Identity Work in the Outdoor Industry

Camping & Hiking expert Hannah K. discusses the identity labor that she and others do in the outdoor industry to explain and justify their career choices.

Two RVs are parked on an overlook along the coast. Next to one RV are two folding chairs and a campfire.

Photo by Fabian

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Identity work: the laborious act of performing identities, explaining or justifying one’s self-identity, and the behaviors that go along with these actions.

Constantly having to explain and justify who you are, why you behave as you do, and how you live your life, is exhausting. We all have interacted with this in some way. For example, you’re at a family dinner and your aunt asks you about life after college, why you aren’t dating anyone right now, or what you are planning for your future. Or maybe you move to a new city and are trying to make new friends while also explaining yourself to them and creating a nice perception of who you are. Although these are very simple forms of identity labor, these are the questions many attempt to avoid answering.

Perhaps these seem like simple, harmless questions. I’m sure the intention behind them is pure and not judgemental, or at least it can be, but the truth is that these questions are not harmless. More often than not, these questions are attached to other people’s perceptions of our identity, especially when they are connected to our job title.

Take a non-outdoor-related industry example. I was a professional modern dancer, dancing with two companies, touring, performing, rehearsing, and enjoying my life. I was a trained athlete who had been working to reach this point for 20 years. Questions I get asked all the time when I tell people I was a modern dancer are: what club did you dance at? How flexible are you? Did you even work hard in college? And there are plenty more along those lines. So, it is clear that these people are equating the word “dancer” with “stripper,” “lazy,” “dumb,” “sexy” — and those are the nicer terms. My identity became those adjectives, just with one word. Explaining my identity is often too exhausting and laborious just to defend my career/existence to complete strangers.

Now think about explaining your job title and lifestyle — wilderness guide, ranger, dirtbagger, professional climber, farmer, lifeguard, environmentalist, marine biologist, geologist, ski instructor, or whatever it may be. Try explaining what these titles are to an ignorant listener. Sometimes it may be fine, and sometimes you may get a lot of judgmental questions that are slightly to not-so-slightly rude or just annoying to answer. Again, not always, but often enough that I can write about it.

The author sits on a bale of hay next to a pickup truck with more hay. People mill around and some sit on a tractor in the background.

Working as a farmer. Photo courtesy of Hannah K.

Some job titles are more heavily criticized than others, like dirtbagger, artist, janitor, or traffic police. Some are highly praised, like doctor, marine biologist, or lawyer. Those who live for the outdoors, who spend more time enjoying what they do than most people, are, of course, among the criticized. I want to say it is a lot of jealousy from their perspective: Why should you get to live a life that I want while I can’t? But that is not the entire truth.

We grew up in a society that revolves around money and the idea that money buys happiness. The American Dream is something that many work to achieve. When people don’t live up to this expectation or try to accomplish a different goal, they are questioned and forced to justify their own identities. This act of explaining our lives to others can leave room to question ourselves, create doubt in our minds, and produce insecurities.

This is potentially the most dangerous aspect of identity labor: it creates room in our brains to question our own choices and develop an insecure sense of self. But there is no need to explain your identity or why something makes you happy to anyone. These experiences happen to everyone, and they happen everyday and all the time (with a heavy recurrence when your aunt comes to visit for Thanksgiving — or maybe that is just my family).

Here, it is important to highlight the importance of language. Language is human-made and human-constructed. What we say and mean is entirely created by us. The connotations and assumptions that are attached to certain words in our language were also created by us. In my situation above, remember that “dancer” was equated to “stripper,” “lazy,” “dumb,” and “sexy.” The title and word “dancer” has more power than many choose to believe, as I’ve seen firsthand.

Although VanLife has entered somewhat into the mainstream, the term “dirtbag,” or someone who lives that lifestyle, has not. After asking some neighbors and older family members who aren’t so familiar with the choice what they thought about the term, I heard “lazy,” “broke,” “dirty,” and “weird” in response. But I also heard “adventurous” and “brave.” Think about the assumptions and connotations that come with your job title or any other labels you have attached to yourself and the lasting effects these labels can have.

Next time someone lives a life or has an identity that is different from yours, what should you do? Say something like, “That seems so interesting, I would love to educate myself more about that if you don’t mind sharing!”

Have any questions or thoughts about identity labor? Hit me up through my profile and let’s chat about all things outdoors!

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Although I've been hiking for most of my life, I didn't start backpacking and camping until college when I joined the University Outdoors Club at my school. My first backpacking trip was ambitious, the Batona Trail in the Pinelands in New Jersey done in two days. To do that, we had to walk a maratho...

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