29. August 2023

The vein on my arm and the unconscious need to be “ladylike”

Young professional female climber on an indoor bouldering wall

Identifying residual female stereotypes and wrestling them to the ground


Gosh, that vein is big. I think I can even see it pulsing. Eww. And it’s so exposed — if I accidentally cut myself right there, there would be a heck of a lot of blood. Maybe I should wear long sleeves all the time — as a protective measure?

This is me, in the toilets of my local climbing hall, examining a vein running down my right bicep with a fascination bordering on the morbid. A vein which, since I have been bouldering again regularly, has become rather protuberant.

I thought I was over this

If I’m honest, the sudden wish to sport long-sleeved garments at all times wasn’t just about the fear that an accidental collision with a stranger on the street could cause me to bleed out right there on the pavement.

The aesthetics of The Vein were bringing up some deep-seated insecurities and old notions of femininity which I thought I had knocked on the head years ago. Only for them to rear their ugly heads again under the neon light of a bouldering hall toilet at age 41.

Yes — while the Spanish ladies’ football team is having its own collective #MeToo moment and tackling entitled male machismo head-on (I stand with you, Jenni Hermoso!), I’m engaged in my own personal tussle with old-fashioned attitudes towards women. Only in my case, it’s not some creepy functionary that needs firing: it’s my own thoughts.

Taking ownership of (most of) my body

Like many other girls my age, Madonna was my absolute icon. Casually upending every expectation society placed on women — everything about Madonna screamed “strength” and “I’m in charge”.

The dancing-honed figure, the hours in the gym, the rippling thigh muscles packed into fishnet tights and taken on tour for all the world to see. Madonna taught her legions of little girl fans that women no longer had to be soft, squidgy child-bearers at the mercy of their reproductive systems — or men, for that matter. We could be physically strong and proud of it. Female muscles were IN.

We girls were finally taking control of our lives, our destinies — and our bodies too. And I signed up to that religion right away. In fact, I still firmly believe that a woman having ownership over her own body is the very bedrock of feminism.

And yet here I am, struggling to take ownership of The Vein. Or at least while it’s bulging like that.

Just call me “Ms. Rock”

As I mentioned, the reason The Vein had made its presence known was because I was back in the climbing hall again. My regular bouldering sessions have made the muscles in my arms, back and shoulders stronger, more toned and, yes, larger than they were (I had the puny arms of a long-distance runner before).

In short, thanks to climbing, my upper body is now pretty ripped. I can practically hear Madge herself applauding me from afar. So why the psychodrama?

The nub of the matter is this: while the muscles themselves did not challenge the boundaries of what I considered feminine, The Vein did.

The Vein did not make me think of early 90s Madonna, fearlessly taking on the patriarchy. It did not make me think of the legion of super-strong female fitness influencers who populate the internet today, squatting and lunging themselves into bubble-butt nirvana. No. Contemplating The Vein immediately made me think of Silvester Stallone, Vin Diesel, The Rock and — oh, Lord — Hulk Hogan.

Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with any of those guys. They are all very strong, fit, successful — and no doubt attractive to many women (and men). But do I have to have my own personal reminder of them running down my own right bicep? Pass the long-sleeved tops.

I’m not giving up my sport

I started to wonder whether I should pull back on the bouldering. Let my muscles shrink back a little. The Vein would soon calm itself down and retreat into invisibility.

But why should I? I love bouldering! I love the intense physical and mental engagement with the routes. I love the feeling of utter peace you get when you are on the wall and fully focused on the movement. I love the type of tiredness you have when you finish a session — deeply stretched and strengthened from this most organic and natural of movements. Lifting weights could never compare. I love the feeling of achievement when you finally nail a tough move and top a boulder you’ve been working on for weeks. And I love my toned arms, back and shoulders.

Why let a stupid vein stop me from enjoying all of this?

Time to evict those outdated attitudes

I thought I was a Thoroughly Modern Millie. But thinking that a protruding vein is unacceptably masculine showed me that I’ve still got some outdated attitudes about women and how we should look lurking around my head. Somewhere deep in my psyche, there is still some little voice telling me to “be ladylike”. Evidently, there are places that even Madonna’s hatchet job on female stereotypes couldn’t reach.

There was only one thing for it: open up the mental control box, haul out all the wiring and do some basic attitude-reprogramming.

Time to shift the focus away from The Vein and onto the fact that I found a sport I love and which is hugely rewarding, both physically and mentally. Time to realise that the consequence of my discipline and commitment to the sport is that my body has changed. Even though I’m not enthused with all of those changes, they are generally a reason to feel proud.

Anyone who sees me in a sleeveless top will notice immediately that I’ve been doing some kind of sport. You don’t get arms like this from sitting on the sofa lifting a beer bottle to your lips. They are a product of hard work, consistency and persistence over a long period of time. In other words: they are very much indicative of the qualities I want to put out about myself to others.

Seen from that angle, getting my knickers in a twist about The Vein seems pathetic. The Vein is a direct and inevitable consequence of all those positive things. You do not get the goodies without The Vein. So, even though I will never be best friends with The Vein, I will now embrace it.

And get back on the damned wall.


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Photo: fxquadro on Envato Elements