By Tamia Nelson
April 1, 2008
Spring? What spring? The slope outside my window is still covered in snow. But spring is here. The days are noticeably longer. There’s open water in the main channel of The River. And a flood of catalogs is pouring out of my mailbox. They arrived at just the right time, too. After more than ten years of faithful service, my life vest (PFD in bureaucratese) is getting a little threadbare. So I’m in the market for a successor. To be honest, I wasn’t looking forward to the job of finding a replacement. The last time I shopped for a new life vest, it seemed as if every PFD offered for sale was tailored to fit either a football linebacker or an undernourished ten-year-old boy. If the designers of these straitjackets grasped the differences between male and female anatomy—there’s a bad pun in there somewhere, but I’ll ignore it if you will—their creations didn’t reflect this knowledge. In the end, however, I found a PFD I could live with.
But this time around I was in for a pleasant surprise. Whatever the backcountry reality—at least as reflected in lads’ mags like Outside—every day is ladies’ day in the catalogs. And let me make one thing perfectly clear before I go any further: I’m not unhappy about this. It’s good to have choices. After all, I remember what it was like…
Back in the Day
When I was a girl, the backcountry was pretty much a man’s world. Boys were from Mars. They built huts in the woods. They fished. They hunted. They camped. They canoed. Girls, on the other hand, were from Venus. They played with dolls. They poured imaginary tea from tiny pots into even tinier cups. And when they were just a little bit older, they learned how to apply lipstick. Then they embarked on a hunt of their own. Of course, not every girl got with the program. But life wasn’t always easy for those of us who preferred the Wild Wood to the Doll’s House.
I was lucky, however. At many critical points in my early life, I found support in a most unlikely quarter. My paternal grandmother was as conventional as any woman of her day could be, and more conservative than most. Born in a potato field in eastern Europe, she’d come to this country as a child and lived almost all her life in a city, where she’d worked as a stenographer in the corporate offices of a major pharmaceutical firm. The company’s dress code required its lady employees (“female” employees hadn’t been invented yet) to wear shoes with high heels and tapered toes. And my grandmother’s painfully misshapen feet bore the stamp of this thirty-year sentence to fashionable footwear. Maybe that’s why she encouraged me to follow my dreams outdoors. I’ll never know. She died before we could have a truly adult conversation. But I do know this: she never failed me. Long before a similar injunction became a hackneyed political catchphrase, my grandmother quelled any doubts I had about my abilities—whether to ski a difficult run or tackle a new route across a rock face or spend a night outdoors alone—with the same simple rejoinder: “Yes, you can, dear.”
She didn’t often have to say it twice. And she was usually right.
By the time I got my first canoe, change was in air, and while it was still true that the backcountry was largely a male preserve, it was no longer a private club, with “Gentlemen Only” inscribed above the door. But though our numbers were growing, there still weren’t enough outdoorswomen to get the attention of the industry marketeers. The result? If a gal needed a PFD or a wetsuit or a paddle, she had to take what she could get—and chances were good that this was something made for a man. So we women made do.
That state of affairs continued for some time. But then came…
A Sea Change
It’s not exactly breaking news. Women have arrived. They now dominate a number of professions where they were once rarities. And they’ve taken to the backcountry in droves. All of this comes at a time of great social and economic change, too. Synthetic materials have lightened loads, a global economy has made this new gear cheap, and easy travel has brought the far corners of the world as close as the nearest airport. (How long this will last is another question, but the party’s not over. Yet.)
And guess what? In the democracy of the marketplace, numbers count. Hence the proliferation of products designed solely with women in mind, from paddles and parkas to PFDs. Which isn’t to say that the marketeers don’t get it wrong from time to time. Take L.L. Bean’s women’s wellies, for instance. The men’s version—which disappeared from the catalog some time back and hasn’t resurfaced—was once the workhorse of my field wardrobe. Cheap, snug-fitting, and 16 inches high, it was the perfect footwear for trekking across wet portage trails, not to mention slogging up and down survey lines. The women’s wellie, on the other hand, was four inches shorter than its male counterpart. Why? Did L.L.’s successors imagine that real women only waded shallow streams? I guess so. In any case, the question is moot now. The men’s wellie is history, and by some perverse devolutionary process, only the women’s wellie survives, though it’s now offered in several “fun prints” in addition to the traditional green.
It’s not available in pink, however. At least not now. I can only assume that this is an oversight. Or maybe the focus group that convened in Freeport to pass judgement on the latest “fun prints” were all as color-blind as Farwell. In any case, L.L.’s heirs missed out on a big marketing opportunity, because as far as I can tell from my study of the catalogs…
Pink Is Hot!
Too hot, in fact. Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing intrinsically evil about pink. It looks good on sunrises, salmon, and the little woodland wildflowers called, quite rightly, fire pinks. But enough, already! For several years now, pink has been the default “women’s color.” Clothing, or gear, or whatever—if it was made (or sized or shaped) for gals, you could bet on it being pink. To be fair, there were usually other color choices. All too often, however, those choices were limited to subdued pastel shades or “fun prints,” none of which would be my first choice (or even my second) for mucking around in the mud and swamps or navigating waters frequented by vessels bigger and faster than mine. And what about hunting season? I don’t want to walk on the wild side in autumn wearing a bobcat print! That’s one of the “fun prints” on offer for L.L. Bean’s women’s wellies, by the way. What were L.L.’s heirs thinking? Being mistaken for a biggish cat by a man or woman with a gun in hand and an itch for a fur-trimmed jacket isn’t my idea of fun.
OK. Memo to Freeport (and all other outfitters, too): Some women love pink. But other women hate it. And whether we love it or hate it, all of us—many of us, anyway; I haven’t taken a poll—want to have a choice, particularly when our safety hangs in the balance. Subtle pastels, “fun prints,” and gauzy pinks are fine. For them as wants ’em, that is. Just give the rest of us some bright, solid colors. And there’s nothing inherently unfeminine about traditional greens and browns, either. L.L. liked them, and that’s good enough for me.
Then again, maybe the message is already getting through. I’m seeing pink less and less often in the latest crop of catalogs, though pastels still seem to outshine (so to speak) bold primary colors in the women’s-wear department. And I did find a great PFD. Designed for women, it fits perfectly, and it’s a bright golden yellow, even if the maker insists on calling it “mango.” I won’t get lost among the waves in that!
Of course, pink isn’t giving up without a fight. The NRS catalog just slid off my desk and fell to the floor, opening up to page three. And guess what I saw there? (No prize for getting it right.) A bright—at least it’s bright—pink PFD! Still, it’s offered in other colors as well, and anyone buying the pink model is contributing five bucks to a breast-cancer charity. I can’t argue with that. Seeing pink isn’t always bad!