I grew up thinking that confident women almost never wore makeup, especially not while doing outdoor activities or playing sports. While I don’t judge the adults in my life at all for imparting on me this ideology – their intentions were good (as were those of many ’90s parents who wanted to raise strong, confident daughters) – I recognize now that this attempt at empowerment constricts the definition of acceptable femininity in the world of outdoor sports, and reinforces the lower value that we as a society assign to those characteristics or behaviors that are typically thought of as ‘feminine’. This type of judgment perpetuates the myth of the girl who can ‘hang’ who is “not like the other girls” because she is chill or she can keep up with the guys – unlike other girls who are superficial, high maintenance, and/or emotional – A.K.A. some bullsh*t. This storyline is a common one, and many outdoor women have been that girl, known her, wished they were like her, or heard about her through others’ jealousy or praise. Shelma Jun, founder of the all women’s climbing group, Hey Flash Foxy, describes this story in an article for the REI Co-op blog,
“Growing up as a self-proclaimed tomboy, I didn’t feel uncomfortable in a group of just boys. To be completely honest, I was proud to be the only girl. I wasn’t one of ‘those girls’ that can’t hang with the boys. I was stronger, braver and cooler—not prone to overreacting, complaining and cattiness, as women are often stereotyped.”
What makes this ideology worse in my opinion is that people in the outdoors community actually tend to think that this narrow definition of acceptable femininity is progressive. My friends and I totally bought into this, too, for a while, saying things like, “ugh I can’t believe girls who ski with makeup – they are so ridiculous,” or, “I mostly ski with guys because girl skiers are just so high maintenance and can’t go as hard.” But the idea that to be an outdoors-woman you can’t wear makeup or ever cry is actually pretty regressive – especially when coupled with the hard truth of the matter, that even in outdoors communities women are held to very specific beauty and fitness standards and are often included or excluded from these spaces based on those standards. This combination boils down to the expectation that outdoors women will be tough, willing to get dirty, never wear makeup, never express emotions, etc. all while being totally physically fit and looking like they walked out of an L.L. Bean catalogue.
In an awesome documentary that she produced in collaboration with REI (featured below), Shelma depicts this concept particularly well:
“Women don’t have to be tomboys to want to run around and go outside, and get beat up and dirty. And also you don’t have to be this stereotype of someone who is outdoorsy as a woman. We can embrace beauty and our playfulness and our sexuality without being objectified.”
(Even if you think I did an ok job of explaining, check the video out – it’s super epic.)
Fitting into the current mold of an outdoors-woman is like threading a needle – you have to be pretty, but not too “obviously” pretty, physically fit, but not so fit as to intimidate men, and look attractive without trying (or without looking like you tried). Oh, and of course these standards, like societal beauty standards in general, privilege those who are white, thin, wealthy (displayed through expensive gear and clothing), able-bodied, and young, among other characteristics. Don’t believe me? Take a look at the women typically featured in outdoors magazines or the women who are sponsored by large gear companies and then let’s talk (for further reading on this subject, check out last week’s post about REI’s efforts to change the portrayal of women in the outdoors). When we enforce these limits on femininity, we tell ourselves that ‘male’ characteristics are more desirable in an outdoors-person, and that to be respected in the outdoors community one needs to take on these qualities, and cast off the unwanted ‘female’ aspects of one’s personality.
The desire to share one’s emotions or to cry are not inherently female characteristics, but as a society we tell boys and men that to cry or act emotionally signifies weakness, and over time, society has attributed these characteristics to women. We say to boys, “stop acting like a girl” when they are afraid or upset, simultaneously degrading the idea of femininity while also limiting the male expression of emotions. When we assign genders to various characteristics or actions, we limit people of all genders, which is especially harmful when as a society we systematically give more value to gender identity than another.
