This hiking club’s first rule? No diet talk: The Body Liberation Outdoor Club is coming to the Valley

The Berkshires BLOC chapter’s spring season started off with a beautiful day at Canoe Meadows in Pittsfield. Chapter leader Annie Schwartz is third from right.

The Berkshires BLOC chapter’s spring season started off with a beautiful day at Canoe Meadows in Pittsfield. Chapter leader Annie Schwartz is third from right. COURTEST ANNIE SCHWARTZ

BLOC founder Alexa Rosales sees nature as a zero-judgment zone.

BLOC founder Alexa Rosales sees nature as a zero-judgment zone. COURTESY ALEXA ROSALES

Capital Region New York and the Berkshires chapters of BLOC joined up at Berry Pond in Hancock last October.

Capital Region New York and the Berkshires chapters of BLOC joined up at Berry Pond in Hancock last October. COURTESY ANNIE SCHWARTZ

The Berkshire chapter of BLOC takes on Ashintully Gardens and Titus Mansion in Tyringham last summer.

The Berkshire chapter of BLOC takes on Ashintully Gardens and Titus Mansion in Tyringham last summer. COURTESY ANNIE SCHWARTZ

Hikers of the Berkshires chapter of BLOC with Annie Schwartz, left, at Benedict Pond in Great Barrington last month.

Hikers of the Berkshires chapter of BLOC with Annie Schwartz, left, at Benedict Pond in Great Barrington last month. COURTESY ANNIE SCHWARTZ

By MELISSA KAREN SANCES

For the Gazette

Published: 07-05-2024 1:05 PM

The founder of the Body Liberation Outdoor Club saw “The Fat Babe Pool Party” in “Shrill,” the Hulu series about a heavy woman’s journey to embracing her body, and felt like she was in a dream. In the fourth episode of Season 1, the main character has been bombarded with messages that how she looks is just … wrong. There’s “Toned Tanya,” who meets her in a coffee shop, seizes her wrist, and declares: “There is a small person inside of you, dying to get out.” There’s her obesity-obsessed editor, who criticizes her “sloppiness” because she’s late for a work outing that requires exercise. And, then, suddenly, she is at an “inclusive” pool party where women who look like her are in vibrant bikinis dancing to Ariana Grande. She arrives in a dark, buttoned-up shirt and black jeans, and by mid-party, she’s dancing alone like no one’s watching — or like everyone’s so busy being in their own bodies, feeling joy in their own bodies, that she’s in a whole new world.

The fat babes’ bliss gives her permission to, finally, get in the pool. After a beautiful scene in which she swims like a mermaid, she meets up with her horrible boss, who inspires this tirade about the fear of being fat: “It’s a [expletive] mind prison … that every [expletive] woman everywhere has been programmed to believe … And I’ve wasted so much time and energy and money for what? For … pain.”

Three years ago, Alexa Rosales watched this, mesmerized. A lover of the outdoors who had been criticized for her weight since she was 8 years old, Rosales, then 30, had to take action.

“I felt like I wanted to be invited to that pool party,” she says. “I felt like I really needed a place to feel completely and unapologetically myself.” This sentiment dovetailed with the work she was already doing in therapy, to unlearn decades of negative self-talk and heal her body after two bariatric surgeries, weight loss camps, boot camps, “and putting myself through literal physical abuse to lose weight.” In 2021 she founded the first Body Liberation Outdoor Club (BLOC) chapter in Hudson Valley, New York. Today there are 30 international chapters, including three in Massachusetts — and a new Pioneer Valley club whose hiking schedule starts this month.

How it works

“It’s hard to have a body in this world,” says Annie Schwartz, the Berkshires chapter leader and the size-inclusive care coordinator at Community Health Programs (CHP) in Great Barrington. “Anti-fat bias harms everyone. It keeps the smallest of us terrified. There is no end point. There is no place of safety for anyone.”

Schwartz, who works as a clinical nutritionist at CHP and owns Annie Schwartz Nutrition, joined the BLOC because she believed in its mission — to grant everyone the permission Rosales experienced when watching that seminal episode of “Shrill.” Hikes and other outdoor activities like swimming and yoga are open to all. Each event starts off with a quick rundown of the rules: No diet talk, the group moves at the pace of the slowest attendee, and there will be copious breaks.

“There’s no shortage of people who want this space,” says Schwartz, whose outings average six-to-eight attendees. “But many feel worried that the space won’t welcome them. People have complicated feelings about existing in their body, even in explicitly inclusive places.”

Regular attendee Simone Backstedt drove from Westfield to her first Berkshire chapter hike feeling some trepidation: “Even though the club advertises going at the group pace, I wasn’t sure what to expect.” But everyone’s warmth quickly put her at ease. “The whole mood of the group is ‘We’re in this together,’” she says. And outdoors together. She notes that on one break she delighted in learning about wild edibles from a fellow hiker. “You’re definitely stopping and appreciating your surroundings. You’re really in nature.”

Nature nurtures

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Rosales notes that nature is a “zero-judgment zone,” although she sees considerable overlap between the diet and exercise industry. This is why the BLOC doesn’t track anything — calories burned, elevation gained — except for distance, “so we know where we started, and where to end up.”

“Most of the people that join our club have been traumatized by exercise, so we’re removing all of the shame associated with that,” she explains. Rosales experiences nature as a representative and compassionate mirror. “I see a lot of myself in nature. I see a lot of curvatures in nature, a lot of diversity, and that reminds me that if nature is this diverse, why can’t body sizes be this diverse?”

Like the protagonist of “Shrill,” Rosales has experienced a radical shift in her relationship to herself, which has motivated her to shepherd others into a shame-less space. “There are so many instances where I’ve risked my literal life to be a smaller person,” she says. “The world tells people in larger bodies that we’re just wrong, that you can’t be that size and be an athlete, that you can’t be that size and climb a mountain. But I’m capable in the body I have now. I can hike in the body I have now. I can swim in the body I have now. I’m going to keep doing this because I keep hearing stories about others who need a space to heal.”

The Pioneer Valley chapter of the BLOC, run by BZ and Mike Catalano, will release its summer schedule soon. Visit Instragram: @bodyliberationhikingpioneervly or email bodyliberationhikingpioneervly@gmail.com.

Melissa Karen Sances lives in western Massachusetts, where she is writing a memoir as well as human interest stories about extraordinary people. Reach her at melissaksances@gmail.com.