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How I discovered my strength as a plus-sized rock climber

Writer Emmie Harrison-West always felt that her size precluded her from being a part of the fitness community – until she discovered bouldering. It was halfway up that chalky wall that she realised that her body was the key – not the barrier – to getting stronger.

At first glance, you’d be forgiven for thinking I didn’t look like your “average” rock-climber. Firstly, I’m a woman. Secondly, I’m fat, and as a fat woman, it’s been made very clear to me over the years that it was almost unnatural for me to exercise. I’ve had a deeply troubling relationship with exercise – from being singled out at school for my slow cross-country times as one of the bigger girls, to exercising addictively to fit into my wedding dress. Exercise for me as a fat woman was never meant to be for pleasure; for my kind, it had to be for weight loss. I couldn’t possibly go out on a run and not obsessively be counting how many calories I’d burnt. I simply wasn’t allowed to.

And yet… here I was, at a bouldering centre. Subtly adjusting my sports bra to cover my pillowing side-boob, I looked up at the wall in front of me which was peppered with multi-coloured handholds; some had rough edges like sandpaper while others were glossy and smooth. What they all had in common was that they were adorned with white, dusty chalk and fingerprints as if from a crime scene. I had to crane my neck to see the top – but I was going to climb it.

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I’ve been told to “keep running”, “keep going”, “run faster” by men – and women – on the street when I’ve been pounding the pavement. It’s as if my bigger frame in the sight of trainers and too-tight sportswear invites unwarranted comments from total strangers who feel the need to tell me I’m not working hard enough. So you can understand my total fear and apprehension when my husband, who has been rock climbing for years, invited me along to a bouldering session last year. I was terrified – not because it was brand new to me or because I had far to fall if my fingers gave up (you free-fall in bouldering – there’s no ropes, just a mat at the bottom), but because I knew I’d be the fattest woman there.

As a runner and spin class convert, I knew I was fit enough to try it. I went along because I wanted to experiment with building my arm and core strength but felt ashamed and embarrassed the moment I walked in. My eyes darted around the room, then fell to my feet; I felt like people’s eyes were lingering on my bingo wings, my sports bra or thunder thighs while I slowly climbed the beginner’s wall. I thought that people were staring at my lean, muscly husband while I trembled my way to the top – and fell down with a thud when my fingers slipped. But after a few moments, I realised that I didn’t actually care whether I was being watched or not.

I always felt that women like me weren’t expected to exercise until I discovered rock climbing.

As soon as I’d got stuck in, it no longer mattered that I was one of only two women – or was the fattest person – in the room. I’d never been so happy! I was breathless, full of adrenaline. I’d conquered something scary, in a space that some treat almost like a place of worship. I’d found “my” sport.

Rock climbing can seem especially inaccessible to women as it’s a sport dominated by men. It’s seen as being dirty and macho – an activity that only most muscular and outdoorsy person can do, rather than someone anyone can work up to enjoying. Let’s face it, having bleeding fingers and calloused hands is hardly the most glamorous side effect you hope to pick up from getting stronger. I know I’m regarded as being different (by men and women alike) from leaner climbers who dart up the wall. I know that I need a little more time to move my bigger body upwards and I also know that I need to summon more strength to hoist my weight up and over an overhanging wall. But now when I fall or my hands bleed, I dust the chalk off my bum, tape my fingers and jump back up. I now feel people are watching me for the right reason: my technique and strength.

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Exercising as a fat woman has always been steeped in negativity but I exercise to clear my head, to focus, and to get stronger. I don’t work out for weight loss as people keep telling me I should. I know my body and what works for me. Now, I’m stronger than ever and rock climbing has shocked me into seeing just how resilient and powerful I really am. Yes, my boobs get in the way of some holds but, no, I don’t need your support when I fall off the wall. I’m hoping that one day I can travel abroad and boulder in the wild or take part in competitions. I want to climb freestyle on a rock face somewhere sunny to prove that my body doesn’t hinder me. The coronavirus pandemic has meant that my incredibly supportive climbing centre is currently shut, but I’ve found that many playgrounds across the UK have mini climbing walls so I can practice my finger and arm strength (when it is deemed safe to do so). 

Fat people exercising isn’t unnatural – and I’m here to prove that. I’m Emmie, a plus-sized female rock climber, and I am strong.


1. Wear sports gear that fits. Zoe McNulty, founder of dance fitness programme School of Strut, says: “Wear comfy clothing that allows all ranges of movement. It can be a struggle for plus-size exercisers to find workout gear that fits, looks good, is durable and affordable, so it is well worth spending a bit of time on this.” Check out our guide to the best plus-size workout wear.

2. Find something that makes you happy. You might be able to run 5K in a good time but if it doesn’t bring you joy and you dread putting one trainer in front of the other, it might not be for you. Zoe says: “Take up a martial art to feel like a badass; a walk in the woods or jog somewhere scenic to connect with nature; hoola hoop, roller skate, pole dance…” A lot of these sports will have virtual classes now, too.

3. Work out outside. I use the rock climbing walls installed in my local park, but many local authorities have installed outdoor gyms in parks. Not got one near you? How about taking your gym mat and Strong Women Training Plan to your local green space for a boost of natural light and vitamin D? 

4. Avoid tracking apps if you can. Turn off the calorie counter and try to retrain your mind to believe that exercise is for pleasure. Zoe says: “They can be helpful for certain goals (speed or strength, for example) but if you feel that you’re becoming obsessive then stop using the tracker. It’s better to listen to your body and respond to it with a workout that is going to suit it rather than pushing through for a personal best.”

5. Remember that you have the right to exercise. “You have the right to occupy space, and you have the right to feel truly fabulous in your skin, regardless of shape or size,” says Zoe. Enjoy yourself, and tell yourself: I deserve to be here.

Follow on @StrongWomenUK Instagram for the latest workouts, delicious recipes and motivation from your favourite fitness experts.

Images: Getty/Emmie Harrison-West

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  • Posted on February 25, 2021