The news came right after I signed up for two summer outdoor adventures: a multi-day hiking and camping trip in upstate New York with teaching colleagues and a sea kayaking trip in British Columbia with my husband, Jeff John Roberts, a reporter for Fortune.
I began to worry. I worried about staying hydrated on the trail. I worried about how a slower pace would affect our itinerary. I worried about how I was going to squeeze into the cockpit of a sea kayak.
The one thing I didn’t worry about was what I was going to wear. I knew my favorite hiking pants wouldn’t button, my base layers wouldn’t stretch past my belly button, and my favorite jacket wasn’t going to zip up over my growing baby bump. Sweet, I thought. Time to shop for some new maternity outdoor duds.
Little did I know that outfitting my pregnant body for outdoor adventures would be the hardest part of the journey.
After days of perusing my go-to outdoor clothing and gear retailers’ websites, I was shocked to discover there weren’t any maternity-sized options available—anywhere. I quickly learned that my options were limited to maternity “activewear,” which primarily consists of stretchy black yoga leggings and multi-color sports bras and exercise tops with lots of side ruches. Those pieces, which all major maternity retailers carry, are great for the gym or a neighborhood stroll, but they’re not technical gear. With limited breathability and durability, they aren’t the best options for more physically demanding or multi-day outdoor adventure sports.
I wondered how exactly I was going to stay warm, dry, and comfortable on the trail. The thought of hiking 10-12 miles a day in the middle of June in stretchy yoga pants filled me with dread. And mass market exercise tops and bras get really stinky, really quickly. There was no way they could hold up during a multi-day trip, I thought. I feared for my tentmates, and I started to have nightmares about chafing.
My online shopping carts remained empty, and I grew frustrated with this huge blind spot for outdoor retailers. It’s no secret the gender divide is still prevalent in the outdoors industry, which has historically been defined by advertising images of rugged, tough-guy masculinity. While many companies have worked to incorporate more gender-neutral advertising, outdoor retail catalogues are still full of ads featuring super-fit, ripped dudes rock climbing, mountain biking, or summiting a mountaintop. Those guys have plenty of options when it comes to cozy base layers, comfortable hiking pants, and wind shells.
Here’s a newsflash for industry reps: pregnant and nursing outdoorswomen like to do those things too. We’re not fragile creatures, we can do pretty much everything we did before we got pregnant, and we shouldn’t have to cobble together outfits of ill-fitting clothes for months on end.
But where’s the industry support for us? By not offering any maternity or nursing-friendly clothing and gear options, what message are major outdoor retailers sending to women? Is this just another way the industry genders the great outdoors?
Teresa Delfin, owner of Mountain Mama, a California adventure clothing and gear company that specializes in maternity and nursing-friendly clothing, started sketching her initial designs during her first pregnancy. She ran out of clothing options for her favorite outdoor activities during her second trimester. Up until that time, Delfin said she had always felt seen and supported by the industry she’s worked in since her teens. Suddenly, she felt invisible.
“I felt extremely let down to discover that not a single major outdoor brand had made an effort to include maternity sizing,” Delfin said. “How could the same companies offer items for adults, children, and even newborns, but somehow leave out one important phase of life altogether?”
I had similar feelings when I realized that I had absolutely nothing to wear on these trips (I unfortunately came across Mountain Mama’s website too late). Pregnancy is a very exciting and empowering time, but it can also be full of tremendous uncertainty and insecurity. Your body is constantly changing and everyone, from family members to coworkers to the checkout clerk at Trader Joe’s, feels entitled to comment on it. Participating in my favorite outdoor activities kept me grounded and helped me maintain a mostly positive body image during the first few months of pregnancy. That became much harder to do when my clothing and gear didn’t fit anymore.
