Using Hiking to Promote Body Positivity

Fat Girls Hiking isn’t about weight loss. It’s about getting outside and feeling comfortable in your own skin.

As Summer and Lezley cut through the lush forest along the Drift Creek Falls trail of the mountainous Coast Range, they noticed other hikers sneaking glances and stares. Groups cut wide berths around them as they passed. Summer wondered if her tattoos gave hikers pause, or maybe it was the dress she wore on the trail that day. Lezley wondered if others were surprised to see a Latinx woman on the trail, and both pondered the possibility that others looked down on their weight.

But they were there to cross the suspension bridge and see the 65-foot waterfall, just like everyone else. As they racked up miles, the duo leaned into the discomfort they felt and made up a song on the spot: “We’re just two fat girls hiking,” went the refrain.

Neither Summer nor Lezley knew it at the time, but a movement was born in that song. (At the request of those interviewed, last names have been withheld to prevent trolling.) The duo would eventually co-found Fat Girls Hiking, a body positive hiking group. In less than two years, Fat Girls Hiking would attract fans in the United States and Canada, garner thousands of followers on social media, and touch the lives of countless hikers who felt underrepresented and out-of-place in the outdoors.

Dry Creek Falls | Photo courtesy of Fat Girls Hiking

Growing up, Summer and Lezley never considered themselves “outdoorsy.” Summer occasionally explored the woods near her childhood home in rural Minnesota and gravitated toward cycling after moving to Portland. Lezley, meanwhile, was raised in New Mexico and only dabbled in hiking after moving to Las Vegas; enamored by the trails, she packed up for Portland in 2012, largely for its easy access to outdoor recreation.

“We want to empower the word ‘fat.’”

They met through mutual friends in late 2012, and Lezley convinced Summer to give hiking a shot. Until then, Summer saw herself solely as a cyclist and couldn’t comprehend the appeal. “I hated hiking, I hated it,” Summer says. “I biked everywhere. I didn’t understand why everyone would want to walk places. I biked to get groceries, I biked to get dog food. That was my thing: I loved biking. Walking seemed so slow.”

Summer grew to enjoy the sense of accomplishment afforded by a difficult hike and, in the spring of 2015, Fat Girls Hiking took shape. An avid photographer, Summer first used #fatgirlshiking on Instagram as a subtle nod to the Drift Creek Falls hike.

Summer and Lezley on the Northern California Coast

The hashtag soon morphed into a full-blown Instagram account (@fatgirlshiking) and Facebook page, which Summer and Lezley use to coordinate group hikes, spotlight inspiring hikers, and share their love of the outdoors. “We wanted to create a community where people could feel supported and empowered,” Summer says. “That’s the most important thing for us: Building community, bringing people together, and listening to their journey about how they’re struggling, overcoming body shame, how they’re learning to love themselves. It’s honestly the most amazing thing when you bring people together like that.”

As for that word “fat”: Summer and Lezley use it intentionally. “We want to empower the word ‘fat,’” Lezley says. “People cringe at the word ‘fat.’”

Fat Girls Hiking is meant to celebrate the bodies they have.

Summer agrees. “I am fat, and it’s okay. I’m okay with it, I accept it, and I love myself for what I am. And using the word puts us apart in a way that shines a light on how most outdoor communities aren’t very inclusive,” she says. “It’s a very narrow focus, and we’re trying to shine a spotlight on those other people who you don’t see. We want to see all those folks—regular people, not just a person who looks like a model that happens to be on a mountaintop.”

Fat Girls Hiking is meant to celebrate the bodies they have. The group’s motto is “Trails not scales,” and while they’re fine with hikers using the hikes to shed pounds, that’s not the primary goal. “The point is not, for us, to lose weight,” Summer says. “It’s to get outside.”

Trillium Lake | Photo courtesy of Fat Girls Hiking

In November 2015, two hikers joined Summer and Lezley for the first official Fat Girls Hiking group trek. The next hike (which took place in Forest Park) didn’t attract anyone else, but Summer and Lezley remained undeterred. They continued hosting monthly hikes and spreading the word, leading to slow but steady growth. The group has since hosted hikes at Falls Creek Falls, the Wahkeena Falls-to-Multnomah Falls Loop, and Umbrella Falls, as well as a snowshoe trip to Trillium Lake.

“It was something I could relate to, because I wasn’t the normal hiker.”

More than a year after their first group hike, Fat Girls Hiking routinely attracts 10 to 15 members for Oregon-based treks. They’ve also hosted hikes in Vancouver, B.C., and Nashville, Tennessee, where other women have discovered the group and fallen in love with its mission.

Wahclella Falls | Photo courtesy of Fat Girls Hiking

One of the members touched by Fat Girls Hiking is Veronica, a Portland-based woman. Veronica discovered Fat Girls Hiking when the group’s Instagram account popped up in a “suggested follows” list. She instantly appreciated the group’s authenticity and approachable vibe. “It was not the normal type of hiking picture you see of more slender, blonde-haired, blue-eyed women hiking in their perfect make up,” she says. “It was something I could relate to, because I wasn’t the normal hiker.”

Veronica joined Fat Girls Hiking for a trip to Falls Creek Falls in June 2016 and has since become a regular. “I like the positivity of the group,” she says. “I’ve never felt like I didn’t fit in or looked down upon. They’re very accepting.”

“It’s fun to challenge the notion that people our size don’t go out and summit mountains.”

That intense connection between hikers was never more real than on a July 2016 hike up Hamilton Mountain. The grueling, seven-mile trail challenges hikers with 2,000 feet of elevation gain and teases them with a false summit. “Everybody who came on that hike was out there to prove to themselves that they could do it,” Lezley says. One woman was recovering from a breakup and a car accident, while another was brand new to hiking. “We were determined to get to the top or to see what we wanted to see, because we wanted people to feel empowered,” Lezley says. “We wanted them to know their strength.”

The group summited—and remembered far more than the views of the Columbia River Gorge. “It was a very powerful moment,” Lezley says. “Some were crying, because they were like, ‘I didn’t think it was possible for me to do this.’”

Months later, Summer still thinks back to that hike whenever she drives through the Gorge. “It makes me feel so badass,” she says. “People don’t expect it. When I tell people that I climbed that mountain, they’re surprised. It’s fun to challenge the notion that people our size don’t go out and summit mountains.”

*Some quotes have been edited for clarity.

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