I was nothing special.
Growing up, the media told me that other girls were my competitors. Movies, TV, advertisements, and more taught me to compare myself to the women around me. I’ve never been very competitive, though, so rather than gaining motivation from comparison, I felt hopelessly inadequate in every arena.
For a long time, I hated failing at anything; it seemed like a mark against my personhood. Because of this, I rarely did things I wasn’t already good at — until I entered the bouldering gym. Climbing was the first thing I ever sucked at but stuck with, and it’s taught me a lot about defining success.
Now I know I don’t have to measure up or compete. It’s taken a lot of time, reflection, and life experience, but I no longer feel defined by my professional accomplishments, artistic achievements, or athletic prowess. I’m fantastic, period — and so is most everyone else.
I’m not intimidated by strong women anymore. Instead, I seek them out, choosing daily to embrace their shine. My female friendships are precious — I don’t know what kind of person I’d be without Caroline, Taylor, Elaine, and all the other ladies I’ve climbed with over the years.
I want every girl to know how great she is. If she sends a new grade, gets a promotion, buys a house, or does anything else that brings her pride, I will be her cheerleader.
And if she feels weak, tired, confused, or defeated, I’ll still cheer her on. I’ll repeat what I know until she knows it too:
You’re doing a great job! You’re working so hard! You’re a problem solver! However you feel right now is okay. You’re a beautiful person, and I admire you.
Obviously, the premise behind Shine Theory isn’t just for women. There are many wonderful men in my life, and I am invested in their success too.
But lady climber crews have a different vibe. Obviously, we may share some physiology and communicate in similar ways. But more significantly, our common experiences bring us together.
Plus, when I climb with other women, I can better see my own strength. Sometimes I think a move is impossible, that I just don’t have the burl. Then I see Caroline or Elaine pull it off and know I’m strong enough too — or that I will be soon.
Competition can be positive, pushing us to strive as our friends do the same. We have different strengths, focuses, challenges, and motivators, and spending time together is an important source of perspective.
Although I try not to compare myself to physically stronger women, I get inspired watching them. I’ve spent two summers staring at the Pipedream ceiling, gazing starry-eyed at the Maple Canyon Lady Crew. I love watching Margarita, Maggie, Mindy, Jaime, and other superwomen try hard on routes I can’t even fathom — and I can’t wait to be on their level.
The same goes for school, work, relationships, and creative endeavors. When I confront a new challenge, there is always another woman I can turn to for perspective. And when my friends leave their own comfort zones, I hope they turn to me too.
I’m glad I’m past comparing myself negatively to other women. It’s so much more fun to celebrate their successes along with my own. I love watching the women around me shine, and I’m grateful for their sparkle.
If you’d like to share in the shine, check out these women’s climbing initiatives:
Girls Who Climb is an international community of lady crushers. The GWC mission is “to bring together women of all different ages, backgrounds, and experience from all over the world to create an outlet where [they] can explore and embrace all that climbing has to offer through the communal bonds of other like-minded women.”
Brown Girls Climb “aims to promote and increase visibility of diversity in climbing by establishing a community of climbers of color, encouraging leadership opportunities for female climbers of color, and by creating inclusive opportunities to climb and explore for underrepresented communities.”
The Body Positive Climbing Instagram celebrates self-love. Its mission is “empowering earthlings of all shapes, sizes, and colors to get out and climb.” The BPC Facebook group is “a place to share thoughts, ideas, media, and stoke for body positivity and rock climbing.”
She Moves Mountains is an organization which offers outdoor climbing skills instruction for women. The SMM mission is “to create an educational space for women to realize their strengths through rock climbing clinics.” A Chattanooga climber is working to start up SMM East Coast — follow along on Instagram and Facebook.
You’ve probably heard of the Flash Foxy Women’s Climbing Festival, which started in Bishop, CA, and will come to Chatt for the second time this fall. Per the Flash Foxy crew: “Our hope is that [the festival] provides women with a space for camaraderie, conversation, connection, and climbing.”