#MyPlusJourney: How Climbing Mountains Changed This Plus Size Hiker’s Life
Plus size hikers come in all shapes and sizes.
Our #MyPlusJourney series will share the many stories of those within the plus size community who have persevered and thrived throughout their lives despite immense challenges. These individuals continue to inspire and empower others in the process.
I first met Banker last fall while in Portland at the Curvy Chic Closet fashion show and her story had me in awe. The size-18 chiropractor, who owns the Verve Lifestyle Center, is no stranger to the societal judgments that plus size people encounter in doctor’s offices and life in general.
She considers herself a HAES practitioner and in a world where many plus size people are hesitant to go to the doctor because of fear of being body shamed, Banker is so needed in the health community as an advocate for all.
But her story extends past her impressive professional background. She is also well known in the Pacific Northwest as a hiker and climber, organizing group hikes for ALL, in a safe body-positive environment. Becoming a hiker changed her life, helping her love herself more and in turn, inspiring others to climb and enjoy the outdoors.
I recently chatted with this incredible superwoman because her story is meant to be shared and is so needed to be heard as we still live in a very fat-phobic world.
PMM: Tell us how you started hiking and your first experiences as a plus size hiker.
MB: I started really hiking for the first time when I moved to Portland, OR from Dallas. I grew up in California, so I always had access to beautiful places like Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada Mountains, but my family was more into weekend camping at big sites rather than backpacking or hiking. When I moved to Portland, I was 26 and didn’t know anyone so I started joining hiking Meetups and fell in love with the Pacific Northwest.
I started hiking with some women through a women’s only hiking group that had a few other beginners and some older women. I was instantly comfortable with them because it was never about the end destination. We often stopped for snacks or to take pictures and it was enjoyable. Unfortunately, this is not everyone’s experience when hiking in a bigger body. I attribute a lot of my success as a climber to these women that I started with for being so welcoming.
PMM: What has been your biggest lesson from learning how to climb?
MB: My body is awesome, and I need to climb my own climb. What I mean by that is to not compare myself to anyone else. My first year of learning to rock and mountain climb was filled with so much comparison and honestly, toxic self-deprecation. I would get upset when I couldn’t keep up with the group or finish a route that I thought I should be able to finish.
When I first started, I was climbing with people who were much smaller and who had been doing it for longer than I was. Yet, when I couldn’t keep up, I would go into this mode of telling myself that if I just lost weight or made it to the gym a few more times that week that I would be better. I would tell myself I deserved to be at the back for eating bread that week. I wouldn’t let myself eat the celebratory post-climb pizza or burger because I didn’t perform like I wanted.
My biggest obstacle when I first started climbing wasn’t the attitude of the other people I was with; it was my own toxic relationship with my body. Of course, this was due to a lifetime of societal norms and pressures over what health looks like and what kind of body equates to “athlete”.
PMM: When it comes to outdoor activities and culture, larger people are often not “thought” of, when it comes to equipment, gear and etc. What frustrates you the most about that and how do you think we can make change?
MB: This is one of the most frustrating things and probably the biggest barrier. There is a vicious circle that exists in the outdoor gear and clothing space, and the fashion world in general now that I think about it.
The circle is this: people with bigger bodies don’t even think about doing certain activities because there are no indications that they can get appropriate clothing or gear. Companies in the outdoor space use this as a metric to say “well, we aren’t going to make plus size gear because there are no plus size rock/mountain climbers”.
Representation matters and when you don’t see a person who looks like you doing an activity, or even any indication that you can get the proper equipment to do it, you assume that the activity is not for you. It’s starting to change, much slower than any of us like.
We can make a change by being louder about what we want. I would love for outdoor companies to be loud and proud about their plus size offerings. There are a few major outdoor brands like REI and Columbia, who make plus size outdoor gear (up to 3X, which is another annoying thing), but they are often not available in the store or they are hidden in the deepest, darkest corner and almost always in black.
If a company can figure out how to make plus size clothing that is true-to-size and up to at least size 5X, in colors other than black, with models who are larger than a size 14, and marketing that speaks directly to a plus size audience, they will dominate the market.
