As far as day jobs go, it’s actually pretty fun in the medical therapy office that I manage. In addition to all of the normal duties, it’s also my job to entertain and engage with clients while they’re waiting. Often this involves someone coming in and excitedly asking, “So, where’d you go this weekend, Lynnie?”
It’s no secret that I’m the adventurous one of our office, and that I am thrilled to regale others with stories and photos, but more so I find joy in encouraging them to try adventures for themselves. Every day of the week someone asks me what I’ve been doing. Sometimes we compare notes. Sometimes they comment that they love to live vicariously through me.
On a recent Wednesday, there were three women in the waiting room, and the usually jovial conversation took an unexpectedly serious turn when one older woman, her voice thick with disbelief, stated, “You know, Lynnie, it’s hard for me to believe you do these things. I know you do, I’ve seen the pictures but you, you’re not the normal...” She then gestured with her hands down the side of her body to emphasize exaggerated curves.
I won’t lie. I struggled. How do you respond politely when your mouth is hanging agape? A recent study shows that the "average" woman in the United States is a size 16 through 18. I’m 5'10" and size 18; tall, but average. And apparently not what you'd typically envision when thinking of outdoor adventurers.
Thankfully, one of the other women came to my rescue. “Oh," she said, "I used to do these things when I was younger, and I wasn't a tiny thing.” When I inquired as to why she didn't pursue adventures anymore, she looked at me with eyes that still sparkled even though they were edged with wrinkles and smiled softly, “No one wants to see an old broad on a trail or in a kayak.”
And if I do, then most assuredly I can’t be alone. She shared the story of her recent attempt at purchasing a tandem kayak to enjoy with her husband. When she went to the store alone, the outfitter helping her kept asking if this was really what she wanted to do with her time, asking if it was safe for her, and suggesting that perhaps she would want to try something more suitable to her age. Later that same day she sent her husband in to the same outfitter; he was given stellar treatment and a total sum for the purchase, which they didn't end up making. They took their business to a place that was more than happy to sell to an older woman.
I thought perhaps that this was an isolated incident until I brought it up with my husband. He pointed out that similar situations had arisen in my own life, like the time we went on a rafting trip and the “one size fits all” life vests couldn't be snapped over my chest. The guide just told me it was really good that I brought my own floatation devices.
Or when I went to put on a Farmer John wetsuit on loan from an outfitter and the women’s XL wouldn't fit my legs, so I was handed a men’s large. No problem with my height, but the cut of the wetsuits were different. The chest coverage for a man is, well, less than that for a woman. One deep breath on my part and the 9-year-old boy that was with our rafting party would have hit puberty full on. As a result I had no choice but to wear a pullover for the duration of the trip, despite the heat of the sun that day.
Again, the same issue was repeated when I went on a scavenger hunt for a good adventure bra, which I never did find. I couldn't fit both cups around a single “girl,” let alone find one that actually fit properly. Go into any outdoor store, from generic Dick’s to the local paddle supply store, and what’s hanging on the women's racks is straight cut, low waisted and does not have the ability to fit the curves of the average American woman. Pulling a sturdy pair of hiking pants or leggings in my size off the rack is an inevitably disappointing act of hope; my excitement builds until I realize that I need a spray can of cooking oil to pull it on and suspenders to keep it from slipping down my backside the moment I need to take a high step onto a rock.
And then there are the small things. Once an outfitter we were renting equipment from told me to carry paddles and not kayaks: “You’re a girl," he said,"and you'll probably drop it.” Comments like these have driven me to buy my own equipment, but I can see how it could drive other women to completely walk away from the sport, or the outdoors all together.
Gripping my personal memories, I started speaking to and really listening to the women around me. Tales varied from, “I’m a big girl and was told by other hikers I’d be too slow” to “I’m 60 and love the trails. However, there have been younger people on trails that were just plain rude when they passed me. One even nearly knocked me over with his backpack.” It soon became apparent that, whether it be a woman's age or size, there is a troubling pattern occurring throughout the outdoor industry as more and more stories of mistreatment, judgment, and discomfort surface.
A local backpacking Meetup group touts, “Only for those in their 20s and 30s. Anyone else will have their request denied as we require people to keep up.” My first thought was, how is age any more of an indicator of ability than generic look? According to a 2016 assessment, the median age of a U.S. woman is 39.3 (36.6 for men). I’m 43. Not exactly a far cry past the average, let alone past my prime. On a recent whitewater rafting and hiking trip, an apparently incredibly fit 20-year-old man was with us. Our group exited the raft, picnicked our lunch, and he curled beneath a tree and fell asleep while the rest of us, all of whom were at least twice his age, hiked several miles. After speaking with him it became clear that he was a chain smoker and a heavy drinker. His age, look and even gender wouldn't allow him to keep up with that Meetup group - but they would still accept him without a second thought. Me, though? Nope. All because of a number.
