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How 3 Fearless Women Are Opening Up The Great Outdoors

Traditionally, the great outdoors has been dominated by white men. Women are generally underrepresented in outdoor sports, especially women of colour, mothers and those in larger bodies. But things are changing, thanks to a new crop of women shaking up the status quo.

Amira Patel, Shareefa J and Caroline Ciavaldini are The North Face athletes moving mountains to make the outdoors more accessible. At Refinery29 x The North Face’s recent panel talk, Never Stop Exploring, they shared the power of sport in their own lives – from divorce to body image struggles – and the game-changing work they’re doing to open it up to women everywhere.
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Shareefa, 31, is a British model, mental health advocate, runner and lover of the outdoors who uses her platform to promote positive body image and size inclusivity in sport, fashion and advertising.
It wasn’t until 2019, when she ran the Vitality London 10k in her underwear for charity, that Shareefa got involved in sport. "I hadn't run at all before that. The whole time I was secretly thinking, Oh my gosh, what have I signed up for?"
But the electric and inclusive atmosphere captivated Shareefa and she’s been taking on sporting challenges ever since: a half marathon, a super sprint triathlon, a 500-metre open water swim (after teaching herself to swim as an adult), the London Marathon and Ride London, a 100-mile bike ride for which she learned to ride a road bike in a month.
The biggest upside to these challenges is that they’ve transformed the way Shareefa views her body, especially as a plus-size model, where your appearance is central to your career. "When you're taking on these challenges, you just don't care because that’s not what gets you through."
Despite this, Shareefa still faces judgement from others because of her size. "If, say, I'm taking on a challenge, like a 10k or a marathon, people look me up and down and ask, 'Are you sure you can do that?'" Luckily, she’s able to use ignorant comments as fuel during races. "I wish I didn't feel like I had to prove a point but I'm also grateful to have a platform to show people what’s possible."
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What would she say to other women looking to get involved in sport? "We often see sporting challenges and think, I have to be a certain way before I can give that a go. We put up mental barriers because we’re always aiming for perfection." Shareefa’s advice? "It doesn't have to be perfect – aim for seven out of 10. You are just as worthy of being in that space as anybody else."
Caroline, 36, is a French pro rock climber who discovered climbing at age 12. At 17 she made her first World Cup podium, followed by a decade of first ascents. Today, she combines motherhood with adventuring, chronicling her family’s travels at @onceuponaclimb
"If I didn’t have sport in my life, I’d be unbearable," admits Caroline, "it calms me down." To her, the biggest appeal of climbing is the "intensity of focus" it requires. "It’s like you disappear and when you’ve finished climbing you come back to your real life."
Caroline first got into climbing at school in Réunion, where it was compulsory. Since then, she’s won the World Cup, become the first woman to ascend the Voie Petit on Grand Capucin and the first woman to climb The Quarryman in north Wales.
Becoming a mother of two children with her husband, fellow athlete James Pearson, and balancing family life with being a professional athlete "is definitely a struggle," she says, "but it’s a struggle every parent goes through."
The lack of sleep, time and energy have been challenging, along with the physical changes. "I didn’t realise how unfit you get when you become pregnant. I never realised that I’ve been basically training all of my life since age 12, and losing all of your body tension is hard to train back."
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Caroline believes that more needs to be done to encourage women and girls into outdoor sport, which is why she’s so passionate about her work with The North Face. "From childhood, they’re not pushed to go big, and they’re much more sheltered and protected than men. Risk is part of life and everybody should learn to handle it to make life more fun."
Women sometimes lose their hobbies, too, when they have children. "I realised my female friends often let their passions be forgotten when they had a family, because they didn’t manage to make time for it. I could see them losing a bit of themselves in the process." To encourage more women to get into outdoor sports like climbing, Caroline organises Grimpeuses, the French equivalent of the Women’s Climbing Symposium. "We need more events like it. You can see the big smiles on their faces and the motivation that has grown during the day."
Amira, 29, is a hiker from Manchester and founder of The Wanderlust Women, a community for Muslim women hikers aimed at diversifying the outdoors. As a child, she loved the outdoors but didn’t always feel welcome after she decided to start wearing the niqab, so she founded her community for like-minded women.
From a young age, Amira’s mum encouraged Amira and her brother to get involved in cycling, swimming and other activities, "which wasn't something a lot of the children we grew up with did," she recalls. Amira got a taste for hiking when, following her divorce, her mum joined a hiking group and would bring teenage Amira along for some quality time together.
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It was Amira’s own life-changing divorce, six years ago, that really inspired her to level up her hiking game. "Hiking and being in nature was my healing space. It was a space where I felt really connected to my faith and I hadn’t found that before." She made a list of all the mountains she wanted to climb and set about ticking them off during a solo backpacking trip.
Two years ago, motivated by the power of the outdoors in her own life, Amira founded The Wanderlust Women. Her aim? To create a space for Muslim women and inspire them to get outside. "Normalising and having representation is so important," she says. For her members, it’s been transformational to feel like they belong somewhere. 
During a recent group expedition on Mount Toubkal in Morocco, which Amira cites as her biggest achievement to date, the group supported each other all the way to the summit. "The guides said they’d never seen a group of women so resilient and strong, and we were the first Muslim female-only group they’d seen," she says. 
Amira’s favourite thing about outdoor sport is having the opportunity to disconnect from modern life and reconnect with her spirituality. "When you're in nature, whatever activity you’re doing, you have time to actually breathe and be mindful." For Amira, it’s where she reconnects with God. 
Despite the positive impact she’s having on her community, Amira still faces discrimination as a Muslim woman of colour in the predominantly white, male world of outdoor sport. She’s learned to deal with online trolls, microaggressions, hostile stares and comments by "blocking them out". Even people within the Muslim community have said that what she’s doing is wrong. "It's made me a lot stronger and it helps me put that energy into doing more."
Amira’s more aware than most of the barriers holding women back from getting involved in sports like hiking – whether it’s a lack of kit, financial obstacles or living in inner city areas that don’t allow easy access to outdoor sports.
She’d encourage women who want to follow in her footsteps to start small. "Join a small group and go with them. If you can't do that, go to local green spaces and walk there, maybe go with a friend or by yourself if you’re comfortable, and build up from there."
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