PMM: What has been your biggest challenge in your hiking journey? Your best moment?
MB: I touched a little on this in the biggest lesson I learned. My biggest challenge has been my own self-doubt and self-confidence, which of course, is a byproduct of the way our culture treats people with bigger bodies. It is a constant choice to stop listening to the voices in the back of my head who say I’m too big, too slow, too something-other-than-capable.
My best moment was the very first time I decided to change the voice in my head. I distinctly and clearly remember that day. We were climbing Mt. Elinor in Washington and I was in the back. It was about the time that I was going to start going into my usual self-doubt spiral when I started thinking about a conversation I had earlier with my partner, Andy. We met in a climbing class and became climb partners and now we are getting married this year!
We talked about how this hobby we have is really hard, but it’s supposed to be fun. I decided in that moment to thank my body for getting to that spot and to stop caring about how far behind the group I was. I made it to the summit 5-10 minutes behind the group, so I wasn’t even that far behind. I just kept repeating “thank you, I love you” to myself during the hard parts instead of “you’re too fat for this, what were you thinking?”. When we finished the climb, I realized it was the FIRST time I completed a climb and didn’t cry. I had FUN. That was a huge turning point.
PMM: What’s your advice to plus size people who want to climb? How should they start?
MB: Just start! Try to see if there are any Meetups or Facebook groups in your area. This is where I started. Don’t be afraid to start a group if there isn’t one (or ask me for help!). If you’ve never hiked before, familiarize yourself with some beginner hikes in your area. There are some great resources online about the 10 Essentials, which are the 10 things you should always have with you when you decide to start hiking.
If you want to get into rock and mountain climbing, I recommend looking into classes or groups in your city. In Portland, we have a mountaineering organization called the Mazamas. Seattle has the Mountaineers.
My only caution here is that people may not be as welcoming or inclusive in these groups. Change is happening, but it is slow and there are going to be missteps along the way. If you are wanting to try rock climbing and are larger than a size 14-16, call the gym ahead of time to ask if they have harnesses that will accommodate your body. Don’t be afraid to ask them if you can come in and try one on privately or ask if they are willing to invest in more inclusive harness sizes.
Another barrier to entry is clothing. I started shopping in the men’s section because their sizes were bigger and have more options. I also started exploring other brands or stores that weren’t “outdoor specific”. I also tried to start out buying second hand or clearance items because it can get expensive.
PMM: Who inspires you in the plus size hiking community?
MB: Jenny Bruso is probably my biggest inspiration. She started an online community for the “others” of the outdoors called Unlikely Hikers. Following her on Instagram gave me comfort in my own skin but also permission to be vulnerable. Through her, I met some of my other outdoor lady loves: Sam Ortiz (@samortizphoto) who started doing plus-size rock climbing trips in Seattle and helped me start a group in Portland; Bennett Rahn (@bennettrahn) who is a plus-size rock climber that is working on becoming a rock climbing instructor; Amanda Soares (@withthesethighs) who is my Portland rock climbing partner in crime. She and I met and started asking the rock-climbing gyms here in Portland to carry harnesses for people up to 5X because traditional harnesses at rock climbing gyms barely fit a 1X person. We also run a plus size climbing Meetup for people in Portland to teach them how to rock climb in a safe, supportive environment.
Others that inspire me include Mirna Valerio (@themirnavator) who is one of the OG’s in the outdoor adventure space and a plus-size ultra-marathon runner, which is just bananas, and Tasheon Chillious (@chilltash) who is a plus-size personal trainer.
PMM: What’s next for you in 2020?
MB: More Meetups! More climbing! Sam, Bennett and I are working on some cool things for the climbing world. As I continue to work on creating space in the outdoors for bigger bodies, I am simultaneously trying to create and support bigger bodies through chiropractic care as well. I own my own practice and am a fierce advocate for Health at Every Size (HAES). My mission is for people to love and celebrate what their body can do for them, at every size.
Special thanks to Megan Banker for talking to us and for her passion in pushing the message that anyone can climb and enjoy the outdoors regardless of size.