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

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

by Paulina Dao
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.

Last updated on December 16, 2017.

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Howell November 17, 2016 - 5:25 am

Love it. Love you.

Karl November 17, 2016 - 6:46 am

Excellent! (Made me recall a time, way back when…I took my Jamaican friend to try skiing. He was actually shocked that he saw no other people like him for a whole day!)

Jessica November 17, 2016 - 8:26 am

Great article. I’m definitely going to pay more attention to which brands are including a diverse array of people in their ads.

Karen Ung November 17, 2016 - 10:17 am

This is great!! I’ve felt this way for a long time as a visual minority (born and raised in Canada but half Asian background). The outdoor industry does not represent everyone, but should, and that doesn’t extend just to color. Like you said, it would be nice to see more normal people, not just pro athletes, using products. It think it would go a long way towards encouraging more participation in activities traditionally viewed as hard core (like climbing).

David Seele November 17, 2016 - 11:02 am

First, thanks for publishing something that actually takes people to task and naming a few names. And thanks for giving us some well needed perspective: we do need to change who is in the advertisements if we’re gonna say that we want to include everyone in the outdoor world.

Two major additional thoughts:

#1. Privilege and economic status figure hugely into having the money and time to get outside. We need to solve some of those gaps in order to make it more attractive for people of color or people who don’t have much cash to feel that they can afford to go outside. A sliding scale for entering federal public lands would be a good start: $80 for an Interagency Pass that gets me into every single national park and BLM area is a ridiculous steal. Better to make that thing $200 and use the proceeds to encourage folks who can’t afford the $30 it costs to visit Glacier, my neighborhood national park, to come say hi.

#2. Inspiration is echo chamber, bullshit talk that makes people feel good about how they use their platforms for marketing, or a good way to justify doing things outside and posting about them. If someone is “Inspired” by my instagram post, there’s a pretty dang decent chance they’re already an outdoors person, and I’m not exactly welcoming someone in or broadening the overall spectrum of folks out in the hills/woods/crag. For the sake of our credibility, we can’t afford to overstate our abilities here.

However–actually spending our time to introduce people to the outdoors is REAL inspiration. I’ve spent a lot of time this year helping friends learn or get outside. It’s also one of the reasons I absolutely love single pitch rock guiding–there’s an opportunity to show kids/people a new thing that might change their lives. I’ve already had kids come back from the summer before, now with their own gear, hot to trot and excited about the prospect of scampering up rocks.

But if we truly wish to add to the group of people outside, we have to be willing to spend our personal time to make it happen. That’d be like me donating my time as a guide to take kids from a homeless shelter where I live hiking or climbing, as an easy example.

There are hundreds of ways. But we have to be willing to make personal contributions from the bottom up alongside the changes you so eloquently suggest in your piece.

Thanks again for making this the conversation and giving me a chance to ruminate about it. That’s real inspiration there too.

Danielle November 17, 2016 - 12:19 pm

This is really great! Thank you so much for bringing much needed attention to this issue. As someone who both works in the Outdoor Industry and spends a lot of time in the outdoors this is something I think about a lot. Another notable absence in the outdoor industry is any diversity of body types. From clothing/equipment available to purchase to depictions in advertising and in other media. You’d think the only people who enjoy the outdoors are 6 feet tall with the most slender frames.

Paulina Dao November 17, 2016 - 12:24 pm

Hi Danielle,

Thanks so much for taking the time to stop by. YES!!! Clothing is a huge, huge, huge thing. I’m 5′ tall, but I am lucky to have long-er legs and unlucky to have a torso about the size of a stump so pants generally fit ok to a little long, but shirts, oh man, sometimes they are like dresses, or the sleeves are too long. I totally forgot about this aspect of things too… I’ve long come to accept that nothing will ever fit just right.

Gayle November 22, 2016 - 6:33 am

This is an issue for me and it drives me crazy – especially as I’ve gotten older. Even as a younger woman pre-child, my body didn’t fit the outdoor-norm. Which means my body didn’t fit the outdoor clothes. Now, I’m middle aged and curvy. And most of my outdoor women friends are middle aged and curvy. But you don’t see any of “our type” represented very frequently. And we still have a hard time finding technical gear that fits properly. Ironically, my demographic is often the one that has the money to spend on the more expensive brands for both myself and my daughter.