After an awesome day of skiing earlier this winter, a friend and I decided to grab some beers with a couple of guys she knew from town. We were having a nice time chatting, talking about pro skiers and what runs we hit that day, when one of the guys decided to note that he thought that most girls were not much fun to ski with and were not as good of skiers as men, his evidence for this claim being that female skiers cry too much and don’t go as big as male skiers. He started in on a story about a female friend of his who had fallen and hit a tree with her leg, and as a result had cried. While she was not seriously injured**, he described her having a massive bruise on her leg and swelling where she had connected with the tree trunk, but had no sympathy for her tearful reaction and expected our agreement that she was irrational and silly for crying. As a side note, I’d say that this is a classic example of why it’s important to get a read on your audience before making a somewhat unsubstantiated claim, but that’s just me. I really appreciated my friend’s pointed yet calm response. She first asked him why his friend’s crying had bothered him so much, and after he hedged a bit and mumbled a few things, she stated, “sometimes, you just need to cry for a sec, and that’s totally OK.” Regardless of gender, expressing your emotions should be acceptable and normal, and should not take away from your ability to participate in outdoors activities whatsoever.
While exclusion from outdoor recreation activities might not seem like a pressing social issue, these patterns of inclusion and exclusion actually reflect those of society as a whole, and exclusion in the “real world” systematically disadvantages women economically, socially, and politically. These limitations placed on female appearance are not confined to the outdoor communities. In talking to my mom about her experiences as a woman in the business world during the mid-1980s, she highlighted how women needed to look put together yet also needed to refrain from looking too done up or sexy for fear of not being taken seriously by their male coworkers and bosses. She described how many women felt they needed to distance themselves from ‘female’ behaviors, such as acting emotional or displaying maternal or caring attitudes, in order to gain respect from men within the company. Many of the women in leadership positions were cold and very competitive, a set of characteristics my mom hypothesized were necessary for them to carve out a place among their male counterparts. This phenomenon hasn’t changed much since my mom’s experience in the ’80s. In Jun’s film, Within Reach, Amy Roberts talks about gender and leadership within the business world today – she says, “people’s expectations of how you show up as a leader are defined by what they think a strong male leader is.”
I will grant that there are definitely times when wearing makeup or needing to look pristine is impractical or impossible in the outdoors, and that there certainly are backcountry situations that require you to temporarily compartmentalize your emotions. There have been times when I needed to hold back tears or curb an emotional meltdown in order to make clear decisions about my safety or to preserve my hiking group’s positive mindset. I’ve led a few backpacking trips where some members of my group carried full makeup bags in their packs while we hiked (a fact I often didn’t discover until midway through the trip). This extra weight can definitely inconvenience other members of the group in that the makeup-bringer can’t take on as much of the communal gear, requiring others to pick up the extra. But on those trips, no one complained about the weight distribution, and those who did bring the makeup were obviously more comfortable for having brought it – as such, I don’t see a real problem.
On the other hand, however, it is totally fine if you don’t wear makeup or feel the need to conform to any societally-enforced gender norms. That is awesome, and in the long run will probably be more convenient and save you money and time. What is not awesome is judging others who do choose to wear makeup or do feel the need to adhere to some of these gender norms. Denying people of all genders the choice to embrace the manifestations of their personalities is not my kind of feminism. Yeah, I don’t wear mascara when backpacking because if I do, I will look like I have two black eyes when I roll out of my sleeping bag in the morning, but I’m also not going to judge other women for wanting to look chic on trail. Women should absolutely not need to conform to societal beauty standards, and in an ideal society we would embrace all people exactly as they appear without alteration. But in current practice, the social hierarchies enforced by these standards of beauty and behavior create systematic disadvantages for women and people of other marginalized groups, and often we choose to adhere to some of the norms in order to be included, respected, and heard.
Women (and people of all gender identifications) should be able to do what feels right to them – if that means wearing some makeup on a hike to feel pretty, crying from time to time, taking that summit selfie when you know you look cute, or deciding not to shave anymore – and still feel accepted as legitimate outdoors-people. In my opinion, there is no one way to be an outdoors-person, no one set of characteristics that should define who is included in this category and who is not. And when we criticize women who approach the outdoors in a different way, all we do is perpetuate the myth of the girl who is better because she is not like other girls, reinforcing the idea that women are by default unqualified and overly emotional, and only by exception should be included in the outdoors community.
To read more of my thoughts on this topic, check out previous posts Why “Pretty Good for a Girl” and Imperfect Progress is Progress Nonetheless – “Welcome to the conversation, REI!”.
**Update (5/17/17) – As it turns out, the woman who hit her leg while skiing did incur a pretty serious knee injury.
Jun, Shelma. “Within Reach: A Documentary about Women’s Equality in Climbing”. REI Co-op Journal. May 2, 2017. http://blog.rei.com/climb/documentary-about-womens-equality-climbing/