A couple of weeks ago I shared that while I am not participating in the 20 Books of Summer challenge, that I had 20 books I was interested in getting to this summer. You all voiced which you’d prefer I get to sooner, and Fat Girls Hiking: An Inclusive Guide to Getting Outdoors at Any Size or Ability by Summer Michaud-Skog was picked by several folks.
Recently published in 2022, the book includes profiles of members from chapters of Fat Girls Hiking, the group Michaud-Skog started that spread across the country. There are trail recommendations from the author and members. And you’ll find challenges fat and disabled people will face in relation to hiking. The book is full of photos, a feature I found benefited the book as a whole and made me want to get outside (and forget that bugs in a photo don’t bother you).
Not only go outside, actually. It was great to see images of happy fat women doing joyful activities. The more you look at such photos, the more you counteract what most of us have been conditioned to believe: that the only good fat person is one who feels ashamed and is always trying to lose weight. But that doesn’t hold up, right? Because think of how many fat people are humiliated when they’re “caught” eating a salad or exercising, things trolls “should” latch on to as “good.” Trolls are always hungry.
Michaud-Skog’s book has an arc to it, starting with how the group Fat Girls Hiking started and why their motto is “Trails Not Scales.” The author admits to why she didn’t begin hiking sooner, and what life is like living in a van. Being outdoors and hiking, she adds in another chapter, is part of our liberation, and connects us to the notion that we all realize at one point: people are just animals. Since a big part of encouraging other fat women to hike is sharing photos and advice online, there’s also a chapter on internet trolls.
Fat Girls Hiking is one of those books that wisely avoids addressing only fatness and includes disability and queerness, too. Really, they all go together, and as I read more about disability, the more I wonder why any author has separated fatness and disability. The fight about who is included and what accommodations are “acceptable” address and benefit both communities (among others; we know that making communities better for people with disabilities actually benefits everyone, but that’s a different conversation). Thus, every trail review includes whether it is ADA accessible.
That’s a challenging conversation because I don’t know how you would make a mountain or forest near a river ADA accessible, for instance, but it did make me think more about what we can petition for on the local government level. If a new park or nature preserve is going to be built, could I ask if the trail is paved and wide enough for a mobility device? If there are benches or other objects (tree stumps, fallen logs, etc.) on which to sit and rest along the way? If bathrooms are wheelchair accessible?
Some other challenges fat girls hiking face, which is noted in several of the community profiles, is how hard it is to find appropriate gear for different body sizes. The book includes advice on how to dress and what works, especially if you can’t find the necessary equipment. Hiking is something healthy white young people with the means to buy expensive gear do. Picture a hiker. I promise you we’re picturing vaguely the same person. Why? Patriarchy.
Okay, that sounds flippant, but hear me out. And after traveling alone in her van, the author discovered that oftentimes white male hikers openly made aggressive homophobic comments, not knowing she’s a lesbian. Michaud-Skog writes, “A competitive, performance-based culture exists in the outdoor world as much as on the football field, it just has a different flavor.” She describes how able-bodied, conventionally-attractive white people want to go to the top of a mountain, but she appreciates a path that “gently rises and falls along the river that collects snowmelt from the same mountain.” So, how is climbing to the top of a mountain more about patriarchy instead of ability/skill?
…the mountaintop metaphor is burdened with connotations of conquering, domination, struggle for struggle’s sake, planting a flag, and being the best or the first.
Of course, the mention of “planting a flag” makes us think of colonialism (okay, I confess, I thought of the moon landing first). Perhaps this is why, throughout the book, every trail discussed has an acknowledgement of the indigenous people who live/d there. I admit to not having heard of many of the tribes listed, but Michaud-Skog’s conscientiousness reminds us that America is not the home of God, guns, and white people, but groups that were displaced and terrorized.
Fat Girls Hiking really does serve as a guide, with advice about what to do if there are no bathrooms, safety (including cell phone access), how to respect everyone in a hiking group both physically and emotionally, and how scary it was for most fat girls to even get started — and how success isn’t defined by “conquering.” Really, is “domination” the relationship we want to have with nature anyway?