I spent the first week of college with dirt on my face.
I was attending an outdoor education program that offered courses with names like, “Rock Rescue” and “Intro to Whitewater Kayaking.” So, during that first week, while my friends who were attending more traditional universities went to frosh parties and began to panic about bell curves, I was on a canoe trip in Ontario’s Algonquin Park. It was a trip spent making new friends, soaking up the last heat of the summer and familiarizing myself with the insects of the region (the ladybugs will bite you on the face if you get in their way).
It was also a week spent not looking at myself. These were the days before smartphones with reverse cameras. We were gloriously free of worry about things like selfies, which was a blessing because these were also the days of bulky fleece mid layers, when polypro was in its smelly adolescence, and zip-off pants/shorts were all the rage. Fashion–really, the way I looked in general–wasn’t really a concern for me on that trip. I was too busy trying to figure out how to poop in the woods without attracting the region’s entire mosquito population to my butt.
Still, I was a little horrified when, on our return, I caught a glimpse of myself in a bathroom mirror and saw a swath of dirt across the bottom half of my face, especially obvious along my upper lip and down one side of my chin. I looked like I was rocking a very uneven peach fuzz goatee. How long had that been there? Why had nobody said anything?
This is something that probably wouldn’t happen in 2015.
A friend and I were discussing this the other day. About 10 years ago, I went on a backcountry ski trip and brought a hairbrush along, and everybody made fun of me. Now, I bring wet wipes in a ziplock, along with tinted sunscreen, and I have developed a complex system of alternating hair styles, toques and trucker hats to ensure that my hair always looks presentable. I’m pretty sure mascara was involved in my last climbing trip.
When did this happen?
Getting outside–hiking, camping, and even more ambitious pursuits like climbing and backcountry skiing–have never been more popular than they are right now. You could say they’ve gone mainstream. By most counts, this is a great thing. People who spend time in nature are likely to be happier, healthier and more interested in conservation. The thinking goes, that if a person spends time in the wilderness, they will value it.
The problem is, this isn’t always the case. Bearing witness: an abandoned coffee cup on the side of a popular local trail I visited not long ago. (While some might argue that one coffee cup isn’t bad for a trail that sees hundreds of visitors a day, I would venture a guess that anyone making that argument has never packed out their used toilet paper on a multi-day trip.) The symbolism is apt.
It’s not just conservation that isn’t translating. As more and more people get outside, and terms like “frontcountry” gain traction, many of the vices of modern living that people have traditionally come to the woods to escape are beginning to work their way into the wilderness experience.
I call it city creep.
City creep can be as small as a discarded coffee cup, or as annoying as the man who walked right past the lineup of women waiting for an outhouse at the base of a hike I did the other weekend, because someone had actually labeled them “men’s” and women’s.”
In the backcountry, this would be absurd. You’re lucky (or not) to even have an outhouse. Usually, you’re peeing on some unsuspecting fern, or worrying about digging your hole deep enough and far enough away from any water source. No one’s going to tap you on the shoulder and say, excuse me, that’s the men’s fern. You’ll have to pee on that one over there.
Other examples of city creep that I’ve encountered recently that would never have happened 10 years ago include a hiker blasting out the Top 40 from a portable speaker, aggressive “passing” on heavily-used trails (as though this was a morning commute and not a pleasant leisure activity), and some seriously next-level selfie stick photo shoots.
The city creep that I am having the most difficulty reconciling, though, has been the difference between 18-year-old me, with dirt on her face and polypro long johns underneath her nylon zip-off cargo shorts, and 32-year-old me, “fixing” my face in front of a “camping mirror” in my tent before I’ll venture outside.
Spaces where women don’t have to worry about what we look like are rare.
We are fed contradictory messages about what we have to wear in any given situation to be acceptable. We are bombarded, on all sides, and at all times, by images of beauty standards that we will never be able to achieve. From movie screens to the covers of magazines, the message is clear: if you’re a woman, you have to be thin, symmetrical, and at least a little bit white, to matter. And this message is only becoming more pervasive with social media.
