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How rock climbing finally helped me embrace my plus-sized body

Writer Emmie Harrison-West found that scaling climbing walls helped her embrace her identity as a plus-size woman, teaching her to appreciate her body for what it can do, not what it looks like


Roving my eyes up the wall before me, dotted with colourful, rock-like shapes, and smeared with chalk (as well as the occasional spot of blood), I felt breathless — it seemed to go on forever.

Swallowing a lump in my throat, I doubted I'd ever reach the top. I was fat, and fat girls aren't rock climbers — right? Climbing was for macho, surfer dudes who liked to take their tops off to scale walls, their six packs rippling while they grunted loudly.

But I was wrong.

My weight and I have always had a complicated relationship. It's overwhelmed my mental health for years. In fact, for as long as I can remember, I've either calorie counted on a diet, desperate to lose weight; exercised until I felt sick, or just outright despised myself.

Young woman smiling at a climbing wall

Emmie had a complicated relationship with her weight

It didn't help that kids called me 'Emmie the elephant' at school.

I've had feelings of anxiety that no one would take me seriously because of my weight. That people would judge me on appearances; think I'm lazy, or assign a stereotype to me based on what society has told them— and it's affected my confidence dramatically.

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I've struggled with social anxiety over the years, too: always analysing every word that came out of my mouth in social situations; wondering if the reason there was a pause in conversation was because my listener was judging my body. What I was wearing, if it was too tight, or too short. Whether they were watching the way I ate, or thought I should skip dessert.

I thought I was grotesque because I was overweight. That I wasn't deserving of the career I wanted, or the love I craved because of how I looked, and what numbers were in my clothes. The intrusive, negative feelings about my body were relentless — and I've been medicated for depression in the past as a result.

This was all until I discovered rock climbing.

Young woman smiling at a climbing wall

Rock climbing had a positive impact on Emmie's body image

I was always under the impression that plus-sized people only exercised for weight loss, and 'fat burn' — never to build up strength, for fun or for pleasure.

Back in 2020, my husband Jethro caught the climbing bug — he'd regularly started going to Yonder, an indoor bouldering centre near our old flat in Walthamstow, London.

Bouldering is a form of free climbing, where you scale artificial walls or rock formations using a series of hand holds (hilariously called 'jugs') — without a harness or ropes. You have to trust that both your body and mind will hold out long enough for you to logically work out a route to the top.

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I was jealous of the childlike pleasure in my husband's voice when he returned home after another session. I couldn't face the gym, and hated every second of my stupid little runs around the stupid little park — sweating until I felt sick. I punished my fatness by forcing myself to endure exercise I despised.

"Come with me," Jethro suggested once. He was taken aback when I burst out laughing, but his kind encouragement that he'd be there to pick me up when I fell worked.

Soon, I found my hands submerged in pouches of chalk — clapping away excess dust, while I watched my long-limbed husband clamber a seemingly never-ending wall. When he jumped down, he was grinning - it was my turn.

I looked around nervously to see if anyone would be watching my bum in too-tight gym leggings wobble its way to the top of a beginner's wall, ready to snigger when I fell — but no one could've cared less.

Young woman on a climbing wall

Climbing made Emmie feel proud of what her body could do

Taking a deep breath, I self-consciously pulled my top down as if to cover up, and walked up to face my enemy: the wall. As I clenched my fingers around faux shards of rock and stepped up, I was convinced I was going to rip them off with how heavy I was — but they stayed sturdy, like a reliable old friend.

Slowly but surely, with knocking knees, I made my way to the top (probably without breathing). It took me a long time, and my technique was far from perfect, but I did it.

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At the top, I felt like I'd conquered the world — even though I was probably only 20 feet off the ground. Grinning manically, I was proud of my body's strength, and realised the potential of what it could do.

But before I could celebrate, there was the small task of getting down…

Closing my eyes, and taking a deep breath, I jumped — safely, by initially landing on my feet, with knees bent and rolling onto my back like a turtle (designed to take the impact off your knees). With my back on my crash mat, I couldn’t stop laughing — I was breathless from adrenaline and the heady pleasure of accomplishment.

Since then, rock climbing has been my therapy; my saviour in discovering my true strength through wellness — especially as a bigger woman. My mind feels clearer as I climb walls, and I've never been healthier; both mentally and physically. Climbing walls is an incredibly thrilling, freeing and exhilarating feeling — and my weight has never been a burden.

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And when I slip? I laugh, dust myself down and try again — a motto I've now taken into my daily life when it comes to negative thoughts and failure.

Now, my husband and I have moved to Edinburgh, and while the city boasts Europe's largest indoor bouldering centre, the country itself is renowned for its rocky terrain, and climbing trails. We're hoping to try our (very calloused) hands at outdoor bouldering, too.

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Stepping out of my comfort zone has been the best thing to ever happen to me. I haven't lost weight by any means, but I don't need to — I’m happier and more confident in myself. I've realised the power of both my body and my mind - and the lengths they can stretch to in order to achieve what I once thought was impossible.

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