Women and Wild Places: Get Your Hands off my Aesthetic

A few weeks back, I was chatting with one of my colleagues about what we like to do in our free time. When it was my turn to share, I revealed that I spend virtually all of my free time outside in the quest for perfect(ly free) rocks. With a puzzled look on her face, she said “but you’re too pretty” for all of that and my heart slowly sank.

 That's me. Dirty hair, smoky clothes, lipstick and all. 

That's me. Dirty hair, smoky clothes, lipstick and all. 

Let me be absolutely clear about one thing: I recognize that in her mind she was giving me a compliment and I am by no means offended by her intentions or perception of my physical appearance. I’m not here to talk about the dynamics of beauty although that’s a very worthy conversation and one that cuts both ways. I simply want to take some time to reflect on an idea that we all seem to have absorbed in a million subtle ways: women are limited by their aesthetics.

We have all seen the blog posts on this topic. The author, often a woman, levels a critical eye on images of other women in the outdoors, deeming them "inauthentic" for one reason or another, often contrasting those photos with one or more of their own. But what does it mean to be authentic? We aren't handbags, after all, crafted from vegan leather. Too often, when the phrase "authentic" gets bandied about, what the author really means is "you don't conform to my idea or experience of the outdoors and therefore your depiction must be false." I have always been puzzled by these posts, finding them to be incredibly dismissive, inappropriate, and cruel.

I'm the first one to admit that I care about aesthetics and am no stranger to vanity. I like to dress up and feel fancy from time to time and have an abiding obsession with red lipstick, even in the backcountry. I have experimented with makeup, hairstyles and outfits and figured out what works for me, whether I'm inside or out. When I take photos, I do so carefully in an attempt to capture a moment that conveys both the physical and emotional beauty of what I'm experiencing. Does this mean capturing every drop of sweat on the trail? No. Does the lack of sweat-laden photos mean that part of my experience was erased? No. All of these things are facets of who I am, and that's okay.

That said, none of these things have any real bearing on my ability and fitness to participate in outdoor (or any other) activities and they similarly have none on yours. Nonetheless, it's a message that women in particular receive in any number of insidious ways: from "compliments" like the one above to blog posts questioning the "authenticity" of female athletes and adventurers based on their looks and attire to advertisements that are carefully curated to present someone else's idea of perfection.

Women come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and forms of beauty. Our individual aesthetics do not dictate our abilities or potential; our choices, background*, training, and substance as human beings do. Let's learn to recognize and appreciate the diverse beauty of the women around us as an interesting facet of who they are instead of a limiting factor. Let's dig a little deeper and grow to understand each other a little bit more. It's not always easy. We have to overcome our own insecurities and tendencies toward snap judgments. We have to fight against this insane scarcity model that has us believing one woman’s success is to the detriment of our own when in fact, we all shine brighter together. There are enough barriers to entry to the outdoors without women standing in the way of other women. We need to lift each other up instead of breaking each other down. The collective might and beauty of the women in this world takes my breath away and I don't want to be part of a culture that reduces us to anything less than the holistically beautiful people we are.

With that in mind, here are a few things we should say to women who are interested in the outdoors:

1.    Be safe. Whether that means taking clinics to acquire the requisite skills to achieve your objective, learning from friends, packing the 10 essentials, or filing a trip plan, do it. The mountains are inherently dangerous. Do what you can to minimize the risk, be aware of and accept the rest, and get after it. The sun won’t always be shining and the views won’t always take your breath away. You’ll have good days and bad days but I fully believe that the former will outweigh the latter and you’ll have the memories to prove it.

2.    Learn about sound outdoor ethics and use them. Leave No Trace is more than just a handy saying; it’s a philosophy and a lifestyle. In order to keep our wild places pristine for future generations, we have to employ certain safeguards. Learn about them, use them, and teach them to others. Become a good steward of the land, even if it’s inconvenient at times. Portray that behavior in your daily life and across your social media channels. Tell people what you did, and why you did it in a kind, empathetic way.

3.    Know that you are capable. Let’s say that again: YOU ARE CAPABLE. It’s easy to look at other people's adventures and become overwhelmed by them, saying “that looks badass but I could never do that”. Let go of that notion. We are all crushing at our own levels and it’s important to be inspired by others without using their accomplishments to demean our own. Some adventures take more skill and training than others and it’s important to recognize that and be prepared (see point #1). That said, you can do it. It may take time to develop the skills and conditioning for something that pushes your boundaries but that’s okay. Start small. Hell, start big as long as you meet conditions 1 and 2 above. The world is full of amazing places and I hope you can experience as many of them as possible before your time here is done.

That’s it. Be safe, be ethical, and know that you are capable. Now, get out there and share the love with others. There's an entire world of experience waiting to be found.

*This post doesn't even begin to touch the surface of systemic issues that prevent women, particularly women of color, from getting outside, from economics, to racial injustice, to lack of exposure and beyond. More to come on this topic.