For friends, Becka, Holly and Katie, findings spaces where they feel safe to speak, act and think the way they want can be hard to find.
Getting outdoors, often with one another or other female companions, is one place the can do that.
During a recent two-day backpacking trip in the Dolly Sods Wilderness in Tucker County, they recounted some of the freedoms they feel afforded in the wilderness.
“Just like feeling comfortable and ease of conversation,” said Becka. “That just tends to be sometimes different between genders. Not always by any means. I don’t know.”
They said for them, it’s important to be comfortable in a group of friends. And as you age that can sometimes end up being people of your own gender.
“It’s easier to go pee,” said Holly to laughter.
Becka agreed. “I will say we felt comfortable talking about a lot of things in this group,” she said.
For many women, female-only settings provide a relief from constant sexuailzation, pressure to be a particular way and a safe place to speak, act and think the way they want. In West Virginia, where there are abundant natural places to spend time outside, some summer camps exclusively for women, are helping young women experience that freedom.
All Girls Summer Camps
High Rocks is one of them. Located in Pocahontas County, High Rocks offers programming for middle and high school girls.
Executive director Sarah Riley said the importance of having access to female-only reclamation, especially for young women, cannot be understated.
“When young women have the opportunity to be outside and in a wilderness-based setting in a forest setting together, they are able to let go for a second of the way the world sees them and give themselves the space and freedom to explore who they are in their own skin without thinking about how they look in the mirror or how other people perceive them, and that’s just an incredibly liberating and powerful and deeply healthy thing that all women need to have space to do,” she said.
There could be some validity to those concerns. A recent survey of 5,000 people conducted by #SafeOutside, a grassroots initiative that aims to combat sexual harassment and assault in the climbing and outdoors communities, found 47.3 percent of women and 15.6 percent of men said they had experienced sexual harassment or assault.
For Riley, female-only recreation is not just about freedom from a hyper-sexualized world, but a space where cultural expectations about what is it means to be female is broadened. When girls are in the wilderness in an all-women setting, she said, it’s easier for them to step up, learn confidence and take on leadership roles.
“So for some people it may not seem like taking a challenging hike is the same thing as, you know, entering an engineering major as a freshman,” she said. “But being able to have early, often challenges and have a strong sense of yourself as a powerful person of will with confidence, who can like move forward, who is strong in your body, and smart and able to overcome challenges even when they seem hard at first.”
Ukiah Louise is a rising high school freshman who has been participating in High Rocks summer camp for a couple of years.
She said her experience at High Rocks has been transformative for her self-confidence.
“When I first came into High Rocks I was like really kind of shy and I kind of had some self-love issues and even after that first two weeks I was much more confident and I could speak to people better and I could actually go up to people and start a conversation,” said Louise.
Louise said she thinks when girls overcome challenges in outdoor settings such as building a campfire, sleeping in the rain or orientering on their own, they realize their own abilities to do whatever they want to do.
“I just felt a lot better about myself in general and was more confident in lots of different places,” she said.
Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, with support from the Marshall Health, Charleston Area Medical Center and WVU Medicine.