Nature, Nurturing: How Outdoor Activities for Women Improve Body Image - Appalachian Mountain Club
Nature, Nurturing: How Outdoor Activities for Women Improve Body Image - Appalachian Mountain Club

Nature, Nurturing: How Outdoor Activities for Women Improve Body Image

May 29, 2018
activities-for-women
Courtesy of Katie HillThe fierce five (including the author, second from right in the group photo) give activities for women ten thumbs up.

“Your body is not a temple. It’s a furnace, and you need to fuel that furnace. Eat up.”

I am certainly not going to argue with Mitra Karimian. I’m starving after the long bus ride from Boston to New Hampshire’s Crawford Notch, and our overnight women’s snowshoe to Lonesome Lake Hut tomorrow is going to require some serious carb-powered energy. Midway through my second dinner roll in AMC’s Highland Center, I realize how long it has been since I’ve eaten a meal of this caloric caliber without guilt. It feels good to fuel the furnace, especially when I’m not worrying about what the inevitable third dinner roll might do to my waistline.

Parked in the middle of the dining room, the five fierce females feast: myself, 20; AMC guides Mitra Karimian, 30, and Katie Burkley, 26; and lifelong best friends Susan Kim, 30, and Eunice Hong, 31. We all arrived here with different expectations and different skill levels, but as we talk, laugh, and eat seconds then thirds, we decide: This weekend is going to be memorable.

***

In a 2017 study conducted by REI, 87 percent of women ages 18 to 35 said they believe the outdoors positively affects mental health. While women are outdoors, breaking a sweat and making healthy memories, common enablers of self-judgement—mirrors, shop windows, social media—recede. Instead, women can focus on the moment, the place, and the experience, accomplishing something active and powerful, whether that’s summiting a mountain, paddling against a fierce current, or getting a toehold on a killer crag.

“I have a much higher appreciation for what my body is actually capable of now,” Hong tells me. “Years ago I would have been huffing and puffing, and I wouldn’t have been able to do these activities, but now I feel great, which is really empowering.”

Inseparable since middle school, Hong and Kim share a passion for outdoor adventure. After scanning AMC’s women-only program listings for some time, the two Baltimore natives found a trip that fit their schedules. Hong enjoys an active lifestyle and often hikes with friends and coworkers. Kim, who was raised Buddhist, has always seen a connection between spirituality and nature. What’s more, Kim says, watching her mother fight cancer and other ailments affected her own drive to stay physically active.

“If I can walk, I’m going to walk,” she says. “If I can run, I’m going to run. I am going to do everything I can possibly do until I physically cannot do it anymore.”

It’s that sense of challenging oneself in a supportive environment that AMC’s activities for women only aims to foster. “We tell women to try to appropriately step outside of their comfort zones,” says Nicky Pizzo, a program director at Joe Dodge Lodge. AMC began offering workshops and trips specifically for women seven years ago and today averages about eight to ten programs a year, ranging from beginner nature walks to hut-to-hut wilderness backpacks and custom guided treks.

“The women’s trips are all about experiencing the outdoors, being together, and learning in a safe and encouraging environment,” Pizzo says. “They can be a little less competitive, they feel less judgmental and can create this sense of camaraderie.”

The morning after our feast, we five fierce females pack up the van and drive to the Lonesome Lake trailhead, singing along to TLC’s “Waterfalls” as if it was a battle cry. And battle we do: Fresh snow camouflages icy patches on Lonesome Lake Trail. Heavy winter sleeping bags, snowshoes, and extra layers of warm clothes weigh down our packs. As the sun retreats behind ominous clouds, the temperature drops into the 20s. But we’re all smiles, laughs, and can-do confidence as we tackle the 1.6-mile climb to the hut. We’ve got this.

***

Research shows that outdoor activity helps women discover what their bodies are capable of. In order to achieve a personal goal outdoors, whether that’s a weekly stroll, a monthly paddle, or a once-a-year 25-mile wilderness trek‚ a woman must know her body’s own strengths and weaknesses to ensure her well-being and success. When a woman focuses on the skills she needs to accomplish a certain activity—muscle building and resilience for long-distance backpacking, for example—she tends not to worry as much about what she looks like as whether she can safely complete the task at hand.

Dr. Denise Mitten, chair of the Education Sustainability and Adventure Education programs at Prescott College in Arizona, has dedicated a stretch of her career to researching the effects of all-female wilderness recreation on “female normative discontent.”

“The phrase simply means that it is normal for women to be discontent with their bodies, which is terrible,” Mitten explains. “What we’ve seen is that, as women spend time outdoors, they are more appreciative of their body in terms of functionality.” And as they appreciate their bodies more, Mitten says, women’s definitions of what is “attractive” changes.

In her 2017 study, “The Nature of Body Image: The Relationship Between Women’s Body Image and Physical Activity in Natural Environments,” Mitten found a strong statistical relationship between a woman’s perception of her own physical effectiveness and her perception of her own physical attractiveness. Participants who perceived themselves as more physically attractive also tended to have much more positive body images.

“It only takes about three hours a week of outside time to maintain that increased body confidence,” Mitten says. “It doesn’t need to be all about hiking 10 miles, and sleeping 10 minutes, and then hiking 10 more miles. Unstructured time in nature…that is where the magic happens.”

Meanwhile, in Franconia Notch, the late afternoon temperature is performing its own magic trick: It has made all of the warmth in our extremities disappear. We fierce five reach Lonesome Lake Hut, dump our sleeping bags, and head out onto Cascade Brook Trail for an invigorating extra 5 miles on the snow. After that, we’re ready to relax and refuel the furnace. Back in the hut, we spread our stash on the table and munch shamelessly on cheese, crackers, candy, chocolate, and granola bars. The hors d’oeuvres pair nicely with a few rounds of Apples to Apples and Bananagrams. Even the games involve food.

