A guy friend recently recommended I pick up the latest issue of “Outside” magazine. “The entire issue is devoted to women,” he quipped. It sounded worthwhile so I picked up a copy. While I was reading about women summiting mountains, swimming through shark infested waters, hiking the Appalachian Trail solo, and beating men in ultra long distance races, another guy friend saw the cover which featured six beautiful women. “Oh brother. What’s this? Outside Magazine is all about sex pots now?” I bit my tongue because all I could think of to say was, “Screw you!” and that would not have furthered my cause. Words don’t always come to me as fast as I wish they did. His comment caused something in me to rear up in anger. Yes. That is exactly the point. You can be sexy and beautiful and crush your opponents on the soccer field. You can be a desirable woman and dominate downhill skiing world-wide with your tree trunk legs of iron. You can be soft-spoken and have the courage to go out into the woods and hike 2000 miles all by yourself. Being strong does not mean you cannot be beautiful. Being beautiful does not mean you cannot be strong.
Reading about all these women rippers (who were also mothers and wives, who also struggled with health issues, who also were fighting back against racism, etc) made me feel so proud and happy to be a woman. However, the thing that spoke to me most in the issue was an ad on the back of the magazine. It was a list of “shoulds”.
“You should smile more. You should be more approachable. More feminine. You should mind your manners. You should take care of it. You’re supposed to take care of them. You’re supposed to find someone and settle down. You’re supposed to get married. You’re supposed to have kids. You should want to stay at home. You should play by the rules. You should not swear. You should say you’re sorry. You should be less sensitive. More nurturing. More ladylike. You should not be out there alone. You should be less emotional. You should try harder to look good. You should make it look effortless. You should try harder to fit in.” The list went on, but all these words had been crossed out. At the bottom of the page was a statement, “These are the voices we’ve heard our whole lives. But they get harder to hear, the farther we go outside.”
I read and reread the list. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. I have been told almost all of these things. Can you imagine trying to meet all these expectations? Most recently I’ve been hearing, “Well maybe you aren’t finding a partner because you’re pretty smart. I think you intimidate men.” “Maybe you should not go on so many adventures.” “Maybe if you stayed home more.” “They want to know that you need them. Could you just pretend?” These are nice, sincere, well-meaning people. But the message I am reading between the lines is, “Make yourself smaller. Be less.” Hmm. My gut tells me that isn’t right for me. Although I have wondered myself, would my life be easier if I just followed the prescription? If I had gotten married, agreed to have kids, let my husband’s work dictate where and how we lived. I wonder if life would have been easier and less tumultuous? Could I force myself to want those things for the sake of stability and predictability? Because the truth is, I don’t want those things. But sometimes I get tired and I wonder, “what if”.
I had my opportunity. I was married once. I thought I’d found a life partner who would share all the grand adventures the world had to offer. But in the end, he wanted what most people want. A stable life. A predictable wife. A three bedroom home with a picket fence. Children. Perhaps a garage door opener. If I had stayed in the marriage, I would currently be a house wife, living in the Mid West, raising a couple of babies. Maybe I’d be working a bit on the side. I also know that I know that I know I would be struggling with depression and despair. I may have ended up leaving that man and those babies because that is not the life, a life of endless insignificant details, that I have ever wanted.
I hope I do not alienate you, gentle reader. I do not mean to imply that such a life is a poor choice. After all, I am clearly in the minority here. Obviously, many people find a great satisfaction in having a comfortable and predictable home life. My point is that I think it’s time to acknowledge that life is not a one size fits all kind of deal. I would like it to be socially acceptable for a woman to be strong and beautiful. Single and happy. Fierce and desirable. Married and unpredictably adventurous.
As I age, I am understanding more of who I am and what I need and don’t need. One thing that is a non negotiable, is regular time in nature. Camping, hiking, trail running, backpacking, skiing, mountain biking, even just sitting by a creek and staring. Something about being outside is good for my inside. I have to have it. We can’t see ourselves in a mirror when we are outside. The size of your bank account is irrelevant. The trees don’t care if you are married or single. I don’t care if I am married or single. The five senses take over and the “shoulds” fade away. The warm smell of pine trees in the summer. The sound of water slapping the hull of a boat. The focus on every root and bump in the trail that might send your bike tire skidding. Huddling around a campfire for warmth and friendship. The squeak of ski boots in the snow. Stealing a sweet blackberry off its prickly vine. The whizz of a hummingbird overhead. Running, running, running, my heart and breath and feet beating out a beautiful chorus. I see my shadow rise and fall and slip alongside me across a waist-high field of golden grass that rolls all the way down to the coast. For a moment, a brief moment, I am my ancestors running across the plains and I’m filled with a fierce and wild joy. Just because I exist. Just because I am.