By now, nearly everyone has heard about Essena ONeill, the Instagram star who abruptly and publicly denounced the way the platform is used to promote beauty standards that aren’t attainable because, in her words, the photos “aren’t real life.” Shortly after that announcement, a Teton Gravity blog post began making the rounds, in which the author levied a similar charge against “the everyday-woman-turned-outdoor-
Of course, backlash followed. In an age when media such as surf magazines still barely acknowledge that women exist, shouldn’t we all just be thrilled that women are being represented in the world of outdoor social media? Shouldn’t women be encouraged to get outside in whatever way they choose to do it?
A thin, blonde woman with a perfect nose is no less real than a slightly square-shaped brunette with a weirdly protrusive front tooth and a nose resembling a parrot’s beak (that would be me, and I’ve made peace with it). If a woman enjoys getting dressed up and putting eyeliner on before she she goes ski touring, then she should be free to do so, without my judgement, or anyone else’s, following her around.
I have a friend who loves to take photos when she goes outside. A good chunk of nearly any excursion we do together is going to involve taking copious quantities of photos of each other, and then laughing really hard. (Not coincidentally, we recently realized that all my Tinder photos were either taken by her, or originally had her in them–so these sessions do serve a worthy purpose.) If a woman wants to spend her outdoor time doing things like that, and posting the beautiful results on Instagram for us all to see, then more power to her. I’m probably already following her.
I’m not arguing that the women behind these perfect images aren’t real (although there needs to be a discussion about sponsored posts), or that Instagram is bad (on my last climbing trip, I met a group of women climbers who’d met on Instagram–the future is now!). But the problem I have is that these images, depicting women who fit the narrowly-defined parameters for beauty that are so toxic to women in our society, are so dominant.
If you browse through the #outdoorwomen stream, it’s rare to see a woman who isn’t skinny, or isn’t white. It’s rare to find any evidence whatsoever that women might actually do things like sweat, or develop one massive dreadlock on the back of their heads after a prolonged toque-wearing session. (Or not have long hair at all, because maintaining that beast takes serious effort.)
The ubiquitousness of the “perfect outdoor woman” mythology means that worry about how I look is creeping into the backcountry.
The backcountry is literally the only place, aside from my living room couch, where I feel I have permission to stop thinking about my parrot nose, or whether my hair is getting wavy in only one direction again, or whether waxing my eyebrows will make the rest of my face look unkempt by comparison.
The problem with city creep, especially of the impossible-beauty-standards variety, is that I’m not sure what we can do about it. (Okay, we already have an answer to the coffee cup problem: they’re called thermoses and they’re seriously underrated.) I dream of starting a hashtag for women looking less than perfect outside. Maybe #backsweat or #
It’s not that I want to see fewer of the beautiful women who post their adventures on Instagram. If they are genuinely out there enjoying themselves, doing what they love in their own way, fantastic. I do want to see more women who don’t quite fit that mold. Women who sweat, whose waistlines disappear in the face of a hip belt, who fix their down coats with duct tape and are still rocking that smelly polypro they got 15 years ago for their first canoe trip at an outdoor ed college, when they were nervous, and excited, and a thousand other emotions that had nothing to do with how they looked.
As more and more women discover the benefits of getting outside, it might take some extra vigilance, some deliberateness, to ensure the hiking trail doesn’t become another catwalk–just one more place for us to judge each others’ appearances, and our own.
As for the outhouses, would it kill anyone just to remove those damned signs?
[divider] Guest Contributor [/divider]
Kristin Warkentin is an adventurer, writer, and teacher who lives in Vancouver, Canada. In order to fit in there, she has taken up climbing, skiing, surfing and hiking, as well as drinking expensive lattes and losing her umbrellas on the bus. Kristin writes about her adventures at http://girlintheworld.ca. Photos of her staring wistfully at nature can be found on Instagram @girl.in.the.world.
*Editor’s Note: In the interest of full disclosure, the author of the Teton Gravity blog post, Carolyn Highland, is a regular writer here at Misadventures.