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“Oh my god, should we do it?”
“I’ll do it if you do it.”
“OK, fine, let’s count to three, then. One, two…”
“Wait—on three or after three?”
“On three. Ready?”
This is the transcript of a conversation between a close girlfriend and me in the spring of 2017. We weren’t getting ready to bungee jump, sky dive, or swim through a raging waterfall. Nope. We were doing something way scarier: Stripping down to our sports bras in public.
It sounds kinda messed up, doesn’t it? That the two of us, who had traveled the world, summited alpine peaks, and scaled cliff faces together, were most afraid of showing off our stomachs. But for me, and for many American women, that’s the reality. We spend our days on Instagram, where we’re taught that only the flat-bellied and the hourglass-shaped are allowed to pose with midriffs bared. That only those with “bikini bodies” can wear bikinis, and only those who look like stereotypical Western hot-yoga instructors can strut around in just their hiking shorts.
But on this particular afternoon, my friend and I were standing atop a ski run in Telluride, Colorado. It was the warmest day of the year so far, and we were both sweating under our jackets. One of us suggested, joking at first, that our last lap of the day should be a sports-bra lap. As the sun beat down and I finished soaking through my base layer, and then my midlayer, it started to seem like a pretty good idea.
So, at 3:00 PM, we talked ourselves up, stuffed our jackets into my backpack, and bombed the hill, bellies out. When I think of that day now, I don’t remember much of the skiing, the nerves, or even the months I spent saving up for that lift ticket. All I remember is that last run: the rush of air against my skin, and the howls of joy we left echoing across the mountain.
Then, despite that glimpse of freedom, I went straight into a summer of hiking and trail running with a shirt on, even on hot days. While fun, the shirtless skiing had felt like a one-time thing—and something I would never have done if I hadn’t had a friend to hype me up. Now that I was exercising alone, I told myself that I would “hike shirtless when I’d earned it,” i.e. when I’d lost a little of the weight that I’d regained in eating disorder recovery. (Clearly, I wasn’t as recovered as I pretended to be.)
In fact, I once made a list of reasons that I needed to lose just a few more pounds. “Be able to hike in just a sports bra,” was near the top—as if it was something I wasn’t allowed to do at my current weight.
Though I struggle with my body image and body dysmorphia—and though I often fear that showing off a few belly rolls could subject me to ridicule or judgment—I have enormous privilege in that, by arbitrary Western standards, I’m considered to be within average weight. I don’t have to face the almost constant discrimination and flat-out rudeness that bigger-bodied hikers have to deal with. Outdoor brands make gear in my size, and getting on a bus or airplane isn’t a total ordeal. And because my skin is white and my body fits into neatly into a gender norm, I’m shielded from a lot of other discrimination that might place non-white or LGBTQ+ hikers in a real emotional and/or physical jeopardy. So before I talk about being brave, I just want to acknowledge two things: (A) there are many outdoorspeople out there who are forced to be way braver than I am just to exist in outdoor spaces, and (B) this piece may not speak to everyone. That’s OK.
I’m not qualified to speak about anyone else’s struggle but my own, but when it comes to body image issues—well, I can certainly speak to that. I was raised in the United States in the ’90s, when jutting hipbones, razor-sharp clavicles, and “heroin chic” were all the rage. I struggled into my first pair of low-cut jeans as a teenager. I hated my body in that moment. I kept hating it for the next 10 years.
But a couple years ago, in part emboldened by the new wave of body-inclusivity that’s sweeping the hiking community (again, hats off to the plus-size community, who are doing harder work than I could ever fathom), and in part thanks to other perspective-shifting tools like therapy, I started to feel a change.
One afternoon, I walked out to the trails near my home in Boulder, Colorado, and saw, as usual, a bunch of college girls hiking around in miniature shorts and sports bras. At first I felt a pang of envy and shame. Then I saw another girl—one with her belly spilling over a pair of red leggings, her arm fat swinging in the breeze, and the biggest smile in the world on her face. I looked at her, and I looked at the skinny college girls, and instead of feeling insecure, I suddenly felt something else: Fuck it.
I took off my shirt, buckled the hipbelt of my pack even though it’s the one that cuts right into the middle of my belly, and charged up the hill. On the way down, I ran. I could feel my thighs jiggling and my love-handles bouncing, but this time, the repulsion and self-loathing were replaced by something else: the gorgeous tingle of wind against my body and the feeling of finally being free.
This time, I didn’t pray that I would find only empty trails and downcast eyes on the way down. I hoped I’d run into other people. I hoped they would see me jiggling my joyful self down the trail, just as I had seen the girl in the red leggings. I hoped they would see me, and that they would follow suit because damn this feeling is just too good not to share.
This past winter, I was traveling around Europe with a girlfriend. We went to a sauna, which was typical for Eastern Europe in that clothing was prohibited. I spent the first hour squirming, hugging my towel around my body. But the more rounds and rolls I saw, the more I began to relax. Bodies are just bodies when we don’t spend so much time and effort trying to dress them up; look long enough, and you start to get desensitized to the differences.
“I think everyone in the U.S. would feel better about themselves if they had something like this,” my friend observed. I think she was right; visibility matters. And visibility is especially important on the trail. Because at the end of the day, being outside is about experiencing joy and freedom. We don’t go to the trail to show off to the beauty police. We go there to be ourselves.
If you’re already wearing what makes you feel comfortable, then by all means: full speed ahead. Wear the nipple-high waistbands and the compressive shorts and the pants and the long sleeves. Wear them and rock them. But if you’re holding yourself in because you’re waiting for some other body to show up and replace yours, think again. Whenever you give yourself permission to be yourself, you give someone else permission, too.
We need you out there. I need you out there. So next time you hike on a hot day, consider saying fuck it. Let it all out. Be loud. Take up all the space.
It’s an invitation we all need.