When starting a new sport in a place where you are already a minority in multiple ways, it is daunting and to be honest it has stopped me from participating before. I have stuck to individual sports my entire life. I just don’t want the team down by not being the best person on the court or pitch and I feel I constantly have to prove I am better than my counterparts purely because I am not white, I am not a man, I am neurodiverse- I am a minority whom many in the place I reside don’t think I belong. This attitude to over achieve and out class my peers may be from competing in swimming competitions as a child, but I feel it has been ingrained in me from a young age due to other reasons.
My mother had to get a scholarship to go to secondary school, being born to a poor rural family in a village in Malaysia that had no running water until she turned 13. From there she gained a scholarship to go to college and university in Cardiff where she read electrical engineering, a male dominated subject and profession. I grew up going to her friend’s homes for dinner, the league of aunties who also taught engineering to Malaysian undergraduates who were also mostly young men.
Not only did they have to prove the men that they were worthy of their positions, they had to also look after their households and their kids. The dualism of being a woman in a modern workplace, a mother, and wife is often unfair and unequal especially if there is not even a generation of women beforehand who have worked as economic contributors to the family. My grandmother and the generations before her were all homemakers. The thought that women should still be in that position means that there are still stereotypical assumptions in their abilities to fulfil their roles at work in the same capacity as men. There was certainly a sentiment of outclassing the men in terms of their work performance, showing them that they knew what they were talking about and were not otherwise distracted with their home lives.
How does this relate to sport?
Bouldering and indeed swimming is not exceptionally male dominated but to be good requires other forms of training that have gender orientated stereotypes. Weight training helps a lot. If you walk to the weights section of a commercial gym, you will be a girl of many men waiting for the squat rack. It was not until I did a few months of home workouts during the pandemic did I have the confidence to walk to that part of the gym. I felt I had to know what on earth I was doing, I had to have my headphones on so I didn’t get any unsolicited advice on my form from hopeful men wanting to get my number. I had to lift at least the equivalent of a man of my height and structure (I am 5 ft 4, so I gave myself a bit of leeway). And a lot of that came from the insecurities built upon my own stereotypes and expectations of being a woman participating in sport.
Growing up in Malaysia as a teenager who is mixed race and did a sport that naturally developed broader than usual shoulders; I was taller and bigger than a lot of men in their mid 20s. Although being in the pool was my place of solace in the midst of the other madness that went on at home, I was stared at and heckled on the street by men twice my age asking if I was single. This is not the attention a 13 year old girl should have endured and this would have never happened if I were a boy. It also meant I made a calculation in my head, “it’s okay to accept sexual advances from men when you are a child but you better be the best swimmer in the pool, you better be stronger than the boys, you better show them who’s boss to protect yourself from their prejudices.”
Now, I found a safe space to be myself, to climb. Climbing is my new sport of choice. I go to socialise, I go to become fitter and I don’t need to put my headphones on to block out the unwanted attention. I look at myself in the mirror and see a body I am proud of, I am strong and the people I go with have hearts of gold which I believe has made me a happier and nicer human. Unlike the swimming training I went to, I do not go climbing to become the best to prove a point. My climbing isn’t fueled by my rage of living in an unfair, unequal society that constantly judged me. The climbing gym is a safe space away from that judgement and I think this is why I have stuck with it.