Welcome to Tough Love. Every other week, we’re answering your questions about dating, breakups, and everything in between. Our advice giver is Blair Braverman, dogsled racer and author of Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube. Have a question of your own? Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Q: I’m a woman living in Colorado, I love the outdoors, and I’m fat. I know everyone has self-doubt, but for me that’s all tied up with my weight, and I feel like everyone thinks I shouldn’t be hiking. I’ve overheard comments about it that I don’t feel like repeating, but trust me, they’re not nice. It doesn’t help that serious outdoor clothing doesn’t usually come in plus sizes, so I end up wearing men’s clothes that are ugly and too long. It seems like I see petite women in leggings everywhere, and that’s never going to be me. I’m a hard worker, and I like physical challenges, but I have this voice in my head that says I’m not what “outdoorsy women” should look like, and that makes me less of one or like the outdoors aren’t for me.
—Tired of Proving Myself
As my friend Rachel puts it, “It’s not about what you think outdoorsy women should look like; it’s about what outdoorsy women are.” Fat women run marathons and thru-hike and summit mountains. You already know this, because you’re not worried about your actual capabilities in the outdoors. You’re worried about being accepted and validated, which is the bigger challenge, because the world is full of haters. But you have one great weapon over them, which is that they’re wrong. And you, my friend—your body, your worth, your ability—are Right.
Before we get to some practical advice, let’s take a look at these haters so we can understand the deeply uncreative place they’re coming from. If someone sees you hiking and it upsets them enough to comment, it’s not about you. It’s because they hate themselves and it drives them crazy that you might not hate yourself, too. It’s because we’re all steeped in a culture that invalidates bodies based on their deviance from an artificial Eurocentric ideal, and your power and visibility and happiness remind them that they’ve spent a lifetime suffering for an ideal that’s fundamentally meaningless. To be a fat woman and climb a mountain is a revolutionary act: You have not waited for permission (you don’t need it), and in claiming your own space, you’re envisioning a universe that doesn’t quite exist and bending the world slightly toward that vision.
It sucks that you have to deal with other people’s projected self-hatred. But inasmuch as the outdoors are about reconnecting with a world far greater than our flimsy human constructs, it’s a great place to challenge societal bullshit.
I’m glad you’re a hard worker, because your new job, gorgeous, is to brainwash yourself with reality. Start a new Instagram or Pinterest account, and seek out photos of powerful women who look like you. Scroll through hashtags like #diversifyoutdoors, #bodypositiveathletes, and #fatgirlscan, plus accounts like @unlikelyhikers and @fatgirlshiking. Follow your favorites. Look at them every single day. Smile at them until it feels natural to smile at yourself. If you can’t find the images you want, consider taking and sharing your own photos, even just within a group of trusted friends. You don’t need to hide. Letting others celebrate your strength can be a step toward realizing and celebrating it yourself.
Since you mention clothes as a specific problem, let’s get you a hiking outfit that makes you feel good. Most outdoor brands have a long way to go when it comes to making plus-size clothing and gear (you hear that, manufacturers?), but your local outdoor store will usually have at least one or two options. You can also choose high-quality material and bring it to your tailor for custom-made clothing. It might feel decadent, but it probably won’t be much more expensive than buying directly from a company—and you’ll end up with clothes that fit your proportions and are designed exactly how you want them.
Now, pay attention to moments when you feel better or worse about your body, and shape your life to include more of the former and less of the latter. If a certain billboard triggers feelings of shame, drive the long way to work to avoid it—and spend the time belting away to your favorite radio station. Unsubscribe from catalogs and magazines with airbrushed models on the cover (and if they ask why you’re unsubscribing, tell them why). If doing yoga makes you feel great but yoga classes make you self-conscious, set up a corner in your home where you can follow along to yoga videos on YouTube. Your relationship with your body is one of the most important parts of your life. Nurture it as you would any other vital need.
As you do so, you’ll chip away at those regressive social constructs of bodies and worth. You’ll join the masses who are stepping forward—women and fat people and queer people and people of color and disabled people and non-Christian people and, let’s be real, every single one of us—and changing tides in the outdoors and in politics and everywhere else. There will always be folks who are too self-loathing to do anything but bleat arguments about “health” and shrink back into their bitter and shallow lives. But they don’t deserve this joy. It all belongs to you.