I had no choice but to give in. I hiked in yoga leggings. They itched the whole time and got soaked when it rained. I struggled (and ultimately failed) to zip up my favorite puffy coat, and I had to let it flap in the breeze. I wore the mass market maternity tops and as predicted, I smelled. My favorite outdoor companies left me hanging during a time when I really could have really used some support.
Granted, pregnant and nursing moms comprise a small percentage of outdoor clothing and gear shoppers. Joanna Tomasino, a category manager at outdoor retailer Mammut, compared maternity sizing to children’s clothing as a specialty option that is “relatively far outside the brand.”
“It [maternity sizing] adds a complexity, knowledge, and investment that our company has not considered,” said Tomasino.
“It is just not something we are doing right now, but a lot of the stuff we make can carry over,” said J.J. Huggins, a press spokesperson for Patagonia. “Everything we make should hopefully have more than one intended use.”
I commend Patagonia’s desire to reduce unnecessary consumption. But by ignoring the needs of a specific demographic of women, outdoor retailers are missing out on a huge opportunity to not only generate more revenue but also to market their brands as ones that are more inclusive to women. Adding maternity sizes or nursing-friendly options would be one way companies could help continue to shift the industry’s gender divide and combat misconceptions about what pregnant women and nursing moms can and can’t do when it comes to exercise and activities. A positive pregnancy test doesn’t preclude a woman from actively enjoying outdoor pursuits.
“I’ve talked to executives in many prominent outdoor companies and there is a concern that the inclusion of maternity could undermine brands built on the notions of ruggedness, bravery, boldness, and strength,” said Delfin.
Huggins argued that that isn’t the case for Patagonia, and that the brand features “badass athletes—men and women” across its marketing channels.
“We are conscious about being aspirational and inclusive, and we always try to achieve a gender balance in who is representing our brand. You can look at all of those qualities, and they apply equally to the ambassadors who represent our brand, regardless of gender,” said Huggins.
Several major outdoor retailers, including REI, Icebreaker, Backcountry, and Athleta, either declined to comment or didn’t respond to interview requests about maternity sizing and nursing-friendly clothing options.
I have yet to see a glossy outdoor retail ad that features a pregnant woman or nursing mom in the great outdoors. Maybe one day I will.
Some industry change is already in the works, and that gives me hope.
Title Nine, a California company that designs athletic wear for women, carries a few nursing sports bras, complete with velcro straps. Company officials have talked about adding a pregnancy-friendly web icon to help expecting shoppers identify stretch-knit pieces that would work best for changing bodies, said Kristina Casey, Title Nine’s director of product development, design, and merchandising.
“I literally just went through this,” said Casey, who just gave birth to her second child a few months ago. “It’s so hard to find active clothing when you are pregnant.”
Other, smaller outdoor retail companies are designing products to help pregnant and nursing outdoorswomen adapt their existing outdoor clothes to their bodies. MakeMyBellyFit is a Montreal-based company that makes soft shell panels that can zip into your existing jackets and, as the name implies, make your pregnant belly fit.
“Providing active outdoor gear for pregnant or nursing moms is important to our company, because we know firsthand how important it is to get outside and keep up with your activities, with belly and baby in tow,” said company founder Ben McHugh, who designed the extender when his wife was pregnant with their first child and had to borrow his winter puffy coat during a particularly harsh Montreal winter.
I’d like to squeeze in a few more hikes, swims, and other outdoor activities before my daughter is born this fall. I don’t expect to see any new maternity or nursing-friendly lines appear before then, but I’m hopeful that the outdoor industry may start to realize that by not offering any options, it is subtly enforcing outdated and stereotypical views of pregnant women and nursing moms.
I want the industry to recognize that not all pregnant women want to spend nine months doing gentle yoga poses and not all nursing moms want to feed their babies indoors. We’d just like some options, so we can continue to safely and comfortably participate in the outdoor sports and adventures we grew to know and love before we got pregnant.
Amy Montemerlo Roberts is an upper school dean and English teacher at the Packer Collegiate Institute in New York.