When I’m in the outdoors, people judge me based on my appearance. They glance at my size 20 body and assume that I’m inexperienced. They look at my fat belly and presume I’m lazy. They observe my non-technical hiking clothing and decide that I don’t know what I’m doing. They watch me walk slowly up a hill and evaluate my fitness level.
The reality is far from this – but this is a fact I feel like I constantly need to defend (and will proceed to do so again). I’ve been hiking for 8 years, including walking multiple long distance paths on my own. I’ve climbed mountains in New Zealand, solo hiked and wild camped for a fortnight in Norway, and covered thousands of miles of paths in the UK. I may be slower up hills, but I’m perfectly capable of climbing the same mountains as other people (as I’ve proven time and time again). And the reason I don’t have head to toe technical clothing is because very little of it is made in my size.
The judgements people make materialise in different ways. I am the regular recipient of microaggressions when I’m out hiking – comments that might seem harmless on the surface but are rooted in a place of judgement or preconception. “Well done you!” or “You’re so inspiring!” might seem by some as encouraging, but on a single hike in New Zealand, I had more than 15 such comments. While people probably feel like they’re being encouraging, all they’re actually doing is vocalising their preconceptions that bodies like mine can’t do those things.
I’ve also had several situations where people will question what I’m doing and whether I’m equipped to do it. At the foot of Merrick, a mountain in Southern Scotland, another hiker asked where I was headed. When I said I was climbing Merrick, he was visibly shocked, unable to hide his surprise that I was doing the same route he was. I’ve had people ask if I’m sure I know what I’m doing, people telling me the route I’m walking is hard (yes, I know that because I’ve done my research), and countless occasions where people will openly look up and down my body, visibly assessing whether they think I’m able to do the route I’m planning.
A single occurrence of this washes off me, but the regularity of these comments and reactions is exhausting, and I shouldn’t have to continually justify myself and my ability to undertake a particular activity. I’m not alone in this either – speaking to other plus size people, this is a common occurrence most of us face.
An important way to change this situation is to improve representation of different body types in outdoor activities. The reason I get treated like I don’t belong in the outdoors is because we never see bodies like mine represented in outdoor magazines, on brand websites, on social media channels. The result is that people genuinely think larger bodies can’t do these things. If plus size bodies were shown hiking, climbing, cycling, swimming, kayaking and more, my body on a hillside wouldn’t be so surprising to the people I meet.
The outdoors industry itself is also shaped by these judgements. Technical clothing still mostly stops at a size 16-18. There are now a few brands making a small range of technical clothing in a size 20 (with Alpkit leading the way by making their full range), but above a size 20, you are limited to entry level kit from brands such as Regatta and Mountain Warehouse. While these clothes will get you out walking, they aren’t suited to days in the mountains where weather can change quickly, or multi-day walks where packability and breathability is really important.
It’s goes beyond clothing too. There’s very limited availability of kit like climbing harnesses and personal flotation devices that fit larger bodies (especially larger women’s bodies). A lack of a wide fit lightweight and packable sleeping bags means that anyone larger than me will struggle to wild camp. Activities like paddleboarding are often inaccessible because knowledge is lacking around the best boards for heavier people, and kit like plus size wetsuits aren’t always available.
There is a widespread assumption that plus size and larger bodied people can’t, or don’t want to, engage in outdoor activities. The truth is that there is a group of larger bodied, plus size and fat people stubbornly doing these activities in ill-fitting and inappropriate clothing. But alongside this group are tens (or hundreds) of thousands of people who never went for that hike, paddle, climb or cycle because they couldn’t find a waterproof coat, wetsuit, climbing harness or padded cycling shorts that fitted them.
And while there’s a very important need for entry level walks to get people of all shapes and sizes outdoors, there are plenty of plus size and larger bodied people who are skilled and experienced and want to take on more challenging walks, cycles and more, including outdoor qualifications. However, there are very few outdoor professionals like Mountain Leaders who are plus sized, not because we don’t have the skills or interest, but because we don’t feel welcome on the training courses – so many of us have had experiences of being left behind or felt unwelcome in such spaces. In addition, we can’t get the high quality technical clothing we need for such work – an issue faced by several of the larger bodied outdoor professionals I know and demonstrated by the fact that GORE-TEX PRO waterproof jackets aren’t available above a size 16.
Body shape or size isn’t an indication of interest or ability. Like mountains, we come in all shapes and sizes, and we all belong in the outdoors.
Guest Article from Steph Wetherell
Steph is a keen hiker with a love of long distance paths and solo walking adventures. As a day job she leads on comms and media for the Landworkers’ Alliance, works as a freelance writer (including Countryfile Magazine and the Independent) and has a real passion for representation! She has been leading on the social media strategy and coordination for the Every Body Outdoors instagram page which saw us hit 1000 followers in 48 hours and 2000 followers in the first month.
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