These days, Arlene Blum often hikes in a skirt. On a rainy trail walk in the hills above her office in Berkeley, California, a few weeks ago, I watched her dodge rivulets, delight in frog calls and spot an endangered newt. Now 72, Blum led the first American expedition up Annapurna in 1978. For a few glorious, hard-won moments, two Americans crowned the 26,500-foot summit. And those Americans? They were women.
What gave a lanky girl from urban Chicago the confidence to grow up to take on the Himalaya? It was a combination of love and stubborness. And it all started with her small backyard and its cherry tree.
“I liked being above all the hassle and turmoil. I loved being out in the cold and the ice and the snow, and the worse the weather the happier I was,” says Blum, who also became an accomplished chemist and environmental health advocate.
Based on what I’ve been learning lately, it’s no surprise that being in the elements helped ease Blum through a chaotic childhood, or that she became a scientific rock star. While a lot has been written and celebrated about the effects on human well-being of being in nature, it looks like girls and women may benefit even more.
For one thing, they need the boost. Girls are two to three times as likely as boys to be depressed, they are more likely to consider suicide, and they’re more likely to suffer from anxiety, eating disorders and diabetes. Psychologists know that many girls experience a loss of self-confidence in adolescence, a problem amplified by today’s like-and-swipe media vortex. On top of all that, girls today face a “bravery gap,” with more boys than girls reporting that they feel brave even as both sexes believe bravery is important to reaching their goals.
The good news is that time in nature—and doing outdoor sports—can prove a great corrective to today’s challenges of being a girl. There are no mirrors in nature. Outside, girls thrive when they can enjoy the vigor and mobility of their bodies, and not just how those bodies look on Snapchat. Nadine Budbill, founder of the Vermont-based mountain-biking program Dirt Divas, tells me it’s empowering to be covered in mud. “Getting scrapes, bruises and bug bites is a healthy counter to all the perfectionism that is so prevalent,” she says.
Studies consistently show that active time outdoors boosts mood and self-esteem, improves body image, builds confidence, solidifies friendships and fosters leadership skills. Girls learn how to take healthy risks, practice boldness and cultivate resilience.
And these gifts of nature last. A survey commissioned by REI shows that women who were encouraged to go outside as girls are more likely to see the value of spending time outdoors as adults. They’re also more likely to encourage their own daughters to be in nature, so the cycle continues.
Nature is the original gender-neutralizing space. Research in the United Kingdom found that girls in “forest” schools get roughly as much exercise as boys, but they get significantly less than boys in traditional schools. For adults, too, nature helps level the playing field: Women who spend at least an hour a day outside are more likely to feel equal to men at work, at school, in politics and in sports.
As the ultimate girl-story author of all time, Louisa May Alcott, put it: “I am not afraid of storms for I am learning how to sail my ship.”
Arlene Blum learned how to sail hers. She thinks nothing of petitioning massive government agencies and corporations to replace toxins with greener chemicals. She builds coalitions between people from different nations, industries, sides of the aisle. Her secret weapon? Taking them all out for a hike.