“You’re almost there! It will be worth it.”
“Is this your first time out here?”
“You look like you could use a break.”
“Are you okay?”
These are just a few of the comments I get while hiking. They seem pretty harmless, right? Supportive, even. Except I can’t help but wonder: Would people say these things to a thinner, more athletic-looking person? I don’t think so.
I’m a fat hiker who started hiking about six years ago. To say I didn’t grow up outdoorsy is a massive understatement. I lived in Portland, Oregon, for years before I did anything more than visit a waterfall on the side of the road. My partner took me on a hike for one of our first dates, and I never could’ve guessed it would become my thing. Soon, I was doing it all the time. I started writing about it. This eventually led to the creation of Unlikely Hikers, an Instagram platform featuring the underrepresented outdoorist. This includes people of size (I prefer “fat,” but not everyone else does), people of color, queer, trans, gender nonbinary folks, and people with disabilities.
When it comes to talking about plus-size hikers, lack of clothing and gear and representation are getting a little more airtime from the outdoor media, as they should. But there are many ways fatphobic culture still finds its way into our lives. I asked my plus-size hiker friends about their experiences in outdoor culture—beyond the clothing, gear, or representation issues—and many cited interactions with other hikers as the thing that made them feel most judged. I get it: I often notice the disbelieving looks I regularly get from men as I pass them on trail with a friendly “hello.”
As I processed all this feedback, I couldn’t help but think about how so many straight-sized hikers might not even realize they’re saying things that are demeaning. So I put together this guide to help.
Think About What Your Comment Really Says
Many comments from other hikers—even something seemingly innocuous like “You’re doing a great job!”—are meant to be supportive and encouraging, but they don’t always come off that way. These comments are, sometimes indirectly, about our bodies. An othering is happening. There is surprise about our abilities, concern about what may be interpreted as lack of ability, and sometimes straight-up rudeness. Many people I talked to expressed having moments where they were treated as if they were in the way of another hiker. These interactions don’t allow us to simply be hikers on a trail.
On a good day, I just smile and say “Thank you” or give an overly jovial “Oh yeah, I’ve done this trail many times,” when what I really want to say is “Yeah, I know. I’ve probably done this trail more times than you will in your life.” Fellow fat hiker Ashley Manning, trail name YardSale, is currently thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail. She had this to say on her recent Unlikely Hikers feature: “A guy came up to me today as I was pumping water and said, ‘You’re more badass than any of us. I’m not trying to be rude, but you don’t see people your size out here.’…If there’s one thing I’ve learned already, it’s that the trail knocks people on their asses. No matter what size you are, it’s hard. I’m no more of a badass than that guy, because it’s so damn hard. I’m proud of everyone out here.”
If you want to be encouraging, a simple “Hi, have a great hike!” does wonders.
Don’t Assume We Want to Change Our Bodies
Another assumption many people make about plus-size hikers is that we’re doing physical activity because we want to lose weight. The way exercise has become synonymous with weight loss in dominant culture removes the joy from moving and inhabiting our bodies, regardless of one’s size. I’m outside because I want to enjoy the outdoors, revere nature, and appreciate the gift of my body taking me places. I choose hiking over the gym to get away from diet and fitness culture. Also, many of us don’t actually want to lose weight. Many of us don’t feel bad about being fat.
What would our relationships with ourselves and each other look like if we removed moral capital and essentialism from exercising, food, and bodies? I think we’d all be happier and make healthier choices all around.
Give Us Space on the Trail
Bear with me—this one is complicated. Straight-sized people have an innate sense of liberty with their bodies that many people of size don’t. They tend to make bigger movements, sit with their legs wider, or stop dead in their tracks in public places. People of size are often super aware of the space they inhabit, because we receive frequent messages that we don’t fit (belong). Roxane Gay wrote in her recent memoir, Hunger, “The bigger you are, the smaller your world becomes.” Chairs are often not made for us (constricting arms, 200-pound weight limits, etc.), tables in restaurants are too close together, and don’t get me started on airplane seats.
Don’t crowd people, fat or not, who are moving at a slower pace, especially when going up- or downhill. A breezy “Coming up on your left/right!” is all it takes. On a narrow track, give us more room to pass, and only pass when there is actually room. Sure, your small body might be able to squeeze up against the side of a cliff with ease, but can my bigger body? We all deserve to be on the trail, and we all deserve to fully inhabit our bodies.
Better yet, listen when we tell you about our experiences. Resist asking questions or making statements—even with good intention—laced with bias or assumptions about our bodies. I lead multiple group hikes every month that are attended by people of all body types and speeds. You don’t know what someone is capable of just by looking at them. Being bigger doesn’t automatically mean someone is slower.
And sure, being strong and fast is cool, but no one is getting the gold. Doing something slower or differently is still doing it. I take just as many steps as the person who does the trail in two-thirds the time.