The Problem With “Beta Babes”
Cover Shot by Stevie Lewis
Photography by Taylor Feldman and Rob Morgan
I was originally attracted to climbing not only because it pushes my limits, but also because it’s all about community and comraderie. Last year, my boss at the climbing gym told me that I could host the all-women climb night and my eyes lit up. The fact that I worked for a gym that gives space once a month for a women’s climbing night made me feel giddy. Was I dreaming? The classical music playing in my head cut as soon as he told me the title of the event: Beta Babes. The soft light faded as the apparition of Chimamada Ngozi Adiche pinched me. A blank stare came across my face. “You don’t like it.” My boss said.
When I’m climbing I focus, breathe, push the limit, quiet my mind, stay in the moment and sweat. My goal is to stay committed to the act, the pursuit. When I’m climbing I am the movement. I am the action. I am the expression of the route. Nowhere along the way do I think to myself, “Wow, I’m such a babe.” Never in the middle of clipping, or in the throes of a crux do I say to myself, “You’re a babe, you got this.”
I had an immediate guttural reaction to “Beta Babes.” My body rejected the sound of it. So, as a group of dedicated climbers we will be referred to as babes?
What’s in a name anyways? “Babe” literally means a baby. Informally, it means an affectionate form of address, typically for someone with whom one has a sexual, or romantic relationship with. It can also mean a sexually attractive young woman or girl.
I tend to fight my stereotypes – call me a feminist! I tend to talk back when I don’t like what I hear –thank you, Mom and Dad. Being a “Beta Babe” is not exactly what I had in mind when I started climbing.
Referring to a group of women climbers as “Beta Babes” suggests that these women are helpless and need direction. “Beta” is a climbing term that means providing information about a climb. Common usages: “Thanks for the beta!” Or, “What’s the beta on this climb? I’m really stuck.” I tend to appreciate silence when I climb. I want beta when I have seemingly tried everything and I specifically ask my climbing partner, or surrounding friends for advice on what to do next. The joy of climbing comes from figuring it out for yourself. The joy comes from the process.
It could be argued that in this way, the phrase “Beta Babes” suggests that we are not people with individual climbing goals seeking community, but that we are quite literally babies looking for answers.
The point of the gym hosting “Beta Babes” is to provide a space for women to feel safe, comfortable and easily find community in the bouldering area, which can be an intimidating place. All women of all ages and levels are welcome. However, if they are walking around the boulders with the knowledge that they are “Beta Babes” what does this tell them? This tells them that they are there to look good and hone their skills as babes. I think the nice alliteration of the double “B” lulled everyone into a state of marketing sleep. “Women Climb Night” just doesn’t have the same ring to it, but at least you know what you are there for.
Past boyfriends have called me “babe.” I do not want my boss or peers to refer to me as “babe.” To use “babe” in reference to an only women climb event would mean perpetuating the sexualization of women. Instead of watching a female climber on the wall and saying, or thinking, “What a babe!” How about, “She’s got great technique,” or, “That move requires a lot of strength. I bet she trains hard.” Or, “That woman is really going for it. I’m impressed with her tenacity.”
I have heard from other women, and experienced first hand, some of the following scenarios:
-A smack on the ass from a male climber in the gym. (Yes, this actually happened.)
-A comment like “No, I wasn’t paying attention to how you sent the climb because I was staring at your ass.” (No, this person does not get credit for being “honest.” This person gets credit for being degrading.)
-A guy catching me as I fell from a problem as if I was a ballerina in the Nutcracker. Except I’m not a ballerina in the Nutcracker. It was completely awkward as his arms grabbed my side and around my boob. Spotting is appreciated under certain circumstances, however in that situation a spot was unnecessary.
The word “Babe” suggests sexuality, informality, and naiveté.
When climbing we are already putting ourselves in a vulnerable place. We already feel exposed. Not only are we fighting gravity and the natural instinct to stay on the ground, but we are also contorting our bodies, and stretching our limbs high up a wall. Anyone around could be a spectator. It took me a little while to get over this. I used to feel incredibly uncomfortable and self-conscious in the gym. I don’t like the idea of being on display, so it has taken some time to get this out of my head. With exposure comes vulnerability. It takes courage to ascend a wall. It takes courage to ascend a wall as a female in tights hoping that people are paying attention to your footwork and not your ass.
“Babe” suggests that we should be sexy and fit. It does not suggest anything about preparation, intention, and drive. As women, we are harassed daily on the streets and if I am striving to break my own personal climbing barriers I don’t want to have to worry about feeling sexualized too.
It is a thin veneer of flattery to refer to women who climb as “babes.” It ultimately leaves a feeling of vulnerability and sexual objectification. It signifies and reinforces an assbackwards goal of competing with each other - not for sending a route first, but as women vying for the attention of men. To be the babe-y-ist. To be the most babeish. To see who can be the most babe-y?
The word “babe” in the title of this only women climb night reflects a widespread acceptance that women climbers are just objects of sexual beauty. There is an underlying violence. Violence lies in the word, “babe,” because it threatens the integrity of women climbers. It threatens our competence.
What does “babe” have to do with climbing?
How does the title, “Beta Babes,” encourage female comraderie?
I will not be afraid to cause a tsunami in the ocean of patriarchy.
Even though some of my friends at the gym think “Beta Babes” is cute and catchy, even though my boss said the name has to be marketable, even though I tried to sleep on it thinking I would get behind the name when I woke up, I never did wake up less educated on Gender Studies. I never woke up forgetting the implications of language. I never woke up with the ability to simply dismiss and shrug off the verbal and sexual abuse I have experienced in everyday situations.
I woke up without the desire to be the climbing community’s “babe.” I woke up feeling the energy of Gloria Steinem, Rebecca Solnit, Virginia Woolf, Andi Zeisler, Rita Dove, Anne Bradstreet, Mary Wollstonecraft, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Gloria E. Anzaldua, and bell hooks.
“Beta Babes” is not just a trivial phrase that should be dismissed as catchy and cute. It is conning women out of their fullest potential.