Josiah Roe November 17, 2016 - 2:20 pm

Love it! My experience has been mostly with magazines and tourism boards, and getting them to think outside the white box has been tricky.

Jeff Hester November 17, 2016 - 10:25 pm

Great post, Paulina. The industry needs to not only reflect the changing demographics, but embrace and encourage diversity for the survival of the wild places we love so much. Without the support of people of all colors, will the country continue to support budgets for preserving our parks, forests and wilderness? I’m hopeful, but we need to keep pushing for more diversity.

Lynn November 18, 2016 - 11:52 am

I admit that diversity in the outdoors doesn’t always occur to me. DC, where I live, is a diverse city, and so are our outdoor spaces and trails. Outdoor companies need to catch up, for sure. I’m shocked by your experience, because it means that the lack of diversity is not unconscious; it is deliberate. Keep putting yourself out there. Rejection will happen, even ugly rejections that are based on race, but there will be wins, too. Progress is slow but hopefully we keep moving forward.

Russ Beebe November 18, 2016 - 12:11 pm

This is a GREAT post, Paulina – one of your best. I encourage you to keep this topic rolling with more of ’em! Perhaps before long your words will be determining the next significant boardroom discussions.

Eliot Landurm November 20, 2016 - 10:34 am

In a related discussion, I’ve been noticing that some tech brands are working really hard to diversify their media and leadership. For example, the last few Apple media campaigns have featured a delightfully diverse group of people using their products. It really makes me happy to see some progress there. It’ll take a lot of time to diversify the leadership aspect (since the problem is far down in our education system and takes decades to see results), but at least the advertising part is changing.

Will Reynolds Young November 21, 2016 - 2:08 pm

I feel weird commenting in the space at times. As I work for a brand (SKINourishment AKA climbOn Products.) that is often perceived as much larger than it actually is in every way. It catches us in a weird space between small business and worldwide brand influencer. Despite that, I think there’s something we all can do as brands large and small evidenced by Patagonia and much smaller brands that found themselves part of bigger brands today. One important part for brands to keep sight that we are all in it to make money but we always care is the status of a B-Corp or For-Benefit corporation.

Nikki November 27, 2016 - 11:56 am

Great post! I agree with Gayle that brands would be smart to recognize how many older women are active outdoors (and to encourage more to participate). I’m in my mid-50s and love to climb, paddle, camp, and hike but rarely see mature women reflected in outdoor media/advertising. And yet, I have more disposable income now than I ever did in my 20s and 30s and, more time to participate in the activities I enjoy most. I think companies are missing out on a huge opportunity here. Thanks for your thoughtful discussion – let’s hope the right people are reading this!

Harry December 3, 2016 - 8:36 am

I feel that even older men are pretty ignored. I’m 52 and feel very tired every time I open a catalog or view a potentially inspring video online, only to find skinny (white) 28-year-olds.

Harry December 3, 2016 - 8:34 am

Nice to see someone else writing about this. I’ve been beating this drum of “normal people are my role models” for the last year in my outdoors blog, and posted on the shocking lack of color not just in the media, but in the outdoors–and what it means for the future–here:

You might be interested in a great organization doing great things to get African Americans outdoors:

There are also a few books out there banging this drum in a wonderful way, including “Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape”

Not just important stuff — also very interesting. Thank you!

Hiranya January 27, 2017 - 4:36 pm

Hi Paulina,
I really enjoyed listening to you on She-Explores. I am a 5ft1 south Asian woman in the uk, so a lot of what you said there (and here) resonated. My boyfriend (6ft4) wrote a great post recently called “a sleep system for tall people.” http://www.peterberrecloth.com/blog/a-sleep-system-for-tall-people/ I asked for another piece entitled “a sleep system for small people,” but maybe that article has your name on it! :)

I never thought about diversity in the outdoors until it came up on the She-Explores podcast. Then I started looking around and realised I wasn’t seeing anyone else “like me” (tiny south Asian woman) on my hikes, let alone in outdoor media/magazines. I think in the UK, class is also an issue in who enjoys the outdoors.

Thanks Gayle and Harry for your contributions also; I totally agree with you both about the lack of representation (and gear) for all but generally the 20 something’s! It seems so silly!


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