“I’m going to kiss this sign,” said Kara Richardson Whitely, upon summiting Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro.
At 300 pounds, she not only reached the top, but accessed parts of herself she had hidden away. Her book about the experience, “Gorge: My Journey Up Kilimanjaro at 300 Pounds,” is an invitation for anyone to embark on the adventures of hiking and self-exploration, at any size.
Sixty-seven percent of United States women are size 12 or larger, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at the latest outdoor clothing catalog. This lack of representation for larger bodies can mean fewer people feel comfortable heading out to the trailhead to bike, hike or ski. And that’s too bad, because not only does moving outside in nature provide physical health benefits, it’s good for mental health, too. But as result of the work of body-positive advocates, the outdoors is becoming more inclusive of all body sizes.
“The health and wellness benefits from movement in the outdoors are for everyone,” says Arwen Turner, who is the executive director of Come Alive Outside, and a plus-size person who loves hiking and snowshoeing. The Rutland-based nonprofit offers several programs designed to help youth and adults access the outdoors. Turner says “Gorge” was a life-changing read for her, and the book introduced her to the idea she could hike, too.
Recently, Come Alive Outside added Whitely, the award-winning author of “Gorge” and plus-size adventurer, to its board of directors. And “Gorge” is being made into a major motion picture by Amazon Studios with Chrissy Metz (who plays Kate on “This Is Us”) producing and starring as Whitely.
Of joining the board, Whitely, who grew up in South Burlington and currently resides in New Jersey, says, “I hope (my joining the board) opens the door to the outdoors for more people.” A more inclusive board, she says, will show people of all sizes have a place in the outdoors. To prove the point, last summer, she took on Come Alive Outside’s Mile-A-Day challenge by hiking 100 miles on the Long Trail and documenting the journey on her Instagram account.
In her book, Whitely shares the challenges of taking on a hike of Kilimanjaro’s magnitude while being in a larger body. Interspersed with her stories about the hike are recounts of the difficult parts of her past that led her to use food as a coping mechanism, including her parent’s divorce, an absent father, a sexual assault, and cruelty from her childhood peers.
Among the challenges of her trip were the judgments from other people for being in a larger body, including from the guides she had hired. One night, while all the hikers, guides and porters were in their tents, she overheard the guides and porters making fun of her. The next day, she mustered all her courage to stand up for herself and confront the guides, despite being criticized by one of her own hiking partners for doing so.
“I earned a little respect and stood up for myself,” she writes about the experience. “There on the rock, I finally talked back instead of eating my feelings. And it was delicious.”
It’s a theme throughout her book, and a common living experience for plus-size people: being judged for being in a larger body.
She writes: “I know why it’s so hard for people who are my size to be active. You can feel brave and strong, have a date on your calendar to work out, but there is something so vulnerable about putting yourself out there, in sweatpants or spandex, in a world you don’t fit in.”
This type of shaming — called sizeism — is something Dr. Jennifer Guadiani spends a lot of time thinking about. She is the founder and director of a clinic in Denver, Colorado, that specializes in the medical care of adolescents and adults who have a complicated relationship with food and their bodies. She is one of just a few outpatient internists in the country who carries the credential Certified Eating Disorder Specialist (CEDS).
“If we’re not shaming people for having a disability or for having cancer, why are we shaming someone for their size?” she asks, by phone from her office.
Often, she sees sizeism masked as a concern for the overweight person’s health: It’s just not healthy, say the critics.
But, she says, “Size does not predict health. Period.” She continues, “Society has a mistaken belief that you can look at someone’s body and tell if they’re healthy. That’s false.”
Guadiani points out that we, as a society, have come so far in tackling other “isms,” like race and gender. But “size is the last bastion,” she says.
“If folks are actually interested in promoting health,” says Guadiani, “getting bodies into nature is scientifically proven to be a good thing to do. Our questions should be, ‘How do we get everyone out? How do we promote models of body diversity?’”
Thankfully, body shapes of all sizes are increasingly showing up in the media, including on Instagram accounts like “Unlikely Hikers,” and in the catalogs of brands like Athleta and LL Bean. A company called Super Fit Hero designs workout wear for sizes 12 to 42, and includes body-positive fitness resources on their website.
What many plus-size people feel excluded from, explains Whitely, is the narrative around who believes they have a space on the trail. In addition to changes in the media and fitness-apparel industry, Whitely’s book “Gorge,” and her work with Come Alive Outside, is helping to change that narrative, by making space for people of all body sizes to feel welcome.
“Just because you don’t see yourself represented in a space doesn’t mean you don’t belong there,” says Turner. She says, like Whitely in her book, we can all put one foot in front of the other as we try something new, like snowshoeing, hiking, snowmobiling, gardening or sitting on the porch.
For Whitely, her book leaves off just as she begins to transition her relationship with her body. She writes, despite the ethic of leaving no trace on the mountain, she wanted to leave all her baggage there. And the book doesn’t just close there, she points out. “It’s an ongoing relationship.”
In “Gorge” she writes, “The mountain didn’t cure me, though it helped me understand where I’ve been. That’s the first step in realizing where I need to go.”