Force of Nature. That’s what REI is calling their initiative to make women the prime focus of the outdoor company’s marketing efforts in 2017. According to their research for the campaign, 72% of women experience a sense of liberation and enjoyment from the outdoors, yet only 33% of women describe themselves as “outdoorsy”. That disparity shocked me. In a time where gender equality as at the foreground of the political and social canvas, the fact that many women still don’t view themselves as a part of the outdoor experience is baffling. But I started thinking about it, and maybe there’s more to this problem than we think. Maybe women don’t feel welcome in the outdoors because they aren’t perceived as the “outdoor-type.”
What I want to talk about is outdoor shaming. In the social media sphere, I’ve seen a rising trend in remarks and criticism aimed at how women experience the outdoors. In an age of information and Instagram, many people make a living off sharing their photos with the world. You’ve probably seen them, these picture-perfect Instagram feeds of tribal-blanketed women standing on the edge of a cliff overlooking a turquoise lake, the breeze wrapping her shoulders in perfectly waved hair. A tanned goddess traipsing the pathways of Greece, overlooking a striking blue ocean.
I’ve read articles–many penned by other women–chastising these “faux explorers”, denouncing their titles as outdoor women. They aren’t gritty enough, not dirty enough, not sporty enough, not knowledgeable enough. They’re wearing the wrong shoes, applying too much makeup, traipsing around in high-fashion brands—who are they fooling? They care too much about getting the perfect photo to actually enjoy their travels. Who. Cares. Seriously, I’m dumbfounded by the amount of criticism women receive for going outside. Who cares if they have a face full of makeup? Does it really upset you that she’s hiking in jeans and a crop top? So what if her long, lustrous hair is always combed and maintained while she’s outside?
Some women are ambassadors for brands and, sure, are probably being paid in some mutually beneficial way for their flawless posts. But I’m a firm believer that every photo is the product of an untold story. There’s the toil it took to get there, shoot setup issues, freezing your nipples off in a dress, getting lost, scouring for hours for the perfect setting. Just because the photo looks filtered and orchestrated, it doesn’t diminish the woman’s experience taking it. By claiming that these women are ‘doing it wrong’ because they aren’t sporting scrapes and technical gear is just contributing to the problem. By asserting that there is a right way to experience the outdoors is killing the desire in other women to get out there. Girls should see both the picture-perfect woman standing beside a drive-up outlook, curled hair blowing in the breeze, and the female mountain biker, sporting sweat-soaked shirts and a farmer’s tan and know that neither is right or wrong. They are both someone’s outdoor experience, they are both meaningful.
Pressing your beliefs about how nature is to be experienced onto a largely marginalized group, already sensitive to the age-old stereotype that girls belong playing with dolls indoors, while young male counterparts are encouraged to run, bruise, fall, get up and see the world, is perpetuating the stereotypes we’re fighting to exploit. By chastising a woman for posting a Instagram photo of herself in a dress alongside a sweeping panorama instead of “experiencing the true outdoors” unplugged in the middle of the woods in Chacos and a Patagonia puffy, you are placing an assumption that both types of women didn’t fight to get there. You’re assuming that one is having a more enjoyable experience than the other, because you prefer one way over the other. You’re pretending to know someone based on a pixelated internet photo. Anyone can be an outdoor woman—it’s as easy as being a woman, and going outside.
Diminishing someone else’s experience in nature does not enhance your own.
I may be in favor of candid outdoors shots to a posed portrait, but I’d gladly pass that woman wearing trendy clothing and eye shadow on the trail, give her a wave and appreciate the fact that the outside world is big and grand enough for us all. I beg you to empower your wilderness sisters, the moms hiking while carrying their daughters on their backs, the topless alpine babes on the summit of their first 14er, those perfectly made-up women crossing a creek in “the wrong shoes”, the dusty-faced dames dangling on a rock face. I know a multitude of women who love being outside, each in their own beautiful way. Embrace their experience as much as your own. And even if you don’t agree with it, respect it, because we’re all trudging the same trail here. Here’s to all the nasty women out there, clawing and crawling to the summit.
Check out some of the bad-ass Outdoor Women in my life doing their thing! A big THANK YOU to all these lovely ladies who shared their photos with me. You are amazing beyond all measure.