Medusa. That’s what they called me in 4th grade. I was so fat & ugly that I could turn my classmates to stone if I looked at them. I grew up in small-town Minnesota, wore garage sale clothes, red Sally Jesse Raphael glasses, and a home perm. Being bullied had a huge impact on my self confidence as a kid. I realized then that being fat was a bad thing.
Puberty hit and I did everything I could to hide my curves under baggy clothes, adopting the hip hop style of the early 90s, and acting like “one of the guys.” Being a tomboy was fueled by shame and I wanted to avoid sexual attention from men or boys my age. I felt trapped & unhappy. I was quiet and chose not to join in many group activities because I feared rejection. Instead, I found solace in books, writing, and photography. My adolescence came and went.
My family moved to a town outside of Minneapolis. Basic tee & jeans from The Gap, cowboy boots with spurs, and letterman jackets filled the halls of my high school. Then there was me. I reinvented myself. I dyed my hair with Manic Panic, wore colorful mismatched thrift store clothes and baby doll dresses, lots of accessories, torn fishnet stockings, combat boots and a Sesame Street backpack. I found the Riot Grrrl movement, made a zine & traded mix tapes with pen pals from all around the country, joined the school newspaper and writer’s club, and took photography classes. Finally, I was the person I’d always wanted to be. I didn’t want attention but people noticed. Inside, I was sensitive & shy. I loved the way I looked but I had to grow a thick skin.
Thankfully, my mom always supported my creative expressions and showed an interest in the music, books, and art I liked. She is unapologetically feminist, strong, resilient, and honest. She influenced my new-found comfort in self-expression. This supportive environment planted the seeds of self love.
Life at mom’s house was good but the external world was full of messages about what a desirable body should look like. My dad worked for a modeling agency as a new talent scout and a female model agent. When my sister and I would visit him in Chicago on holidays & some weekends, we would hang out at his office or with models our age. At the time, the waif-look was all the rage. The appeal of this body standard was lost on me. As I got to know them I learned that even models are insecure about the way they look. They were the beauty ideal but it didn’t make them happier. Body love seeds were planted.
My formative years were difficult at times but they gave me strength. I forged a path to body acceptance that is without a doubt, a trail lined with old growth trees near a waterfall, deep in the forests of the Pacific Northwest.
“Sure, I like to hike,” I told the woman I was dating. I didn’t like to hike. I didn’t even like to walk. I was a bike commuter, I liked to bike. I didn’t own a car which was a requirement to get to most trailheads. I wanted to impress her so when she offered to drive, I went. I resented it at first. I hated to be uncomfortable. I didn’t see anyone else on the trail that looked like me: a fat, queer, heavily-tattooed weirdo in a dress. We continued to date & hike and the challenge and reward system grew on me. Something in me changed.
I wanted to be a hiker. A 1600ft elevation gain in 2.5 miles. I could do it! I would be sweaty, out of breath, tired, and the slowest person on the trail. It was worth it for the view at the top of the mountain. The hike down felt like a triumph. And I would be so happy. Like romantic-comedy-happy-ending happy. Goofy, silly, chatty, giddy weirdo. Those endorphins carried over into my everyday life in Portland and my hiking confidence grew. I began to crave the outdoors & made places- to-hike lists. I yearned for the long paths along forest creeks the color of evergreen trees. It no longer mattered to me what I looked like or what gear I had. The only mirrors in the wilderness are the ones that self reflect.
Along these trails the seeds of self & body love began to bloom. Thus began the story of Fat Girls Hiking. In April 2015 while on a hike at the Oregon coast, my partner and I made up a song called Two Fat Girls Hiking. We decided to embrace our size on the trail and start an Instagram account. We wanted visibility for fat folks in the outdoors. We wanted to inspire people who struggle with body & self love. We wanted to take the stigma out of the word fat & empower it instead. Our motto, Trails Not Scales, is a reminder of why we hike: it’s not to lose weight; it’s for the love of the outdoors & ourselves, regardless of our size. To fall in love with nature is to fall deeper in love with myself.
~Sumr, co-founder of Fat Girls Hiking