I bought a hiking dress. Which, in and of itself, is nothing of interest, lots of women hike in dresses and skirts… but for me there is some feeling behind the dress that I have been trying to put my finger on and it has been hard.
As a woman, all of my life, I have been inundated with images of what it means to be beautiful. In magazines, movies and on the internet, those images are everywhere. And all my life I felt comfortably a part of these beauty standards but also defiantly above them. A lot of my time has been spent wearing trendy clothes, but in high school I would frequently put together wild outfits and purposely wear sweat pants three days in a row, because I didn’t “give a shit”. My mother didn’t let me wear make up until high school and I pointed to this as the reason I was just as comfortable bare faced as I was made up. I scoffed at girls who wouldn’t leave the house without it. In high school, when many girls were still reveling in having boobs and getting to wear bras I was already eschewing them and shocking friends by coming to school without one on. All through high school and college I would go on month stints where I didn’t shave my legs. I have never showered regularly, much to the dismay of my more anal friends. I felt that I was somehow walking a fine line between defiant and compliant, fitting in and feeling beautiful when I wanted to, on my terms, but also standing outside the norms whenever it pleased me and loving myself for it. I thought I possessed a natural confidence and that was what made me beautiful, no matter how I looked, and that I would feel that way forever.
Then I went away to Arizona and worked at ACE. For nine days at a time I wore the same clothes, no make up, was filthy dirty and very happy. I was confident, in my ability to make conversation, be interesting, hardworking, and love myself. When we would get back on the weekends we would all put on our best going out clothes (the same ones we wore every weekend because everyone only had one drawer for their stuff) and take a shower and wear a little make up and party. Slowly though, the scales began to tip. I started to feel weird when I would get back to Flagstaff and get “made up”. Something about it didn’t feel right, it felt fake in a way that it had never felt in the past. I mean inherent to the word “make up” is a certain accepted fantasy, that you are making up who you are, and I was loosing my ability to see the person I was on my days off as the same person I was when I was on project. Instead it felt like I was covering up my real self in a way it never had in college or high school.
ACE was just the beginning. Then I went on to own one shirt for five months on the AT and grow out my armpit hair. I felt incredible, jubilant and defiant, so physically strong and proud of my achievements. Once back in Seattle I worked more outside jobs, forcing my wardrobe to continue to trend towards Carhartts and sweatshirts. We began climbing mountains and I bought soft shell pants and mountaineering boots. I spent more money on those boots than I ever have on any casual piece of clothing. Standing on top of Mt Baker or Mt Rainier I felt a pride and a ecstasy that I had never known. But as happy as I am with all of my new accomplishments and directions I have grown in I have felt something missing for a while now and I have been struggling to put it back to the way it was before.
Society accepts men in the woods as sexy. The “lumbersexual”, beards, plaid, being in shape, being rugged, all of these things look good on a man by societal standards. Kyle admits that he feels hotter when he is working outside, thru hiking and climbing mountains, that it raises his self esteem. But I feel that society lacks a similar narrative for outdoorsy women. Sure, society loves to see women wearing flowy dresses in nature, the alluring wood-nymph-fairy-hippy girl is considered hot. The hip outdoors girl is totally in, hiking around in her Wild-Cheryl-Strayed replica boots with her Pendleton blanket spread across the floor of her tent, peppered with throw pillows and sketch pads. I am not about to wear a cute Filson jacket and Frye boots on a hike to help myself feel beautiful. You don’t have to look any further than the women’s clothing section at REI to know that there is cute “outdoors” clothing that isn’t technical and then there are the technical pieces, which aren’t cute. The mens clothing section at REI isn’t divided like the women’s is, it is all one because technical outdoors clothing on a man is sexy.
I shouldn’t need mainstream society to come up with an ad campaign about real outdoorswomen being beautiful and hardcore in nature for me to believe it about myself but I am struggling with how to convince that deep dark internalized beauty standard that I have in my head to change. I have never been the kind of person that thinks negative things about myself but I am finding myself doing it more and more. And simultaneously I am more and more proud of myself for other aspects of my character that have nothing to do with how beautiful I feel. Which is what everyone tells you you should be doing. That by loving yourself you will feel beautiful and confident and sexy but I love myself and I haven’t found that to be true. The bottom line remains, I want to feel beautiful when I am hiking and that means recreating what it means to be a woman in nature and reclaiming that beauty… somehow.
I want to point out that this isn’t about looking beautiful, it is about feeling beautiful. I didn’t write this post to make everyone say, “Oh but Lindsey, you are really pretty!” (please do not say anything to that tune in the comments, I will delete it). Objectively I know that to be true, this is about something deeper, about confidence and self image and self esteem. This is about the fact that as a woman I believe a lot of things about myself when I am in nature and I internalize a lot of different words: resourceful, competent, strong, courageous, determined, passionate. The list goes on, but the list does not include beautiful, sexy, pretty… And maybe the point is those things don’t matter and I should just let them go. Maybe those words were integral to who I was in the past but they do not need to be part of who I am in the future. I am not sure if the answer is to work hard to change my thoughts or if I should just accept this change and move on.
Because I don’t know the answer and I don’t know where to start I bought a hiking dress. Despite my growing discomfort surrounding seeing myself in make up I still love dresses. They make me feel fun, free, feminine, and beautiful. There is so much less between the rest of the world and you when you are wearing a dress. So I got a hiking dress. Do I honestly think it is going to help me reclaim the word beauty when I am hiking and start applying it to myself again? I’m not sure, I think that struggle is both an internal one and a societal one. But it is an action, something to remind myself of a confidence I felt in the past, and that I would like to feel again in the future.
This is kind of a heavy post and I recognize that many women have struggled with body image issues and beauty standards much more seriously than I have. I also recognize my privilege as a white, skinny girl who fits many of society’s must haves to be “beautiful” and I don’t meant offend anyone who feels that my “problems” are negligible in the scheme of things. These are simply my thoughts and, I agree, hardly problems in terms of the bigger picture. I am simply curious if other women who have converted to an outdoorsy existence feel similar things, and if so how they have dealt with them. If you don’t feel these pressures, why not? I want to end with this poem from Rupi Kaur:
i want to apologize to all the women i have called pretty
before i called them intelligent or brave.
i am sorry i made it sound as though
something as simple as what you’re born with
is the most you have to be proud of
when your spirit has crushed mountains.
from now on i will say things like, you are resilient
or, you are extraordinary.
not because i don’t think you’re pretty.
but because you are so much more than that.
I still believe, strongly, that being pretty or sexy is not what defines us as women, that there are much more important things in life. This conversation is about what it takes to feel beautiful, which, I think, is a much more poignant conversation.
If you like the poem then follow Rupi Kaur on Instagram.