Why Don’t They Look Like Me? The Diversity Dilemma in Outdoor Media

Backpacking Granite Lake in Emigrant Wilderness by Blair Lockhart, the diversity dilemma in outdoor media
4th of July backpacking in Emigrant Wilderness. Photo by Blair Lockhart.

Sometime last year I was tossed on a list of women of color to follow on Instagram. This struck me as odd. Mostly because I don’t particularly identify with being Asian. I’m not Paulina the Asian outdoor blogger. I’m just Paulina, this person who also happens to be yellow.

I grew up in the Bay Area, the suburbs of Cupertino to be more precise. I’m fortunate enough to live and play in a place where almost everyone goes outside, regardless of gender, background or skin color. Being a person of color wasn’t really a thing I was aware of. Diversity wasn’t a thing I thought about. It just was. Until recently.

Anela Ramos fishing in the Sawtooths, the diversity dilemma in outdoor media
Anela Ramos fishing in the Sawtooths, ID. Photo by Anela Ramos.

A personal interaction with an influencer in the outdoor space got me pondering the industry and diversity as of late. The outdoor industry is in a period of change. Conversations are no longer about the coolest gear, the gnarliest whipper, or the most pimped out van.

They’re about sustainability, accessibility, inclusivity, and moving the industry forward. They’re about promoting our national parks, public lands, and state parks as a place for all, to use, to play and to protect.

Why is it that we talk about these topics, and say we should do better without any real course of action? If the idea is to make the outdoors more approachable, inclusive, and diverse, why are many of the industry’s very vocal, prominent thought leaders not paving the way for change? If the industry is to broaden the bubble and bring everyone in, why not begin by taking small, actionable steps?

Via ferrata in Telluride, CO by Marisa Jarae, the diversity dilemma in outdoor media
Via ferrata in Telluride, CO. Photo by Marisa Jarae.

Take Wild Women’s Project, for example. Fresh off the tails of Outdoor Retailer Summer Market, the inaugural event brought together inspirational women across the outdoor industry to lead forward-thinking conversations and actions on creativity, conservation and connection.

Scan through the Instagram and you’ll see a group of strong women frolicking in the wild. Except there’s one thing: for such an influential group, not much color was to be found. Attendee and the brains behind the blog of Just a Colorado Gal Heather Balogh writes about how the group “discussed inclusivity while acknowledging the lack of diversity as we gazed upon the lily-white faces of everyone in the group.” Even event mastermind and BoldBrew co-founder Amanda Goad admits that “even though we had industry diversity in our group, why did our group lack ethnic diversity?”

To share a story out of my book—the one that sparked this train of thought—an acquaintance reached out to tell me she might be in San Francisco for a photoshoot, budget permitting. This acquaintance is a key influencer in many social campaigns surrounding the outdoor industry in the last two years, especially around being inclusive, welcoming and open to all. Based out of the Bay Area and all, I said to toss my name in the ring because… diversity. The message was met with radio silence. I later found out they were still looking for women to participate.

Diana Deaibes hiking the Tolmie Peak Trail, WA, the diversity dilemma in outdoor media
Diana Deaibes hiking the Tolmie Peak Trail, WA. Photo by Diana Deaibes.

In order to get people outside, we must inspire those people to head outside. To inspire, the industry must be relatable. Studies by OIA for the past five years show that Asians get outside just as much as white people do. There’s no shortage of people of all colors getting outdoors, so why isn’t that reflected in our media, advertising, print, and everything down to that Instagram picture you just double-tapped on?

Can people relate if they can’t see a bit of themselves in what we’re selling? How does the industry become more relatable for the people who aren’t deep in it? It comes down to how it presents itself. It’s all about the narratives and the people that tell them.

In light of recent events, this is only a tiny slice of the bigger picture. I don’t have all the answers. I might not even have answers at all. But I know that change begins with a small step. It sometimes has to happen from the bottom up.

Snowshoeing Lake Alpine with Chasqui Mom, the diversity dilemma in outdoor media
Snowshoeing Lake Alpine, Stanislaus National Forest, with Chasqui Mom and family. Photo by Melissa Avery.

I reached out to several photographer friends who shoot commercially for brands. I spoke with several people in marketing departments at outdoor companies to understand how a product or photo shoot comes to life. The clients dictate the image and the look and feel. Sometimes this means a company can say how ethnic they want their photos to look.

