How do adventure sports empower women?


To win over female customers, sports brands are presenting exercise as a way to get physically – and mentally – stronger. Women are bypassing gyms, and opting for wilderness adventures instead. What drives this shift in behaviour and how does it affect the way women perceive themselves?

With #metoo in the news, the conversation about ‘female empowerment’ is more current now than ever. Google Trends reveal that interest in the subject has doubled over the last five years. [1] In that time, women have officially begun dominating higher education and their leadership skills have been linked to better company performance. [2][3] Still, the gender pay gap has barely shifted in a generation. [4]

Some suggest this is a result of women having lower confidence than men and invite women to address this by getting out of their comfort zones. “A woman’s brain is not her friend when it comes to confidence. Confidence requires hard work, substantial risk, determined persistence and sometimes bitter failure”, claims The New York Times bestselling author Katty Kay. [5] A growing number take this literally, going on wilderness adventures such as hiking, rock climbing, open-water swimming and long-distance cycling, and celebrating their increasing self-esteem in online communities. [6] “I did Arctic Challenge on Saturday and feel so much more confident to head towards my other goals after this one. This was a big milestone for me”, writes Miia Susanna Häkkinen of Tough Girl Tribe. At a time when 77% of UK women find their portrayal in advertising stereotypical, could these female adventurers offer an aspirational yet authentic alternative? [7]

The confidence-building power of sports
According to those who study it, confidence is developed by getting out of one’s comfort zone, gradually progressing and pushing one’s limits. With time, this makes the person more resilient, self-reliant and aware of their own potential. [5] Any form of physical challenge is a perfect catalyst for this process – and sports brands have taken note.

The world’s fastest-growing sportswear brand Under Armour introduced itself to women in 2014 with ‘I Will What I Want’ – a message of not needing permission to go after one’s goals. [8] Since 2016, yoga brand Athleta has been celebrating ‘The Power of She’ to inspire women and girls to reach their potential. [9] And in 2017, the Nike campaign ‘What are girls made of? ’ gained international coverage despite being created for the Russian market. [10]

Still, only 58% of women in the UK and 50% in the US meet national physical activity recommendations. [6][11] Caroline Paul, a feminist writer, warns in The New York Times: “By cautioning girls away from challenging experiences, we are failing to prepare them for life. When girls become women, this manifests as deference and timid decision-making.” [12] Perhaps, girl or woman, it is never too late to start challenging oneself through sport?

Approaches to getting more women into sport  
According to Sport England, ‘fear of judgement’ is a key barrier to exercising. This may be linked to ability and appearance, as is the case with 36% of the least-active schoolgirls and 44% of mums, who face anxiety about being seen spending time on themselves. These insights were at the core of ‘This Girl Can’ campaign, which inspired 1.6 million women to take up exercising in just over 12 months. [13]

To counteract this, traditional gyms of every price point, from YMCA to Equinox, are now offering crèche services. [14][15] Innovations like these are the reason that spend on exercise is going up, with both the UK and US experiencing a 10.5% growth between 2011 and 2015. [17][18] However, commercial growth is barely reflected in participation numbers, which grew by only 2.65% in the UK and dropped by 5.9% in the US over the same time period. [19][20]

The unexpected appeal of adventure activities
In this context, the growth of wilderness adventure activities seems even more impressive. In 2017, across the UK more people went climbing and mountaineering than played football. Swimming, including open-water, is now done by every 10th adult. [6] As of 2017, more Brits cycle than participate in fitness classes and that’s without including those who cycle to work. [6]

Adventure heroines as role models
Women in the public eye use social media to curate their image and portray strength and success no matter what. Entrepreneur Sophia Amoruso took to Instagram to announce her new venture the week her fashion empire Nasty Gal filed for bankruptcy protection. [27] The wilderness adventure community, on the other hand, doesn’t chase a flawless image – it accepts injuries and fails as part of the process. [29]

This honest approach is earning female adventurers a growing following on social media. In 2018, the popularity of professional climber Emily Harrington has exceeded that of the Instagram account @fitnessontoast, despite the latter being featured across publications as varied as The Sun and Harpers Bazaar over the last few years. [30][31]

Harrington has also been chosen by Porsche to help solidify the brand among the female audiences, a strategic priority since 2013. [32][33] With this, she is joining a line-up of high-profile celebrities who work with the brand, such as Maria Sharapova.

Relatable leaders build strong communities
Reese Witherspoon’s character in Oscar-nominated Wild sets out to tackle 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail with no grounding in hiking and at her lowest low – a divorced recovering drug addict. [34] Band calls herself The Ordinary Adventurer who grew up “too clumsy for sport, too dyslexic for grades and too different for popularity”. [35] The point is that despite the adventures being epic, the women behind them are relatable, which gives them the power to create a strong community.

Sarah Williams is the founder of Tough Girl Tribe– a community she built around her weekly podcast, which has more 420,000 downloads to date. “One of the rules of our tribe is to never compete with others. It creates this exceptional level of trust, which keeps attracting people from all over the world.”

Confidence from progress, not hitting goals
It is this messy reality that is most valuable to women taking part – knowing that the journey they have been on was tough, but that they got through it on sheer willpower.

“The saying that you are the sum of the people you hang out with is very true here. Being continuously exposed to the journeys of all these women sets a new benchmark for what’s possible”
Sarah Williams is the founder of Tough Girl Tribe

With its move towards more authentic storytelling, this definitely rings true in the climbing community. Classic films like Cold and Valley Uprising emphasise the struggle to the top against a beautiful backdrop. [38]

With time, the conversations in female adventure communities transcend logistical subjects and stretch into values and life goals. When one member makes a brave decision, it empowers the rest. [40] Williams adds: “The saying that you are the sum of the people you hang out with is very true here. Being continuously exposed to the journeys of all these women sets a new benchmark for what’s possible.” [36]

Insights and opportunities

So what does this change in female sport participation patterns tell us about their self-image and expectations from brands? First of all, women are now unapologetic about wanting to be physically strong – they claim it goes further in helping them feel confident compared to looking beautiful. [41] Instagram behaviours confirm this; hashtag #strongwomen is more popular than any others that describe women as ‘pretty’, ‘hot’, ‘sexy’ or ‘cute’. This evolution has made women interested in role models that are strong – physically and otherwise. In 2015, entrepreneurial drama Joy grossed about 20% more than expected. [42] In 2017, Wonder Woman became the highest-grossing superhero origin movie of all time. [43] Happiness coach Jaelithe Leigh-Brown credits the appeal to the message that “we all have our own unique power that is ready and waiting for us to use.” [44]

“Social media is full of aspirational images of perfect-looking influencers at picturesque spots. But they are about escapism, not empowerment – a real and raw image carries more meaning”
 Jenny Brown, communications director of Band of Birds

Finally, women continue fighting for equality by choosing to spend on brands whose vision of the ideal world aligns with their own. The #GrabYourWallet movement started in October 2016, has already convinced 30 businesses to cut commercial ties with the Trump family. [45] In 2017, two snow/skate/surf lifestyle brands received clear public feedback on their opposing approaches. Billabong got into hot water for objectifying female surfers instead of showcasing their skill, while Burton won international praise for settling the bill for their employees’ travel to Women’s March. [46][47] “More engaged, energised and resolute than ever” is how Marianne Schnall defines the new version of femininity for CNN. [48] As women now control household budgets more frequently than men, brands across all categories would benefit from taking these changes into account. [49]

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