How can this be?
I mean, we hear about the shaming in gyms or public pools. People are too old, too slow, too fat, feel self-conscious, are intimidated by gym culture. Entire businesses have changed their platforms to avoid this, but many people have been turning to outdoor adventures as an alternative for fitness. It was recently reported that the global adventure tourism market grew from 54% in 2014 to 56.51% 2016, and in 2015 generated a $7.88 TRILLION dollar revenue with growth projected to continue at a massive 49% rate as far out as 2020.
Among these numbers, up to 55% of women aged 30 to 60 participate in outdoor adventure sports. So why are entire swaths of would-be adventurers being overlooked at best and completely mistreated at worst?
Pick up your favorite outdoor adventure magazine and this starts to express the narrative. Go through and dog-ear the amount of times you see a woman in an article, or even an ad for gear. You’ll be lucky if you get more than a couple handfuls of pages despite the standard magazine with at least 100 to 120 pages. Now look at those women. How many are over the age of 30, let alone 40 or 50? How many represent the average sized woman in the U.S.? Last time I checked, which was the last issue of my favorite three magazines, none. Not one. In 300 glossy pages of lovely color. I learned about knots, about safety, about the hidden gems and the latest gear (most of which won’t fit me), but I didn't see anyone that I could relate to.
I saw a Pinterest article about the best whitewater kayakers to follow; 10 names, only one woman. Mariann Saether, a 35-year-old champion whitewater kayaker from Norway, shown only on groomed runs and rivers. Professional female trailrunners like 52-year-old Pam Reed, the ultramarathon superstar and mother of five, pop up on their own separate lists, but with addendums that they defeated men added to their dossiers. If even professional women aren't given equal measure, how can the rest of us get a fair share?
I truly don’t believe that this is a plague upon the industry; it’s more like the dirty underbelly of a long-haired dog. It's mucked up, but it can be cleaned. I’m not going to grab a bullhorn and stand at a trailhead screaming “Trails for All!” or hang out at a boat launch yelling “Women Get Wet, Too!”.
Still, these stories can’t be ignored.
The sad fact is that the negative reactions to size and age are not limited to women, they are just more readily noticed and prevalently displayed to us. Here, in my area of rural New York, the discomfort many of my larger and older peers have with mainstream guides and outfitters has inspired me to set up experiences for them myself. That takes care of things in my neck of the woods, but far as changing things on a large scale, I still don’t have answers.
I wish I did.
Convincing manufacturers and magazines to look beyond the image norm of outdoor adventure sports to the actual U.S. norm, letting men know women aren’t necessarily competing as much as joining in, and communicating to the younger generations that the older ones are capable on trails and waterways seem Herculean. But in the end, it’s not really like there is a choice. The numbers are proving we fuller, older adventurers are here to stay, and frankly, there’s enough wilderness out there for us all. And being "average" in an athletic industry shouldn't keep me, or anyone else, from exploring it.
While mulling over taking on the social mountain of change, we all know the best place to do that is on a trail, rock face or river. The internet offers sites like FatGirlsHiking.com and MyPeakChallenge.com, where inspiration can be found easily - but what about your own neck of the woods?
Here in Western New York, women of a certain age responded to that unwelcoming Meetup group by creating one of their own, a camping and adventure group only for women over 40. They had so much interest that they had to cap membership numbers. While the Meetup comes with a modest fee, it is a great place to set up adventures and meet new people, or perhaps find groups that already exist.
Or, you can do what I did. I decided where I wanted to go and put up an invite on Facebook. To my surprise and delight, friends took me up on it. The more I did this, the more friends responded. I began to set up Facebook e-vites, encouraging friends to invite their friends. People of all sizes and ages have joined us; sometimes it's just one or two people, sometimes we have a group of 14 or 15. Lately friends ask me to take them back to places I introduced them to, or to take their friends. It's become a fun way to make new friends, strengthen current relationships, note the changing landscapes, see old favorites through new eyes, and explore new places.
No matter how you go about finding your stride or your tribe, the trails don't care how old you are or what you look like. Go visit them and leave the doubters behind.