Women, Wild Places, and Belonging: A Note on Aesthetic Alienation

I was sitting in bed in Switzerland on a women’s adventure trip, basking in the glow of a solid day of hard work when it happened: I opened Facebook and saw an article pop to the top of my feed wherein a certain type of woman was being dissected, ostensibly because her aesthetic wasn’t “authentic" enough for the author to consider her “outdoorsy,” despite photos of said woman in wild places. From there, it took a nosedive into familiar territory: tearing certain types of women down based on their looks or clothing alone while setting up a false dichotomy wherein badassery and a certain aesthetic are mutually exclusive. 

DSC_1562.jpg

This is problematic. This is a distraction. This should not be praised. This has to stop.

I have written about the fucked up scarcity model that’s pitting women against each other in our quest for recognition and space in the outdoor world. We have been sold the idea that there’s only space at the top for a few of us and that if we want to be successful, we have to smash every woman who stands in our way, thus excluding her from admission into the club. The easiest way to begin tearing other women down, so it seems, is to pick on the obvious: outward expression. Articles that do this are symptomatic of the scarcity phenomenon and they proliferate. More of them have been written and published than I care to count. While they may scratch a collective jealous itch, it’s important to recognize what that itch is rooted in, then nip it in the bud.

That said, there are several things going on here that need to be acknowledged.

The first is that ALL female-identifying folx deserve to see representations of themselves in outdoor media and beyond.

That there’s a dearth of equal representation can’t be denied. One need only look at the latest outdoor catalogue or guidebook to see that. Outdoor media is dominated, first and foremost, by men, and secondly, by white women. The lack of diversity is disheartening. For those struggling to find a sense of community or resonance in outdoor spaces, it’s damaging.

Societally-defined and constructed archetypes of beauty are thrust upon us everyday. From social media to print ads to billboards and marketing campaigns, we digest other people's ideas of beauty all the time. Some of these ideas repeat throughout history and across media, creating a construct of beauty that we have seen time and time again: the outrageously attractive, fit white woman with nary a wrinkle or dimple in sight. This narrow construction misses the complexity and richness of the individual—reducing us to a singular plane of existence. It’s woman as object, and this reductive approach is archaic and damaging. Some women fit into the archetype on a purely physical level. The majority do not. Regardless of how we see ourselves reflected in these standards, they affect us. The data on this point is clear.

No one is immune to this pressure and we all react to it in different ways. Some try to conform, whether that means changing their style of dress, doing their makeup a certain way, opting for surgical procedures or other enhancements, or more. For some people, this is as much an issue of mental and physical safety as it is soul-searching. Consider transwomen whose safety can be predicated on their ability to pass i.e. be correctly perceived as the gender with which they identify. Consider those with scars and other physical marks that affect their sense of confidence and self-worth—acting as triggers for trauma that they have been working to escape. Consider women who have never seen a representation of themselves in outdoor media and are simply looking for a sense of belonging.

Tearing these women down and telling them they don’t belong because they’re wearing makeup and curating their aesthetic isn’t just annoying, it’s cruel, ignorant, and tone deaf.

That's me, asking the age old question while leading up the West Ridge of Prusik Peak: if you place pro while wearing leggings, do you even climb? Photo courtesy of  Nick Lake.  

That's me, asking the age old question while leading up the West Ridge of Prusik Peak: if you place pro while wearing leggings, do you even climb? Photo courtesy of Nick Lake. 

Other women rebel against these pressures, lashing out at norms that they view as damaging or inapt and experimenting with their self expression. Experimenting is a process that can take days, months, years, even lifetimes and it's subject to change. It's important to note that as difficult as this process is, it's not available to everyone, whether they lack the confidence, community, or privilege to explore these aspects of themselves.

Wherever you're at with this, my deepest hope is that as we move forward in our own processes, we arrive at a place where we can sit comfortably with ourselves—whatever our outward expression, and know that we belong.

That said, it’s 100% inappropriate for me to call out your appearance and self-expression because it doesn’t align with my ideas about what a woman looks like. That kind of thinking is rooted in bias and discriminatory stereotypes. It's similarly inappropriate to assume that aesthetics have any bearing on our abilities. If you reduce women to the status of "lesser than" simply because of their looks, you are a part of the problem. If you try to exclude her from the table because of how she looks, you need to take a long, hard look at yourself.

If this has struck a chord with you, I hope you'll join me in directing your anger at the source of these constructs. Harness your power to create change. Support companies who represent a broad spectrum of humanity. Use your platform to uplift diversity, rather than tearing others down. Remember that words have power, so yield yours deliberately. Consider the difference between these two approaches:

  1. Women who have [insert arbitrary descriptor here] aren’t authentic. Their motives are suspect and they are a danger to themselves and others. They do not belong outside so I will not uplift their stories.   

  2. We aim to uplift women in their diverse forms by asking them who they are, what they are about, and what they hope to accomplish. We will showcase diversity of physicality, background, accomplishment, and thought.

Now say those phrases were people and not just words. Who would you want to hang out with? Who would you invite on your trip? While the former may satisfy the jealous monster inside of all of us (and as humans, we all have one), I suspect most of you will choose the latter.

The thing about mountains is, they don't care what you're wearing or how you look as long as you show up prepared and give them the respect they are due. 

The thing about mountains is, they don't care what you're wearing or how you look as long as you show up prepared and give them the respect they are due. 

So, what do we do moving forward?

  1. Check yourself. When you feel the urge to deny the authenticity of a women or refuse to let her take up space because of how she looks, stop and think. What’s really going on there? What assumptions are you making based on appearance alone? What do these assumptions indicate about you and how will you use that knowledge to adapt moving forward?

  2. Check others. When you hear or see someone engaging in this behavior, call it out. It can be an uncomfortable process but we need to hold each other accountable.

  3. If you’re on the receiving end of this feedback, take a deep breath, listen, and reflect. Realizing you have hurt someone by making these mistakes can cause sadness, guilt, shame, and a whole host of other responses. Before you respond, stop and listen to what you're being told, introspect, and if you realize that you’ve been engaging in problematic behavior, own your mistakes. Offer a sincere apology, then use what you have learned to make a change.

  4. Support companies that uplift diversity and call out companies and brands who don’t. Make noise. We have a lot of power as a collective, but we must choose to wield it.

  5. Support women who do the same. Some amazing voices who do just this are: Ambreen Tariq of Brown People Camping, Jenny Bruso of Unlikely Hikers, Danielle Williams of Melanin Basecamp, Indigenous Women Hike, Native Women's Wilderness, Alpenglow Collective, Diversify Outdoors, Outdoor Asian, and so many more!

This won’t be a perfect process. A growth mindset goes hand in hand with growing pains. We will all make mistakes as we move forward. Move forward anyway, with humility, forgiveness for yourself and others, and openness to learning more. Let's shine brighter together. The future needs us.

The above photos were sent to me when I asked women to share photos of themselves in the wild where they felt strong, accomplished, challenged, satisfied, and beautiful. Their responses were touching and I hope you'll take time to go through them as you let this all sink in.

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.