Out There: Liberating the Outdoors

Alexa Rosales (foreground), the founder of the Body Liberation Outdoor Club, leads a hike on Storm King. Photo provided

Alexa Rosales (foreground), the founder of the Body Liberation Outdoor Club, leads a hike on Storm King. (Photo provided)

The outdoors isn’t always welcoming. Not so much because of ticks, bears or poison ivy, but because of the people who disapprove if you don’t fit their idea of what an “outdoorsy” person looks like. 

Megan McGuiness, who lives in Beacon, says she encountered this on group hikes in the Highlands. She feared being judged as not fast enough or strong enough. “That comes from a lot of lived experience,” she says. “There’s not a lot of spaces for people in larger bodies to just be — just to move, just to be in community.”

On Instagram, she stumbled across the Body Liberation Outdoor Club, a group dedicated to creating that community. Then came another revelation, she says: “This is in my area.”

BLOC has 17 chapters across North America and Mexico, with 30 more launching this summer, but the first was the Hudson Valley chapter (it’s online here). It was founded a few years ago by Alexa Rosales, a Newburgh resident who had encountered the same challenges as McGuiness. She found that group hikes were too competitive: Go fast, lose weight, reach that distant summit. There wasn’t space for people who looked like her, who wanted to move at their own pace and enjoy being outside. And even when she did complete the group goal, she was showered with back-handed compliments. 

“People would say, ‘You did a great job.’ But it came across as patronizing,” she recalls. “Just because I live in a larger body doesn’t mean I’m not a strong person. I’m able to move and be healthy in my larger body. A lot of ‘norms’ that people preach are just discrimination.” 

Rosales (center, flashing the peace sign) leading a hike in Fahnestock. (Photo provided)

Rosales (center, flashing the peace sign) leading a hike in Fahnestock. (Photo provided)

Rosales started to explore what it would feel like to go on a group hike in which everyone had larger bodies. She launched a Facebook group — the first Body Liberation Outdoor Club hike was Rosales and a friend at Black Rock Forest. But word spread and, for a hike at Vanderbilt Mansion in Hyde Park, people showed up whom she hadn’t met. She remembers that day as being “easy,” not in terms of the hike but the lack of anxiety. 

“It was special to see people realize they didn’t have to prove themselves,” she recalls. “Folks in bigger bodies are not used to that.” 

McGuiness had a similar experience when she connected with the group in January for a hike at Mills Mansion in Staatsburg. “It was super-liberating being on that hike,” she says. “It healed a lot for me — just getting to enjoy nature is not something that lots of people in marginalized bodies have access to.”

Rosales says the hikers don’t discuss exercise or diet culture. Instead, they focus on “joyful movement,” as opposed to viewing the outdoors as nothing more than a gym. “As someone in a bigger body, we’re subject to a lot of ridicule, a lot of judgment and expectation,” she says. “Being outside shuts all of that off.”

Rosales will lead a hike at 9 a.m. on Saturday (May 20) to Arden Point and Glynclyffe, in Garrison. On May 28, she’ll lead a sunrise hike across the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge, and on Juneteenth (June 19), a hike on city streets in Newburgh.

“Walking on pavement and having accessibility to sidewalks is important to people with disabilities,” she explains. “But also, Newburgh is special and gets shunned a little bit. I’m from here, and I want to give a tour of this beautiful, historic place.” 

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