By Rebecca Ross

Most women, at some point in their lives, get discouraged about their appearance because they may not possess the ideal body according to societal standards. I was no different. I have always lived in predominantly white communities, and with that, feminine beauty typically meant white or light skinned, tall, skinny, long hair, European facial features—the epitome of Eurocentric standards.  

Sorry, not sorry, I don’t fit those standards. However, when I was a teenager and even as a young adult those standards of beauty had a significant impact. Instead of embracing who I was—a short, physically strong black girl with black facial features—I tried to change my appearance in order to be considered beautiful. 

While many of those traits were out of my control, I found that my physique was something I could change. I decided to focus on becoming more feminine by forming unhealthy habits. Over the years, I started hitting the cardio workouts hard and eating less. I was always comparing myself to others who were skinnier—therefore prettier.  

Over time I started getting feedback from both strangers and people I knew. People would say things like, “You look so great” or, “Tell me what you’ve been doing.” I even heard statements like, “Most black women are usually bigger, but not you, you’re so tiny.” As much as I hate to admit it, those praises, so to speak, reinforced that skinny and light skin were beautiful. I couldn’t replace my brown skin, but maybe I could make up for it.  

My self-reinvention was short lived and nearly caused irreparable mental and physical damage that lasted for years to come. I began developing health issues, but it took a long time to realize that they were self-inflicted. I was always tired and weak. I developed hypothyroidism. I can even attest to fainting, due to long bouts of fasting, more times than I care to confess. I had an unhealthy relationship with exercising and an even unhealthier relationship with food, causing a huge energy deficit. I didn’t care. All I knew was I was receiving lots of praise, and I finally felt “feminine.”  

Rebecca Ross at the top of Unicorn Peak summit. // Photo by Howie Davis.

As soon as I discovered mountaineering, I wanted to be a mountaineering badass or, better yet, a black woman mountaineering badass who could help redefine the status quo. And just like that, it hit me—I couldn’t be a badass if I were too weak from dieting and lacked self-confidence. After getting into mountaineering, I also discovered a whole other world of outdoor sports: rock climbing, bouldering, snowshoeing, winter backpacking, and many others. It wasn’t just the realization that I had to focus on being healthy and strong to engage in these awesome sports that gave me confidence. There were amazing women I saw who were already smashing stereotypes and achieving goals, and these women became role models to me.  

My entire perspective on what it meant to be beautiful started to change. I stopped caring about counting calories and started eating enough healthy wholesome foods. My new goal was to keep my energy levels up so I could lead an active lifestyle. Of course, I gained some weight and a lot of muscle too, forcing me to donate my size 0 clothing, but I felt that I was finally being true to myself. I also started to notice my arsenal of makeup dwindling on my bathroom counter, which my bank account and skin greatly appreciated. I didn’t feel the need to try to impress others by becoming someone I wasn’t meant to be. Importantly, I got to focus on what mattered to me—being physically and mentally strong in order to do what I love. 

Please don’t get me wrong: I most likely will always have self-esteem issues because I’m human living in a society that rewards certain features and races over others. However, I have found that the more time I spend outdoors, the less concerned I am with looking a certain way. By all means, it’s not easy, but I’ve come a long way thanks to mountaineering. Mountaineering has truly changed my perspective on beauty and let’s face it: strong is beautiful. 

Originally published as “Strong IS Beautiful” in the July-August 2020 issue.

Rebecca Ross is an African-American mountaineer based in the Pacific Northwest. She has a master’s in public health and epidemiology from Oregon Health & Science University.