Women in Outdoor Media

We Took Fall’s Crunchiest Designer Clothes Rock Climbing in Joshua Tree National Park.  The story from GQ kept popping up on my social media channels, and although I’m not a regular GQ reader, I clicked.  I clicked because I like the climbers in it and I like the location they were climbing in.  My initial impression was that some of the photos were okay, I guess, and the text was terrible.  What could’ve been a worthwhile introduction of an increasingly popular sport to mainstream media had almost nothing to do with rock climbing.

Climbing in a $3,000 article of clothing is ridiculous, but not unexpected from GQ.  I can’t say I know of any climbers who would do such a thing.  In fact, most of them are dirtbags, and they’re lucky if their vehicles are worth that much.

But the description of “three premier climbers and a couple of cute friends” rankled.  Three named, well-known men climbers were the focus of the shoot.  A few women, unnamed, were passive objects to add to the scenery.  Again, normal in fashion photography, and not unexpected from GQ.  As you scroll through the article, the photos go from men climbing, to men climbing with women watching, then a woman with her shirt undone for no apparent reason, then a mostly naked woman getting hosed off.  What the hell?  How is this relevant in any way?  I rolled my eyes and moved on.

Then Outdoor Research came out with this gem of a rebuttal – Designer Clothes for Watching Ladies Climb.  They flipped the original article on its head and showed some badass women climbing instead, complete with men as passive objects.  They matched the GQ photos shot for shot, exposing exactly how ridiculous they really were, with some accompanying hilarious text:

“I just really like being able to hang around on the rocky crag and show off my cool climbing clothes, instead of just the gym,” said Kjersti C. “And there are always cute boys, just sitting around half naked watching us. Usually they’re just hanging out in the cars, keeping our beer cold and waiting to give us foot massages after a long day of sending hard. But sometimes, they even let us hose them down or splash around in a river and get super sexy. It’s pretty cool.”

I couldn’t stop laughing as I read the article and looked at the photos.  I quickly shared it on social media as a fun story.

But then I thought about it some more.  Why is this photo so completely incongruous as to inspire laughter…


…while this photo of the same exact thing being done to a woman is just accepted, even if with an eye roll?


And the comparisons go on:






Even as someone who gets more annoyed than most about gender disparity in the media, I initially just blew off the GQ article.  I try to be aware of inequities but I still grew up in the same society as everyone else.  The society where men are active participants who go forth and conquer, while women are passive objects who are acted upon.  The GQ article bothered me, but precisely because it was nothing out of the ordinary, I’m sorry to say I didn’t think too much about it at first glance.

Until OR showed men in the exact same poses that the women had previously been in.  Then my eyes were opened to just how bad the original photo shoot was.  And you can think about flipping genders for any fashion photography.  Women are shown in passive poses in every damn advertisement around.  (And let’s not even get into the overtly violent poses which are also totally normalized.)  Think about men in those poses – it’s so unrealistic as to be laughable.  So why is it okay for women?

People can roll their eyes and shrug it off and say who cares, don’t let it affect you.  But as much as I wish it didn’t, cultural norms in society affect everyone.  Growing up seeing women in the media in these passive roles hurts.  It’s so important to have role models who look like you.  Various activities might never even occur to a child as accessible to them if they’ve never seen someone who looks like them doing it.  So many little girls and boys are surrounded by these gendered stereotypes and start to think that some things are for girls and some things are for boys and that’s just the way it is.

I’ve been lucky.  As a woman, I’ve frequently made forays into more male dominated territories.  I went to school for computer science and had a software career.  Guess what?  My mom works in IT so it never occurred to me I couldn’t.  I rode a motorcycle for years, and a Harley at that.  My older cousin Sarah was my inspiration there.  I also tend to be more of a stubborn person in general, so telling me I can’t do something is a pretty surefire way to get me to do it – to the point that my dad would tell me “girls can’t do dishes” or some other ridiculous thing to try to get me to do whatever it was.  Just to be clear, I’m not that stubborn.

Maybe I’m judging the GQ photo shoot a little harshly, and I don’t have high expectations from fashion.  But I do have high expectations from outdoor sports media.  Maybe that’s completely arbitrary – I care more about that world, therefore I feel it should be fairer – but it’s also because outdoorsy people are generally cool in person.  There are usually a lot more men than women in the outdoor sports I participate in, but I’ve never actually had a problem finding other adventurous women to get outside with.  However, outdoor sports media is just as bad as fashion when it comes to gender representation.  And who knows how many women and girls that is actively excluding?

Last spring, I gave a presentation about long distance hiking to an elementary school girls club.  It’s called GALS: Girls, Athletes/Artists, Leaders, and Scholars.  They ask a different “Mighty Girl” to come in once a month and talk to the girls about an avenue they might never have known was open to them.  Because I wanted to make hiking seem as accessible as possible, I used lots of photos of my women friends hiking.  I highlighted the first women to complete the triple crown trails and the fast women holding records on those trails.  I even highlighted kids who completed long distance hikes.

**Side Note: I think I did a good job of showing women in the outdoors but my heart sank when I realized that most of the hikers in my photos were white and most of the girls in the club were not.  Minority representation in outdoor media is even more imbalanced than gender representation, which manifests as a huge roadblock to young minds. Related but separate issue.

My visit was timely because the fifth grade girls were going on a school camping trip the following month.  Some of them were excited about it, but most of them were skeptical of the idea.  After all, camping and dirt and bugs are just for boys, right?

When I first started talking about my Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trail thru hikes and what that entailed, they mostly thought I was crazy.  But after explaining how things worked and answering their many questions, they began to realize that it wasn’t that impossible.  Long distance hiking is totally doable!  It helped that some of the girls had been car camping with their families already, and some of them were familiar with the local trail system.  Having other young girls say how much they loved the outdoors made it seem even more approachable to the skeptics in the group.  By the end of my time, when I asked who might want to hike a long trail one day, almost every girl raised her hand.  The others said they’d like to try out a shorter hike first.  Very logical.


I can only hope that one day, representation of all types of people in the outdoors will even out.  I want the next generation of little girls to know that any activity they can think of is open to them because they’ve seen other women and girls out doing it already.  They won’t worry about how to break into adventure sports because they’ll know they already belong.

For now, Outdoor Research has a devoted new fan.


Some photos courtesy GQ and Outdoor Research.  I think you can guess which ones belong where.


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  1. Sad, but so true. Glad you are out inspiring future hikers!

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