Years ago, on my first rim-to-river day hike through the Grand Canyon, I struck up a conversation with another pair of hikers about a mile from the top of Bright Angel Trail. We had been having a typical friendly trail conversation when one of them asked me how far we'd gone that day. I answered that we'd been all the way to the river and were nearly done. Suddenly his tone changed to scolding: "you know, there's a reason they say not to do that in a day." Of course, at this point I was at the top, and I clearly had enough gas in the tank to complete the hike, even though I was understandably fatigued from the 15+ miles in my legs. I was wearing a hot pink tank top and floral print short shorts, and after the tone he took with me, I couldn't help but wonder if he somehow deemed me incapable based on my appearance, even though I'd literally just told him I had done it.
A year or so later, I was hiking Angel's Landing in Zion. I saw a handful of women on the trail with faces fully flourished with makeup, hair neatly done, looking generally cute. I didn't say anything, but I remember internally thinking to myself: "ugh, really? You're going hiking, who cares?" I felt a tinge of smug superiority: I knew better, I wasn't so high maintenance like those women. I cringe at the thought now.
Something similar happened a few months later when I was backpacking in Havasupai. While I was at Beaver Falls, a woman perched herself on a limestone terrace, dressed in a fashion-forward bathing suit. She flitted her dark eyes around sweetly as she posed deftly for photos. Another moment of annoyance flashed through my mind about this woman who, I decided, only cared about "looking cute" and thus couldn't possibly be a competent outdoorswoman. On the hike out of the canyon the next day, she blew past me on an uphill, 55L pack and all. I never came close to catching her. I felt my assumptions quickly dissolve when faced with proof that she was not just a cute girl in a ruffled swimsuit, but also an extremely strong and capable hiker.
Nowadays, I'm deeply ashamed of those judgments I harbored, even though I never said anything to anyone. Sadly, even though I've been the subject of profiling based on how I look, I've also been guilty of judging others in exactly the same way. It's hypocritical and it's awful. It's internalized misogyny at its worst, and after decades of existing in a patriarchal society, I've had to reckon with my fair share. It's a long and sometimes painful process to deconstruct old programming about what is and isn't acceptable for women.
Women who spend a lot of time getting up to adventures outdoors, especially solo, probably have similar stories of being on the receiving end of condescension on the trail. Unfortunately, all of us, including women, also probably have stories of passing quiet, unwarranted judgment toward other women on the trail, too.
Where does this programming come from? One foundational element of patriarchal culture is the sorting of traits as gendered. Words like strong, daring, and confident tend to carry a masculine connotation. On the other hand, things like being gentle, nurturing, and soft are viewed as more feminine. Everyone has been raised under this code, with traits being promoted or discouraged in both young children and adults according to their gender.
Once affiliated with a gender, these traits inherently carry different value. Our culture values masculine-assigned traits more highly than the feminine. For example, girls and women who exhibit traditionally masculine traits such as being confident, bold, and fearless are often lauded. On the other hand, boys and men who express nurturing, caring instincts along with vulnerable emotions are roundly mocked and disdained. Women claiming masculine traits is, by and large, an upgrade, something to strive for. Men expressing the feminine is demeaning and shameful, something to be avoided.
Similarly, feminine-associated concepts like wearing makeup, being stylish, and generally cultivating your personal appearance are quickly followed by their attendant value judgments: high maintenance, superficial, and helpless.
As my opening stories illustrate, women are certainly not exempt from jumping to misogynistic conclusions just by being women. In fact, a sinister tenet of patriarchal culture is that it's not just perpetuated by men: women are also recruited to enforce the rules of femininity. A lot could be said about this complex topic, but to put it simply, women are incentivized to uphold the rules of femininity because following those rules is a way to feel safe, in the broad sense of the word. We subconsciously want to believe that if we simply do womanhood right, things will work out well for us. So, we police and judge other women for stepping out of line for two primary reasons. First, we want to remind and warn them that their behavior is out of bounds, and therefore against what we believe to be their best interests. Second, we want the social structure to stay in place insofar as it keeps life comfortable, orderly, and predictable. When we have a clear roadmap of what is good and acceptable versus bad and shameful, we know what it takes to be rewarded and successful in society. That makes it feel like things are under control and predictable, which is very enticing.
All this said, it should not come as a surprise that there are no studies that indicate wearing makeup negatively affects VO2 max. It might be an unnecessary addition, but there is nothing about makeup that impacts performance at all. There is also no evidence that wearing Patagonia instead of lululemon imbues the wearer with the ability to hike 10 miles any faster. And yet, our brains rapidly jump to conclusions, sorting who is and isn't worthy of our respect outdoors before we even realize what's happened. Our brains are hard-wired to love shortcuts and stereotypes (it's more efficient!), and we've all been served a smorgasbord of tempting shortcuts our entire lives. Makeup and pink and coifed hair equal pretty. Pretty equals feminine. Feminine equals soft and weak. It's no wonder those snap judgments come so naturally to us.
Granted, there are certainly plenty of reasons someone might choose to forgo certain clothes, doing their hair, or putting on makeup before an outdoor activity or other workout. Makeup and hair can be time-consuming and become quickly ruined from sun and sweat. Certain brands may make clothing that we feel more comfortable and happy in, or we may want to set aside how certain gear looks in favor of functional attributes. I'm also not suggesting we all need to pack our contouring palette for our next adventure to prove a point. Rather, it's critical to understand that choosing to present oneself in a particularly feminine way while being outdoors is a valid choice that says nothing--NOTHING--about that person's abilities in their chosen activity. Gatekeeping who is and is not capable of certain activities, particularly the more strenuous ones, based on some aspect of their appearance has no place in the outdoors. The only thing that says what a person is capable of is what they actually are doing and have done.
Once we've acknowledged that women are complex creatures, capable of being fashion-forward, fully made up, and also strong enough to do challenging hikes, it may be tempting to switch to another kind of criticism: even if women technically can, why would any woman even want to look a certain way while putting away big miles? After all, isn't that kind of behavior just upholding unhelpful beauty standards? Of course, there's a lot to unpack about why women may feel incentivized to look beautiful (not to mention a freight train full of baggage about Eurocentric ideas of what "beautiful" even means), and thus why they might show up to a hike or a workout in a full face of makeup and a carefully chosen outfit. A full analysis of women's relationship with beauty culture is a deeply complex subject that could be--and indeed has been--the subject of many lengthy written works. That isn't the focus here.
What's important to this discussion is that judging women as "less enlightened" for their failure to "appropriately" eschew beauty culture is exactly the same toxic, misogynistic sludge that causes people to judge women for not looking "pretty enough" in other contexts. Both are, fundamentally, ways to judge women for not being a woman in the "correct" way.
We've all been marinating in basically the same soup of patriarchy our whole lives. We are like fish in water, who sometimes don't realize we're wet, leading us to make knee-jerk assumptions about what signals strength and competence in the outdoors, and thus who is and isn't worthy of the benefit of the doubt.
We all should hold ourselves to a higher standard. All gender expressions and physical presentations should be respected and welcomed in outdoor spaces. It's up to us to thoughtfully, humbly examine our assumptions, challenging ourselves to dismantle unhealthy ideas we may have inadvertently absorbed. It's up to us to consciously choose to create a more wholeheartedly loving, supportive community.