There’s a reason I take a lot of photo shoots in the wilderness of myself wearing long, flowing dresses, and it might not be what you expect.
Growing up I was always told that boys are tough and strong and like to get dirty, and little girls are pretty and quiet and fragile. Growing into a woman, I quickly became aware of pressures to look, act and talk a certain way – to fit into the design being handed to me. For most of my life, typically “feminine” things felt uninteresting at best and suffocating at worse. I have distinct early memories of being a small child helping my dad outside with yard work and watching my mom bustle around inside behind the steamy kitchen windows, cooking a giant pot of stew or pulling bread out of the oven. It sounds like a beautiful memory, but for me it was traumatic.
The fundamentalist community I was raised in kept a strict divide between men’s and women’s roles. Even at 5 years old I was acutely aware that while I was interested in the things my dad was doing, my body would grow up to look like my mother’s and therefore at some point in the future I would be forced to model myself after her, whether that was the life I wanted or not.
Growing older felt like a ticking time bomb. I didn’t know at what age I would be expected to be a woman and need to give up the things I loved about myself. I wondered if even someday I might betray myself and make the drastic change voluntarily.
As a little girl growing up without any brothers, I wondered on occasion if all the quality time I got with my dad was because there wasn’t a son to spend time with. My dad never did anything to make me feel that way, but the culture he raised me in did. I was deeply attached to my dad and felt a strong connection with him. I wanted to grow up to be just like him. We were kindred spirits who understood each other. Some of my first steps were taken on the trail with him and my first word after mama and dadda was “back-back” (backpack).
That’s how formative the wilderness was to me. From time to time my worries about my gender were reinforced a bit when I saw my female friends becoming more and more restricted as we grew older. My family wasn’t doing that, at least not yet, but I thought I was probably just lucky, not inherently safe.
Around 8 or 9 years old, I watched a good friend of mine harshly warned by her father to stop climbing on driftwood at the beach with me, because she was a lady. Her family forced her to wear dresses all of the time instead of just at church like my family. That was a good excuse to keep her from moving her body and running free like normal children.
Around middle school age I was told it was good that even though I was outdoorsy, I could still “clean up nice” and be ladylike. I think the person meant it as a compliment toward my well-rounded traits, but the message I received was loud and clear: being an outdoorsy adventurous type wasn’t a womanly thing to do, but I could get away with it because I was still able to fit the mold the rest of the time.
At Thanksgiving and other gatherings, the men would walk around the yard looking at the garden and fruit trees while my mom and aunts and any other females deemed old enough to be subjected to restrictive roles had to prepare the meal and clean up after. From a young age I wondered why we didn’t all pitch in together and then all relax together.
When I had my first period, my mom told me I probably wouldn’t be able to do as many hiking and camping trips anymore. I was terrified but also stubborn and vowed to myself that would never happen to me.
I’ve been called disgusting for coming home from backpack trips with unshaven legs and greasy hair. I’ve been warned that bears would eat me if I was menstruating in the woods (that’s a lie, but all I had to counter it was my gut instinct).
Over and over I was shoved into a smaller and smaller box of who I was allowed to be as a female. While little boys were given more opportunities as they grew older, I lived in a steadily shrinking cage. I grew up angry at both men and women. No one was safe. Men were degrading and patronizing and held all the power and women would not stand up for me – instead they were often the ones enforcing the patriarchal ideals in more up-close and personal ways. In that sense, women were more of a threat to me than the men and I avoided female-only settings most of the time.
I rarely felt in tune with femininity. Womanhood was an unsettling part of me I tolerated on good days and recoiled from on bad days. At best my gender was a neutral thing that added no value and at worse it was an infection, or a tattoo I couldn’t remove.
For me, climbing mountains and exploring the back-country was my escape. It was the one place that as a woman I was allowed to be different than the mold. I had the freedom to explore myself as I explored the forest. I became stronger inwardly as my body grew stronger climbing snowy slopes. On the trail I was allowed to dress for utility instead of etiquette. In the great outdoors, I didn’t need to meet society’s beauty standards; I was accepted there as I was. No one was around I needed to impress or might accidentally displease just by existing as I am – it was only me and the mountain, and often my loving dad who believed in me and only unintentionally passed on some of the sexist mindsets.
As a child I didn’t have any female role models in the outdoors. It was a man’s world. In today’s outdoor scene that is mostly inclusive to women, its hard for many people to believe that I saw that change happen in my own lifetime. But as a child only 20 years ago, I would often count the other women and girls on the longer treks and bigger mountains because there were so few of us.
For so long, my masculine and feminine sides have been separated by a wide chasm inside of me. I don’t fit the church’s – or even society’s – ideals for a woman. I present feminine but I don’t often feel “womanly”. I love my masculinity but don’t identify with maleness. Often over the years, when wearing makeup or a pretty dress it felt like I was putting on a mask and the real mountain-climbing, skateboarding, dare-devil me was trapped on the inside.
But a few years ago, I got an idea. I wanted to see those two separate worlds collide. I wanted to see the two halves of me become one. So I rolled up a long red dress and stuck it in my backpack one day and when I got up to the ridge top meadow, I slipped it on and asked my supportive dad to take pictures of me. I was afraid I might be doing the wrong thing. I wondered if I was contaminating my safe space with reminders of the threat of traditional womanhood. I wondered if I wouldn’t feel fierce and badass in the mountains if I was wearing a dress. I was wrong.
I felt like a warrior princess. I felt strong and beautiful and like I could be any kind of woman I wanted to be. I was still the same me I’ve always been. I am not defined by other people’s ideas of me. For the first time, a flicker of pride toward my womanhood burned in my heart.
The mountains have always represented more to me than recreation or even adventure. They represent my strength and what I’m capable of. They remind me I am powerful, a conqueror. I am embodied; grounded and secure, inherently good in my physical form. I take up space in the world. I am spirit, at one with the Source. I cannot be held down, I cannot be contained. I can do anything I set out to do.
I’m tackling the hard work of undoing years of damage that fundamentalism caused me. I’m asserting that women are magical and fierce; a force to be reckoned with. I am declaring I can be beautiful AND strong. I can love getting dirty and ALSO look damn sexy in a red dress. I can be cute and childlike and playful, AND I can lead backpacking expeditions and handle myself well in the face of danger. I can take care of others and keep them safe without neglecting myself. I can be an explorer and a wilderness goddess. I can be a mountain woman, a photographer, a strong leader; someone who paints and writes and runs and climbs trees and who skillfully steers a canoe through rapids. I can be gentle and sweet and kind and also outspoken and opinionated and confident and I can sure as hell stand up for myself. I can set boundaries on how people treat me and I can make my voice heard. I can command attention.
After a lifetime of hiking and climbing in the high country, I was 28 years old the first time I wore a dress in that space; creating an avenue to see these truths embodied. I’m experiencing my masculine and feminine sides combining and colliding in messy and inspirational ways, and I like it! I used to feel good in spite of being female but I’m retraining my brain. My femininity is good.
I still have a long ways to go; I’m still questioning a lot and learning how to feel content and safe in my body. But I do know that I am a beautiful, powerful soul and nobody else gets to tell me who I am. I am a mountain woman.