REI is a great example of this. They cater to a lot of people, so they get it. But they also sell a lot of product, make a lot of money and can afford to make those rules. Oftentimes, it is more cost effective and less complex to dictate nothing at all. Images of pro athletes aside, the “models” you see in photos and videos are friends hanging out, having fun, and being friends. It’s all about who you know.

How can we get better?

On the professional athlete front, it’s a tough battle. Look at any brand’s list of professional athletes; the majority of them are white. Outdoor Research has maybe 2 people out of 36. The North Face is more or less the same story. Mountain Hardwear has none. Brands look for the best, the most innovative, the most groundbreaking athletes. Who is doing the coolest and hardest stuff? Who can tell a story that sells product?

On the potential athlete side, who wants to defy societal norms and familial values, and be forever poor to chase their dream? Who wants to work a 9-5 while also balancing being outside full time? The professional, top performing athlete pool is a small one to pick from for both gender and diversity. By promoting that people of all ages, genders, and ethnicities belong in outdoor media, this paves the way for more people to chase that pro-athlete dream.

Climbers Ashima Shiraishi and Kai Lightner are great examples of two young, inspirational crushers who also happen to be people of color. Lightner says that he is “hopeful that the exposure he is receiving as a climber will encourage other people of color to integrate the sport.”

Kimberly Ang on Perfectly Chicken, the Buttermilks, Bishop, CA, the diversity dilemma of outdoor media
Kimberly Ang on Perfectly Chicken, the Buttermilks, Bishop, CA. Photo by Kimberly Ang.

Grassroots athletes and ambassadors have less stringent qualifications. They’re strong climbers, mountaineers, runners, backpackers, but they aren’t the best, or even close to it. They’re bloggers, influencers, people who don’t want to go the pro route. They’re men and women. They might be people of color, but color’s an afterthought, a nice to have, not a requirement. Maybe they have a small following, but they tell a great story or they have potential.

Maybe they take great photos or crush really hard, but love their day job. How do they fall into this picture? They’re already brand advocates. They’re already representing the company. Why not invest a little more in those people that already champion the brand, both online and outside? If these advocates are already “working” for a company, why not invite them further into the narrative? Why not take it a step further and maybe use those grassroot athletes and ambassadors in shoots for the sports they already participate in?

What can you do about diversity?

Reach out to the brands you love, admire, and buy from, the companies that shape the way you play. Ask them to invest in a more diverse image, one that better reflects our trails as a whole. The bottom line is companies want to make money. Does being more inclusive and diverse contribute to that? Does inviting people of color into their narrative equate to more dollars being spent? Are you more likely to buy from a company that features a wide variety of people of all shapes, colors and sizes in their imagery?

Oshie Magturo finishing up the JMT on Clouds Rest, Yosemite National Park, CA, the diversity dilemma in outdoor media
Oshie Magturo finishing up the JMT on Clouds Rest, Yosemite National Park, CA. Photo by @rubybox.

Tell editors to seek out and find the tough stories—things that nobody wants to talk about, things that might not sell more ad space or copies, things that might cause readers to never read a page again. Tell editors to feature more stories on women and people of color doing rad things. Tell editors that there needs to be more diverse voices telling their narratives in media. Support the publications that do so. Every click, every eyeball, every “like” counts.

Connect people. Connect photographers to cool people you know. Introduce your cool friends to your other cool friends. If you need more cool friends, reach out and make more. I mean, seriously, Instagram is a great place to make friends. Be a little more inclusive and a little more open. You never know who you might meet.

With every little step, maybe one day diversity won’t be an afterthought. Maybe one day there will be an enormous, colorful pool of people from every type of background to select as a professional athlete, ambassador, influencer, or thought leader. Maybe one day, diverse photos and videos won’t look staged; they’ll just be normal. Maybe one day I won’t be the token Asian, and someone else won’t be that token person of color. It only takes one small step.

A big thank you goes out to all the photographers, bloggers, athlete/ambassador/social media managers, and friends who took time out of their day to thoughtfully answer questions, texts, and emails. Your feedback was so helpful in formulating something resembling coherent thoughts.

Update: Do Something, An Open Letter to Outdoor Brands

Shawnté Salabert climbing in the Gunks, the diversity dilemma in outdoor media

Shawnté Salabert climbing in the Gunks. Photo by Shawnté Salabert.