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Dirty Nails, Greasy Hair And Blisters: Finding Self-Love On The Trail

Dirty Nails, Greasy Hair And Blisters: Finding Self-Love On The Trail

Although I am a healthy, fit, and confident woman, there is no doubt at times I grapple with my body image and how I feel my body looks. My wardrobe changes as I fluctuate between pant sizes depending on the time I have available to dedicate to fitness and whether it’s summer or winter. I am guilty of staring into my closet and declaring that nothing fits. I wear yoga pants when I’m feeling frumpy. Some days I yearn for more defined triceps, bulging calf muscles, and a smooth stomach. I often worry that the skin bunches up under my bra and can be seen through my t-shirts. I consider myself an attractive, appealing woman, yet at times I feel a little squishy and undesirable. This, in turn, makes me feel unhappy with myself. This is my own personal body scrimmage; the tussle I have between my inner knowing and the cultural influences I deal with daily.

I have only recently discovered the term ‘body scrimmage’. Jenny Savigny defined the term ‘body scrimmage’ as “the scrum-like thoughts and feelings we often have about our own bodies” (2006, p. 7). She believes the term more useful than ‘body image’ because many people take that term literally and think it’s simply about what you look like or body parts, when the real issues are often related to negative thoughts and feelings we associate with our bodies. Scrimmage is a perfect term to use when discussing the internal struggles that many Western women have when we think negatively and obsessively about our own bodies.

In the moments of my own body scrimmaging, my thoughts turn to where and when I feel most beautiful, strongest, and attractive. Typically, this takes me to the third or fourth day of a bushwalk, where my hair is greasy, my fingernails are filled with dirt, my feet are sore, I have blisters on my ankles, and I haven’t looked in a mirror for a few days. Or, I recall a moment when I felt strong in the outdoors; such as the time I guided people away from a grizzly bear on a nature hike in the Purcell Mountains of Canada or the winters of graceful, free heel turns skiing down the fall line of Kicking Horse Mountain. Sometimes these moments take me to the middle of a twenty-kilometer run where my body is aching and my mind is soaring. I feel attractive and strong in the outdoors. My confidence soars. I recognise that my body is much greater than image, rather it is connected to my self-worth. None of these moments are about how I look – they are how I feel about, and what I can do with my body.

On participating in outdoor programs run by women for women, Denise Mitten proposed in her seminal research: “Women often discover their own power and expand their self-images” (1992, p. 57). She argued that “women can often go past self and society imposed ideas of what is possible, both as individuals and as women” (p. 57) and feel empowered doing so. Her work has been instrumental in bringing forth beliefs about the immense opportunity outdoor programs offer to women at a transformational level in terms of self-image and self-belief. Lisa West-Smith’s collection of women’s body image research findings and personal stories illustrates how a woman’s sense of being physically effective contributes positively to a sense of being physically attractive. Research has found that active outdoorswomen are able to reject cultural and stereotypical definitions of beauty and, as a result, maintain a more positive body image (D’Amore & Mitten, 2014; Mitten & Woodruff, 2010; West-Smith 2000; Whittington, 2006; Whittington & Budbill, 2013; Whittington, Mack, Budbill & McKenney, 2011; Woodruff 2009).

People who accept the way they look and who feel good about their bodies most of the time have a positive body image. Their appearance may not match their family’s ideals or those perpetrated by the media, but they have learned to be proud of the way they look. You do not have to be thin or tall or have any other specific physical traits to have a positive body image. It does not matter what you look like on the outside. Part of having a positive body image is thinking about the way you physically feel and what your body can do — not just the way you look. Having a positive body image also means that you see yourself as you really are. Nonetheless, negative body image is prevalent in Australian culture. We are constantly exposed to airbrushed, polished models in magazines, on television and in the movies. When many (Western) women look in the mirror, we seem to see ourselves differently to the way others see us. We are quick to criticize ourselves; tend to focus on the negatives and fail, or refuse, to observe the positives. We spend so much time being envious of other people that we overlook our own good qualities. If we can remove ourselves from the bombardment of media images depicting the thin ideal of the female body or the assault on our bodies stemming from a barrage of cultural influences and find ourselves in an outdoor setting where we need to focus on what our bodies capabilities are, can we develop a sense of pride in what our bodies can do, rather than how they look?

This transfer of what occurs in the outdoors is the delicious part of it all. What I do with myself in the outdoors, what I do with my students in the outdoors, and how that transfers to day-to-day living is one of the reasons I work in the outdoors. This is the magic I love to watch happen in the outdoors. The transformative powers of the outdoors may be one of the solutions to increased body positivity amongst women.

When I reflect on my own experience in the outdoors, I come to realize that my body deserves respect in the form of healthy nutritious food, care to avoid injury, and maintenance to keep it strong and long lasting so I can continue to run, to paddle, to hike and to ride. I keep my body healthy and fit for myself, and not for the acceptance of others. The outdoor experiences I’ve had and continue to have shaped the way in which I think of myself with confidence, competence and self-reliance. It makes sense to me that all women should have access to outdoor adventures in order to develop their own self-worth and to rebuff cultural stereotypes.

As I embark on a journey to demonstrate that outdoor education programs can shape a girls’ sense of self and body positivity, I embrace the lineage of outdoors women working to redefine the societal construct of femininity. My mind ticks over as I begin to see the potential and the possibilities for women learning to define themselves from within, rather from the way society tells us to. It really is a body scrimmage isn’t it? That inner tussle about how we look, how we feel, how we define ourselves and how others define us.


  • D’Amore, C. & Mitten, D. (2014, January). Relationship Between Outdoor Experience and Body Image in Female College Students. In Coalition for Education in the Outdoors Twelfth Biennial Research Symposium (p. 38-40). http://www2.cortland.edu/dotAsset/d447c0c5-0bb4-4f4c-a1e7-47a7c4247043.pdf
  • Mitten, D. (1992). Empowering girls and women in the outdoors. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, 63 (2), 56-60.
  • Mitten, D., & Woodruff, S. (2010). The Impact of Short-Term Adventure Experiences on Body Image Perceptions of Women Over 40. Journal of Experiential Education, 32(3), 322-326.
  • Savigny, J. (2006). Body image, body scrimmage : stories by middle school students. Ginninderra Press, Charnwood, A.C.T
  • West-Smith, L. (Ed.), (2000). Body stories: Research & intimate narratives on women transforming body image in outdoor adventure. Edgewood, KY: Adventurehaven Press.
  • Whittington, A. (2006). Challenging girls' constructions of femininity in the outdoors. Journal of Experiential Education, 28(3), 205-221.
  • Whittington, A., Mack, E. N., Budbill, N. W., & McKenney, P. (2011). All-girls adventure programs: what are the benefits? Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning, 11(1), 1-14.

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