By: Emily Gogel, RD, LD
A few weeks ago, I had the absolute pleasure of speaking with Sarah Regan, a rock guide for “She Moves Mountains”. According to her biography, “Sarah is an AMGA Single Pitch Instructor, working on her Rock Guide certification, and attending grad school to become a fully licensed Mental Health Counselor and Adventure-based Therapist. Sarah holds a degree in Sociology from The Evergreen State College and is a certified Body Positivity facilitator.” (1) While her list of certifications will only continue to grow, Sarah does have an accomplishment she deems integral to her story: recovery from an eating disorder (ED). As she dug her roots deeper into the outdoor community, her ED also dug its’ claws deeper. It challenged her relationships and experiences. But after seeking help, she was able to become a more confident outdoor enthusiast and empower others to do the same. She describes where her passion for outdoor adventure began, how to navigate body image insecurities, and how her path towards recovery started.
Sarah was calling in from Bend, Oregon.
Have you always had a passion for the outdoors?
“I had the privilege of going to rivers and hikes in the woods with my siblings and dad and spent a lot of time as a kid outdoors. I grew up on an island near Seattle in the Puget Sound so there was a kind of blanket of safety to explore in the woods and trust that I would make it back.”
Regan continued to describe that genetically she was born with some special awareness and physical strength. Activities like mountain biking and snowboarding led her to outdoor activities. Because she felt successful in those sports, she felt the drive to continue.
How did you get into rock climbing?
“When I was 24 years old I moved to Boulder, Colorado with some friends, searching for identity. Everyone rock climbed out there, so I started. It’s a very elite environment with elite athleticism, drenched in cultural productivity. I loved it but looking back, I realize that it was not the best environment for me. Now I’m engaging in a more laid back community in Bend where we can climb but then chill out afterwards.”
What are your thoughts about body image in the field of rock climbing?
“Rock climbing has a below the surface or unspoken ideal body. Everybody is thinking about their body image. Something like 46% of women that climb 5.14s have some type of disordered relationship with eating. It’s more common in elite climbing.
It’s interesting to me because you can also use rock climbing as a way to liberate yourself from these body image confines. The idea and language of shedding fat weight is so frequent among climbers. However, the drive to get lean, to improve in rock climbing and gain lean muscle mass is very different than the drive to be perceived a certain way. Some people I know are really trying to [change their eating patterns] because they are passionate about sending their route (ie. finishing a climb) and want to succeed. This is awesome that they are so passionate. Yet, it can still really be destructive to your body. Then there is another intention which is that ‘I climb, and it brings me a certain identity, so therefore I have to look like a climber’. There is an emphasis to “look like a climber” vs this is going to support my climb and body.”
When Regan started out rock climbing, she shared that she was originally in the first group, changing her behaviors to “look like a climber”. There was a point where she plateaued with her skills and techniques due to inadequate intake and self-care. Her body was stagnant. Eventually as she sought treatment, she was able to give her body what it needed and become a better climber. Regan has since expanded her abilities for herself as a stronger climber and can now share that wisdom with others.
How do you navigate the underlying body image trap within climbing now? What do you tell new climbers to avoid?
“It’s so hard. When I first started, I had people telling me to watch out. I thought I was the exception, that I could [engage in eating disorder related behaviors] and I would not succumb.
Instead of diving into my own experience, I try to work on themes of how to stay intentional with our bodies. One of the biggest themes I dig into is ‘how do we give ourselves rest when we need it’. This means exploring how we can find our limits and be somatically aware of what happens in our bodies.
All the time, I see clients say, ‘I can’t do this. I’m so frustrated’. Their fingers are numb, cold, they are clearly exhausted. In my mind, I think ‘Wow they’re really pushing it." Before they get to this point, we have a conversation on the ground asking, ‘How do you know when you need to rest versus when you are able to push it.’
In my situation, I pushed and pushed and pushed until I starved myself. I was sick. I know where it can go if you have a disconnected relationship with your body.
I see that there is a spectrum. On one end is to push it too hard, use everything you have. On the other end, people may give up very soon. First I celebrate it saying ‘Look at this! Great job, you’ve decided when you’ve had enough.’ At first, they are surprised that they aren’t being shamed for stopping. Then, sometimes they get off the wall and cannot wait to get back on. They get to explore it at their own time when they decide they are ready.”
Regan aims to empower those she teaches to take away the shame, take away the judgement, and connect to the body. This may be listening to cues to push yourself on the wall, ease up, take a water or food break, check in with yourself. Perhaps trying to jump off the productivity spectrum and seek liberation from preconceived expectations may help uncover a new intention.
What would you say to someone who feels as if rock climbing or hiking is not available to them because of their body size?
“Climbing is so specific to each individual body. When you get out on a rock face outside, it’s not like it was built for anything or any specific body. It’s just something that we get to play on. I try to encourage women that it is their own intimate relationship with the wall. The way that I move my body as a shorter and top heavy woman is going to be different then someone taller and bottom heavy. Our center of gravity is different, and so our interactions with the wall will be different. The goal is not to get to the top, but to enjoy the experience. If you’re climbing and only comparing yourself to others faster than you or stronger, the experience is not as enjoyable. If your goal is to get to the top, you likely will not get as much out of it.
Specifically, if people are afraid of the rope or harness not holding them, I’ll tell them that the rope can hold 2 elephants, which is one of the heaviest land animals. It can hold any person. However, it’s not only body image issues that fuel the sense of unworthiness. Oftentimes people may say they feel as if they don’t belong, for multiple different reasons. These people are coming with more challenges than those who are comfy outdoors or engaging in these certain experiences. This is a good time to say, ‘Hey, you don’t have to push yourself so hard. Your victory may be showing up.’”
What is your favorite meal on a hike/climb?
“I love making a bunch of waffles and then putting them in my pack. I’ll add in things like chocolate chips and ginger and protein mix. My favorite is to add cardamom and ginger.”
Was there a community that you reached out to for eating disorder recovery?
“I had such a hard time. I can’t even remember who I first admitted it to. When I first decided that I needed help, I went to Santa Cruz to surf and figure it out. I needed to know this was something I could get through, and so I went searching for a mentor. I found someone that previously y had an ED and was also a climber. The hardest part for me to accept was radical acceptance of my body and where it needed to be. I knew that having a healthier relationship with food, exercise, and body meant loosening my grip and letting go. But I built everything with control. So I went through the process of letting go and discovering what I did have.
I felt so stuck and unhappy. Although it was extremely challenging, I am so grateful to be recovered on the other side. Things are always harder than I think it’s going to be, and so much better once you finally get through it.”
Given that we’re in Kentucky, I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask: have you ever climbed in Red River Gorge?
“I have! I lived in Chattanooga for about 4 months, 4 years ago. I was climbing a lot at the Tennessee wall, and then went to RRG. I’m such an endurance climber. I love feeling super pumped and then my hands just open. There’s so many places in the Gorge that I just went up to see what would happen. There are a lot of routes that are super pitched and overhung. The falls just feel so graceful.”
“About Us”. She Moves Mountains. Accessed 1.19.2022. https://shemovesmountains.org/about-us