The hut kitchen is like a scene out of a survivalist movie. Hikers surround the wood stove, waiting for their turns to cook. A Boy Scout troop stomps around in winter boots and headlamps while chaperones whip up rice and beans for the small army. Kim, Hong, and I dive into dinner prep work, chopping vegetables and improvising a tzatziki sauce to go along with the falafel Karimian and Burkley are cooking. A half hour later, the fierce five feasts again. It is the most rewarding meal we eat all weekend. An unspoken pride settles over the dinner table—in our backcountry cooking skills but also in spending a day stuffed as full of adventure as our packs were with food. Karimian and Burkley calculate that we’ll end up covering 8 miles over the course of 24 hours. We reward ourselves with blueberry cake.

“Being in the outdoors and accomplishing something always instills a sense of confidence,” Hong says. “It took me a long time to get to a point where I was really comfortable with myself, and that’s how I feel when I’m out hiking. It’s nice to see the correlation between how I feel in nature and how I feel in other aspects of my life.”

***

In summer 2018, AMC is expanding beyond women’s hikes and snowshoes to further channel that growing confidence. On June 13, the organization launches the first-ever women-only cohort of its Mountain Leadership School, AMC’s 60-year-old marquee outdoor skills course. The five-day program filled up months in advance, with a running waitlist.

“Many women just need the time and space to build confidence and to step into leadership roles,” says Colby Meehan, a leadership training manager for AMC. “Success, in our case, would definitely be if all those women on the course built up their confidence and transferred it into whatever they do, personally or professionally.”

AMC isn’t unique in offering activities for women only. Over the past decade, groups such as the Outdoor Women’s Alliance (OWA), Camber Outdoors, and REI’s Outessa, to name a few, have all supported the empowerment of women in the outdoors.

OWA’s executive director, Utah native Gina Bégin, started her nonprofit as a one-woman effort in 2007. A former travel writer, Bégin realized a lot of her girlfriends were nervous about hiking or skiing for the first time in big, male-dominated groups, so she led small women’s trips that allowed participants to learn and practice skills in a less intimidating environment.

Since then, OWA has spread to seven  geographic regions, with staff guiding outdoor activities in each. Bégin says one of OWA’s primary goals is to help women use the outdoors to increase confidence in other aspects of their lives. But most of all, she says, OWA wants to encourage human-powered adventure for all women.

“When we enter natural spaces and start setting goals for ourselves, that’s a huge step for a lot of women,” Bégin says. “It doesn’t matter what the end goal is. It doesn’t even matter if we achieve it. Getting into the outdoors starts a process of healing.”

Another nonprofit, Camber Outdoors, based in Boulder, Co., promotes female-inclusive practices in the outdoor recreation industry. The organization’s motto, “from backcountry to boardroom,” outlines the spectrum of outdoors jobs Camber aims to help women secure.

“When women are in decision-making teams, their experiences are naturally included in decisions that get made,” says Deanne Buck, Camber’s executive director. “There’s a lot of research that says great places for women to work are great places for all.“

One of Camber’s most successful  initiatives is the CEO Pledge, in which executives of outdoor and active brands commit to creating equal advancement opportunities for women in the workplace. More than 75 executives have made the promise, including such high-profile leaders as REI’s CEO, Jerry Stritzke.

REI has been a key player in the move towards industry-wide female empowerment. After having declared 2017 the “Year of the Woman,” the company, headquartered in Washington State, increased activities for women only, expanded its inventory of plus-sized clothing, and donated $25,000 to OWA and $400,000 to Camber Outdoors. The public responded: Outessa, an all-women wilderness retreat that REI launched in 2016, drew nearly 1,000 enthusiastic participants in its second year.

“One of REI’s main priorities is ensuring that every woman who shows up to Outessa is comfortable, supported, and encouraged to be exactly who she is,” says Rachael Minucciani, REI’s program manager for national events. “Our tagline is #sweatydirtyhappy for a reason.”

Lying in my 15-degree-rated sleeping bag, swathed in five layers of clothes and clutching my hot water bottle, I am certainly not sweaty. Dirty? Yes. Happy? Absolutely. Sweaty? Not so much. Then I remember the fierce five’s cardinal rule: Fuel the furnace. Thank goodness I have a granola bar in my backpack. I am warm and blissfully back asleep within minutes.

***

The next morning, after blueberry pancakes, bacon, eggs, coffee, and a steep descent via Hi-Cannon and Lonesome Lake trails, the fierce five clambers into the AMC van at the trailhead. On the ride back to the Highland Center, where hot showers and more food await, I realize I’m going to miss carrying all of my necessary possessions on my back. We had been in the snowy mountains only 24 hours, but I already felt tougher, stronger, and more connected.

“I just thought the camaraderie was so great,” Hong says back at the lodge. “It was a really small group, which gave us a more intimate setting to learn so much more about each other. The fact that we’re all women caused for a much tighter bond.”

As I make my way back to Boston later that day, I realize heading home also means returning to an environment of self-judgement, where the potential for negative body image lurks around every corner and where my busy schedule sometimes takes precedence over meals. And yet, just as I’m about to replace Monday’s breakfast with a quick cup of coffee, it hits me. I need the same energy for a long day of classes and homework that I did for 8 miles of icy hiking.

Karimian’s words echo in my head: Your body is not a temple. It is a furnace, and you need to fuel that furnace. Eat up.


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Katie Hill

Katie Hill is a 2018 graduate of Boston's Emerson College, where she majored in journalism and minored in environmental studies. She interned for AMC Outdoors in spring 2018 and will spend the summer working for a guest ranch in central Wyoming.