EveryBODY Belongs

Written by Mandi Hillman

This is probably my least favorite subject. It’s something I don’t like to talk about. It’s certainly not something I like to draw any bit of attent to. In fact, I spend a hell of a lot of time trying to shrink myself down and take up less space in the world, specifically when it comes to this issue. I live in a place of denial and avoidance about this topic. But here it is. I’m fat. Not everyone likes that term. Some might call themselves plus size, or curvy, or, my favorite, fluffy! To each their own. As I said, I don’t spend a lot of time focusing on this issue, so the words I use aren’t something I put a lot of weight onto (get it). 

So, why the hell am I talking about it now? Well, I have to. Yup. It’s really important that you and everyone else sees me – chubby, fluffy, fat me – existing in the outdoors. Not just in the outdoors, but doing some challenging things in the outdoors. Representation matters. And while I’m working through my own personal stuff about why I don’t want to be a representative of this, the fact is, I am.

I’m sharing this because I want every woman who has ever thought, “I don’t belong there” to see herself represented in my experience. And believe me, I recognize that those “where I belong” thoughts extend FAR BEYOND wilderness experiences. Because everybody belongs in nature. Or, as Wander Women Founder Jenn Riggs says, “nature doesn’t judge.”


Here’s a picture of me at the top of a ridge in the backcountry of Isle Royale. I’m pictured with three other friends. It’s not hard to pick me out of the photo, but in case you’re struggling, I’m the one on the right. I don’t “fit in” with the other three. It’s okay, it’s obvious. I know I DO fit in with these three, so, fear not, I’m all good there. I belong to them, and they belong to me. They are my people. We’re just talking about external stuff here. Physical appearance. Here are some things to note about me at the time this photo was taken:

·         I’m at my heaviest ever weight in my entire life. To be totally honest, I don’t really recognize myself (but we’re not unpacking all of that stuff here, this time).

·         I’m not “properly” trained and conditioned for this hike (kind of did no prep, my bad).

·         My fitness level far less than ideal for general health and well-being (for me) and for the endurance challenge I was smack in the middle of.

I don’t belong there. I don’t “fit” there. Fat people don’t hike. Fat people can’t hike. Right? WRONG! There I am. Standing on the top of that ridge. I walked the same trail, took the same steps, and climbed the same damn hills as my more-fit friends. My fluffy body did the same things as my less-fluffy friends.

Was it harder for me than my friends? Meh. Probably. It’s all hard in all sorts of varied and unique ways. The walking with a pack on the inclines may have been harder on me, but for my friend who fears the dark and the woods I might have had an easier time tucking myself in bed at night. Hard is relative. Here’s the point: everyBODY comes to the trailhead with their own unique challenges – physical, mental, spiritual; everyBODY walks the same trails; and everyBODY belongs in nature.

If you’re reading this and you’re “fluffier,” like me, and you grew up in America I’m going to venture to guess you’ve got yourself a fair share of “body image” stuff you’re carrying around with you. I also know that ANYwoman who grew up in America is carrying around some of that stuff too. I want to acknowledge that this body image stuff is, sadly, a seemingly universal experience for all women. Unique, but universal too. It’s a whole bunch of BS, isn’t it? Nonetheless, it’s there and we’re all working through in our own ways. One of the things that’s so great about showing up in nature and occupying space there is that it makes me appreciate my body. That’s not something I feel on the day-to-day. That’s my stuff (review the introductory line to this essay). When your body is doing badass kickass stuff – like all the other bodies on the trail – it’s hard not to have a deep reverence for the awesomeness that you are. I appreciated my body more on the trail. I experienced genuine gratitude for my body as it carried me through the journey. Those aren’t feelings I generally feel in my day-to-day life – certainly not when I’m trying to shrink myself down. Beyond simply belonging in nature, perhaps I actually need nature. I need to feel those feelings, which are so hard for me to come by. I need to hold reverence and gratitude and be reminded of both my belongingness and my capabilities. That’s what the trail offered me as a gift.


My capable and fluffy and strong body also went for a swim in the cool waters of Lake Superior. My body carried me to very remote spots and my body was deserving of the feeling of that refreshing lake water washing over my skin. I dove under that water with appreciation, not humiliation. I appreciated what my body had done. I don’t feel that way when I’m with my kids at the public swimming pool. On the trail, I had no hesitation to find myself equally worthy of occupying that space and indulging in the gift that cool lake had to offer me.


Today, I’m taking up space. Today, I’m claiming the thing that I and my big fat body did. Today, I want you to look at these pictures of me and see that the “fat girl” did the same hard things that the “skinny girls” did. Today, I know that I belong at the top of that ridge, on that trail, in those waters and so do you.

Photos courtesy of Melanie Sageghpour, trail partner extraordinaire