Katherine Donnelly | 07.24.2018

Most women, at some point in their lives, get discouraged about their appearance because they may not possess the ideal body according to societal standards. I was no different. I have always lived in predominantly white communities, and with that, feminine beauty typically meant white or light skin, tall, skinny, long hair, European facial features—the epitome of Eurocentric standards. Sorry, not sorry, I don't fit those standards. However, when I was a teenager, and even as a young adult, those standards of beauty had a significant impact. Instead of embracing who I was, a short, physically strong black girl with black facial features, I tried to change my appearance in order to be considered beautiful.

While many of those traits were out of my control, I found that my physique was something I could change. I decided to focus on becoming more feminine by forming unhealthy habits. Over the years, I started hitting the cardio workouts hard and eating less. I was always comparing myself to others who were skinnier—therefore prettier. Over time I started getting feedback from both strangers and people I knew. People would say things like, "You look so great," or "Tell me what you've been doing," and even statements like, "Most black women are usually bigger, but not you, you're so tiny…" As much as I hate to admit it, those praises, so to speak, reinforced that skinny and light skin were beautiful. I couldn’t replace my brown skin, but maybe I could make up for it. But my self reinvention was short-lived and nearly caused irreparable mental and physical damage that lasted for years to come. I began developing health issues, but it took years to realize that they were self-inflicted. I was always tired, weak, and developed hypothyroidism. I can even attest to fainting, due to long bouts of fasting, more times than I care to confess. I had an unhealthy relationship with exercising and an even unhealthier relationship with food, causing a huge energy deficit. I didn't care, all I knew was I was receiving lots of praise, and I finally felt “feminine.” 

I had been spiraling out of control and was in complete denial that anything was wrong or that my actions were completely irrational. Fortunately, mountaineering came to my rescue. Mountaineering was a sport I had no idea existed, except as the domain of mainly, rich white men who climbed mountains like Everest. In reality, my introduction to mountaineering was a lifesaver and an even bigger confidence booster. Learning the skills to climb mountains brought back that inner child, the child that wanted to do what the boys did and never once questioned the idea that I wasn't beautiful because of the lack of Eurocentric features. As soon as I discovered mountaineering, I wanted to be a mountaineering badass, or better yet, a black woman mountaineering badass who will help redefine the status quo. And just like that, it hit me—I couldn't be a badass if I was too weak from dieting and lacked self-confidence.

After getting into mountaineering, I also discovered a whole other world of outdoor sports: rock climbing, bouldering, snowshoeing, winter backpacking, and many others. It wasn't just the realization that I had to focus on being healthy and strong to engage in these awesome sports that gave me confidence—there were amazing women I saw who were already smashing stereotypes and achieving goals, and these women became role models to me. I witnessed women of ALL sizes, and ALL ethnicities accomplish things I had no idea were even possible, including crushing dynamic bouldering moves, killing it at CrossFit, competing in triathlons at the age of 60, peak bagging numerous mountains, and yes, even climbing Everest, to name just a few. These women were inspiring, and I wanted to be strong and healthy just like them.

My entire perspective on what it meant to be beautiful started to change. I stopped caring about counting calories and started eating enough healthy wholesome foods. My new goal was to keep my energy levels up so I could lead an active lifestyle. Of course, I gained some weight and a lot of muscle too, forcing me to donate my size 0 clothing—and you know what, I loved it! Good riddance!

I felt that I was finally being true to myself. I also started to notice my arsenal of makeup dwindling on my bathroom counter, which my bank account and skin greatly appreciated. I didn’t feel the need to try to impress others by becoming someone I wasn't meant to be. Importantly, I got to focus on what mattered to me: being physically and mentally strong in order to do what I love because after all, nature doesn’t care what I look like as long as I am capable of doing what I do safely.

But please don't get me wrong, I most likely will always have self-esteem issues because I’m human living in a society that rewards certain features and races over others. However, I have found that the more time I spend outdoors the less concerned I am with looking a certain way. By all means, it's not easy, but I've come a long way thanks to mountaineering. Mountaineering has truly changed my perspective on beauty, and let's face it; strong is beautiful. 

This article was originally published on Melanin Base Camp.

Photo credit by Nathan Kaul.


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