Podcasts Finding Our Way Finding Our Way podcast: plus sizes and good kit with Steph Wetherell

Finding Our Way podcast: plus sizes and good kit with Steph Wetherell

Finding Our Way

In this one we sit down with Steph Wetherell, co-founder of Every Body Outdoors, a group campaigning for better representation, clothing and gear for larger and plus-sized bodies in the UK outdoors. We talk about sizest attitudes, why seeing plus size people represented by brands and media is so important, and how clothes and kit can be more inclusive. And the unexpected joy of finding your ‘tribe’. We also chat with Head of Product at Berghaus.

What barriers do plus size people face?

Because I never saw bodies like mine represented in the outdoors I thought things like climbing a mountain were just not something I could do. Then a friend took me on a big hike with an overnight camp in Canada and I fell in love with it. She had done the hike before, could tell me what it would involve, lent me the kit and off we went. But for a lot of plus-sized people, that's a real barrier. Like, how do you get started? Going along to a standard walking group can be very intimidating because what if they're the slowest person? What if they can't do it? What if people look at them? What if they don't have the right clothing and kit? There's a lot of challenges around that.

Is their fear of prejudice justified?

I’m an experienced hiker now, and I face a lot of judgement from people when I'm out. People look at me and they assume I'm a beginner, that I don't know what I'm doing and I'm about to try and climb something that's way out of my ability. People can't hide that look of surprise when I'm like, 'oh no, this is one of my favourite walks. I do this all the time'. Or they realise I’m doing the same multi-day hike as they are.

And you get a lot of faux encouragement. 'You're almost there’, 'well done you!' you know? If that happened once or twice, you might be like, 'Oh, that's nice. That's just people being friendly.' But it happens all the time and it doesn't happen to the person I’m with who's straight size. You never see people who are plus size represented in outdoor media and brands so maybe it’s no surprise that the other people on the path are surprised.

We need to diversify what we're consuming. Whether that's following some different people on social media, or challenging brands and magazines to show different shape and size bodies, it’s really important. And inspiring.

Do these negative experiences impact you?

I feel pressure to not fail at things, because if I fail, I feel like I'm making plus-size people look bad. If I look out of breath going up the hill, I'm worried that people are going to look at me and be like, 'This is why plus sized people shouldn't go hiking.' Or if I go bouldering and I can't get up the wall, it's because plus size people can't climb. I want to be on a hilltop eating Welsh cakes and not feel that people are judging me, that I'm fat because I'm eating Welsh cakes. Plus size hikers feel like they can't eat because people will make judgments about what they're eating.

There's a growing evidence base that weight and fitness are not intrinsically correlated. I've gone hiking with friends who are a size 8 and I'm fitter than they are. If plus size people don’t fit your perception of an ‘athletic’ outdoors person…Well, I'll see you at top of the mountain and we can talk about it there!

And anyway, say you are unfit - I mean, surely doing exercise and going walking to get fitter is a positive thing!

The outdoors has made me fall in love with my body. I struggled for years with how I looked and I think it's shown me, instead of focussing on what my body can't do, what it isn't, it’s shown me what it is and how strong it can be and where it can take me. I wild camped and hiked for two weeks on my own in Norway. My body carried me 160 miles across Norwegian hills. And that's a marvel to me. When I'm outdoors, I'm exercising but it's not about losing weight. It's about becoming stronger and feeling my body becoming stronger.

What’s the situation with clothing? It must be hard to find plus size technical clothing that can cope with a day in the Scottish hills?

If you go into an outdoor shop, you won’t find many clothes larger than a women’s size 16. Despite the fact that 25% of UK women are a size 18 or larger. The outdoors is for everyone, so those people need the kit – it’s an issue of safety. If you can’t find a waterproof jacket that you can do up properly, you have to limit your plans. If you can’t find a climbing harness or PFD (personal flotation device) that fits properly then you can’t take part.

I walked for years in a horrendous shaped coat because that's all I could get. For the first time in my life, I've just got a technical waterproof that fits. I don't think I’d realised how much stress having a not-very-waterproof coat had on me. I couldn’t go out for the full day or go somewhere really remote because I couldn’t trust that if something goes wrong, I'm going to stay dry. We jokingly did #badlyfittingwaterproof week where we got people to share their photographs of their terribly fitting waterproofs! There were a lot of pictures.

Is there really the demand out there for larger sized technical clothing, or is this ‘niche’ kit?

We hit a thousand Instagram followers on our first day of launching @Every_Body_Outdoors. There is a huge market – there’s people like me who are already doing these things and struggling without the right kit. There's also a huge market of people who didn't go on that hike because when they tried to get a waterproof, they couldn't find one that fitted. And there's a huge market of people who would love to give climbing a go, but are too scared to go to the climbing gym. There's a massive untapped market. If you build it, they will come.

What should brands do?

Make clothes in a wider range of sizes and don’t just ‘size up’ from an 8 or 10. I have a tummy, but I don’t want waterproof trousers that have graded up in the calf too – it’s like wearing flares. I do want ones that have a higher rise though. Make sure your size charts include your larger sizes (some don’t bother), and include measurements that can help me work out whether something is going to fit. So hip and waist measurements on jackets for example, not just chest measurements. Photos of different shaped and sized people wearing the garment can be really helpful. There’s a huge range of body shapes and proportions and of course some clothes will fit one person well, and not another. But currently larger bodies are hugely disproportionately underserved. Feature more different bodies in advertising and social. Not in a tokenistic way, but in a way that genuinely supports and celebrates diversity. And don’t just think about clothes – think about training for shop staff. And think about equipment too – like sleeping bags! There’s a really great blog by Alpkit on their commitments around this.

You’ve built a community that seems very motivated to push for real change…

We ran some navigation and mountain skills courses for plus size people and it was amazing.  I found the tribe I didn't know I was missing. Every Body Outdoors has shown me that I actually had a real longing for that community, and that walking with a group can be a really amazing thing and an important space for me to be able to share some of the stuff I learn and to learn from others too. I now have plus size hiking friends!

What does walking mean to you?

Headspace, joy, time away.


Finding Our Way is sponsored by Berghaus, and hosted by BMC walking ambassador Mary-Ann Ochota and expedition leader and equity champion Cress Allwood. Our editor is Chris Stone