I’m fired up: It’s time to feature more women in outdoor media
Outdoorsy women are no passing trend. You’d never guess it, though, from the looks of the outdoor media, which features men far more than women.
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In 2013, after years of subscribing to outdoor magazines, and rarely seeing women on the pages or in the bylines, Zoe Balaconis, Marybeth Campeau, and I decided to do something about it. We founded Misadventures, an outdoor and adventure magazine for women. After all, according to the Outdoor Foundation, half of the 142.6 million Americans who engage in outdoor activity are women. In fact, women make up a whopping 59 percent of outdoors enthusiasts between 18 and 24, and young girls are participating in outdoor recreation in record numbers. In other words, women in the outdoors is no passing trend.
You’d never guess it, though, from the looks of the outdoor media. When in 2014 Misadventures set out to quantify the gender representation gap, we discovered that our instincts as readers were correct. From Outside magazine, which covers “active lifestyles…of sports, travel, adventure, health, and fitness,” to activity-specific publications like Climbing, Powder, and Surfer, the faces, bodies, and bylines of outdoor enthusiasm are overwhelmingly male. Our latest survey, for example, found that in recent issues of Climbing, Powder, and Surfer, more than half the content was written by men, and well over half the images featured men only. In Outside’s most recent issue, only three bylined writers were women, as compared to 17 bylined men. And while the issue contains 66 images of men—running, skiing, freediving with sharks, working out, climbing mountains, showing off successful business ventures, and in close-up portraits staring boldly at the camera—in sharp contrast, there are just eight images of women. Four of these, of a female cyclist, are “branded content” paid for and placed by REI. The other four are photos of: a group meal that includes women; a woman runner (face hidden—the pink jacket was the giveaway!); a profiled athlete’s mother, holding him as a baby; and a woman chugging a beer, face tilted back out of sight, foam dribbling down her breasts.
Sexualization of female athletes is common. Climbing media, for instance, often highlights female climbers’ sex appeal over their climbing skills. (This round-up of “Rock Hard Bodies” includes both male and female climbers—but the women are “dolls,” “lovely ladies,” and “not merely pretty faces,” while the men are “kind guys,” “kickass climbers,” and “bouldering badasses.”) Silvana Rima, the best female surfer in Brazil, was denied sponsorship deals for thirteen years on the basis that she “wasn’t pretty enough.” The 2012 Olympic Games were the first to allow female boxers and volleyball players to compete in attire other than miniskirts or bikinis. And this year’s 40th annual Banff Mountain Film Festival was praised for including six films featuring female athletes and adventurers—because, in the past, the number has been zero.
But it’s more than a numbers game. The media’s misrepresentation of outdoor women has a devastating impact on girls and young women. Last year, when journalist Joanna Schroeder explored surfing media’s erasure of women, she found that though young girls participate in surfing in equal numbers to boys, “something ominous happens to girls around 13. They start dropping out of surfing in large numbers.” She concluded: “The message that a powerful, talented girl who has been surfing most of her life receives when she looks at surfing magazines is ‘women don’t belong here.’” This message is not limited to surfing: Backpacker’s 2015 reader survey proved that a confidence gap between women and men in the outdoors occurs across all ages, sports, and levels of expertise.
The good news? There’s no lack of incredible outdoorswomen out there to inspire girls and young women to engage with the outdoors—we just have to shine a spotlight on them. And, slowly but surely, progress is being made. Misadventures’ gender representation reports demonstrate that the more women behind the scenes of a magazine, the more likely that magazine is to represent women, and without a sexist angle. That’s why, at Misadventures, we make a point of publishing women writers and photographers. It’s why we’re so excited that, for the first time ever, the editors of Skiing, Climbing and Alpinist are all women. It’s why we were psyched to see the April 2016 issue of Surfer celebrate three fantastic female surfers (even if it did interview them collectively as “The Catalysts”—baby steps!). We admire the people working to alter their companies (especially the ones we’ve called out here) from the inside—it certainly does not go unnoticed.
But what can you do, if you’re not behind-the-scenes of a magazine? For starters, choose publications like Misadventures, and film festivals like No Man’s Land, over outdoor media that remains overwhelmingly sexist. Speak up when the mainstream publications you love don’t step up. But most of all, get outside with the women in your life. If you’re a man, let those women read the map, pitch the tent, paddle the canoe, and lead the way. If you’re a woman, consider actively making time for all-female adventure. There’s real value in creating opportunities for women to enjoy the outdoors without needing to justify their presence in the first place. As Julie Ellison, the editor of Climbing, recently shared, though she was initially apprehensive of attending the first-ever Women’s Climbing Festival:
“What I quickly realized…is that when you get a group of lady climbers together, there’s a space created unlike anything else…. It’s not that feel-good, ‘everybody gets an award’ crap; it’s pure try-hard and motivation….We were able to try moves over and over without some dude coming up and spraying us down with unwanted advice. We could take our shirts off without fear of being objectified or ogled, and there was no talk of ‘sexualization of female climbers.’ None of that mattered. It wasn’t about being a man or a woman; it was about being a climber.”
That’s why we founded Misadventures: to create that kind of all-women’s space in the outdoor mediasphere. Ours is not the only solution to the outdoor media gender gap, but, as the growing community of misadventurers proves, it’s a powerful one. We’re proud to be a part of the incredible legion of outdoor women working for change.