Don’t Doubt Me: A Plea From Outdoor Women

Don’t doubt me. By the time I’ve decided to do something, I’ve already talked myself out of it and back into it a dozen times. If the conversation were truly with myself, I wouldn’t have a problem saying yes sooner. But in reality, you were there, too, doubting. Telling me why I shouldn’t do it. Going over the dangers. Saying I’d be better off staying at home.

Deciding to hike the 200+ mile John Muir Trail was easy, even when I came to the realization that I’d be doing it solo. The doubt didn’t start settling in until I began telling other people. And the sad part is, I brought it on myself.

I’d go into a conversation expecting negativity and push-back, playing out scenarios in my mind in which the reactions of others caused me to question my decision. But in reality, most people have been positive and genuinely excited. Apart from the natural worry of family, people have my back. They want me to go.

So where is this doubt coming from?

My negative inner dialog isn’t coming from the voices of my peers; it’s coming from the silence of cultural norms that have rooted deeply within me. It’s the weight I’m carrying that has prevented me from taking certain risks in the past. And now that I’m taking a risk it’s bearing down on me, asking me why.

Women are given reason to doubt themselves on a daily basis. How we are portrayed in the media, seemingly harmless comments or reactions, the lack of representation in a certain field or industry… these all play a role in how we view ourselves and what we are capable of.

Here are just a few examples of the cultural norms we are trying to get past.

Women are physically weak.

During a day of sport climbing, my friend (who can crush 5.13 routes) was looking for a 5.9 for me to climb. She asked a 20-something guy if this 5.9 route was around the corner. The guy basically laughed at her. “No. Around the corner is a 5.12. I couldn’t even climb it.” Some other comments were made, implying that we didn’t belong near such challenging routes. My friend bit her tongue as we thanked him and went on our way, later telling me that she knew what 5.12 route he was talking about. It was easy.

I’ve never experienced such a reaction when men were in the mix of our climbing crew. A simple “No, there aren’t any 5.9 routes in this area” would have sufficed. This guy didn’t know if we were looking for a warm-up route or if a 5.9 was the hardest grade we could climb, so he assumed the latter. My friend and I both look physically strong and capable. It was assumed we couldn’t do the route because of our gender. Doubting a woman’s physical ability because, well, she’s a woman, is the norm in our culture. No wonder we start to doubt ourselves.

Any man can out-perform any woman.

A few weeks ago I went on a backpacking trip with six men, ranging in age from early-20s to mid-50s. For the most part, this trip was great; I wasn’t treated any differently for being the only female. So I was a little surprised when after completing a tough uphill section I heard the comment, “Nice job guys, you kept up with a woman.” I knew this comment had nothing to do with me, personally. It was just locker room talk. Something said to belittle themselves, not to insult me.

But it did insult me. The climb was difficult and I was proud of myself for keeping up with the front half of the pack. A comment like that makes me feel worthless. That no matter how hard I try or how in shape I am a man should always be able to out-perform me. This cultural belief is incredibly unfair to both men and women. For women, it implies that half the world is better than us. No wonder our confidence is lacking.

Women are sexual objects.

Recently my husband and I were at a ranch in a Colorado mountain town. The owner was talking to us about their donkeys. During the conversation, he decided to do a completely unnecessary demonstration by tapping me on the back of the leg. After the tap he paused, looked at my husband and said, “I’m surprised she didn’t slap me!” We forced an awkward laugh. Later my husband confessed his desire to punch this man, who clearly knew touching my upper leg was inappropriate but did it anyway.

I belong to an online John Muir Trail group that gives thru-hikers the option of adding their name and trip information to a private spreadsheet in an effort to meet other hikers. The sheet has an explicit warning to women, saying female hikers should be weary about giving away such information.

In the backcountry, everyone learns what to do in the event of a wildlife encounter. But women, especially women who are alone, also need to be prepared for encounters with men. How sick is that? In addition to worrying about bears, we need to worry about being inappropriately touched, groped, sexually assaulted or worse by the opposite sex of our own species. As tragic as it is, fearing men isn’t unwarranted. And it’s one more risk women are faced with.

Things are getting better.

Despite the slow process of our evolving culture, things are getting better. There has never been a better time to be a woman in the outdoors than now. Major brands and industry influencers such as REI and Outdoor Research are finally recognizing the presence of women in the outdoor industry (maybe because now we make up 51% of outdoor consumers?) and are prominently featuring them on their websites and in their ad campaigns.

REI’s Force of Nature campaign encourages women to shut out the voices we’ve been hearing our entire lives and make outside the largest level playing field on earth.
This Outdoor Research video shows real women getting after it outside and is just one of a number of women-empowered displays the brand has showed.

I’m asking the world not to doubt women, but I’m also asking women not to let the world make them doubt themselves. More women are getting outside. The industry is finally recognizing the grit and power of females. It’s our time to shut down negative self-talk and pursue our outdoor-fueled passions.

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