How Backpacking Reduces Body Dysmorphia - Her Travel Therapy

How Backpacking Reduces Body Dysmorphia

June 19, 2017

A girl standing in front of a brown and gold Japanese temple, with several trees on the side.

When I was 17 years old, I thought I was obese. Irredeemably fat. I weighed only 58 kg. At 172 cm tall, this was far from overweight. But when I looked at my body in the mirror, all I could see was weight ballooning around my waist and stomach area, making me look pregnant. I weighed myself a few times a day, every single day, and any gained weight made me feel horrific inside. This is what is known as body dysmorphia, which is something that I still struggle with to this day.

I spent a year of my life getting ready in the dark. I smothered my skin in foundation and couldn’t bear to see my face in fluorescent light. I had acne every single day, and in my mind’s eye, it covered my entire face and no one could see anything else. Even now, I get so stressed whenever I get a pimple that I compulsively squeeze and pick at it. I feel a desperate urge to get it off of my face, lest it ruin my entire appearance.

Everyone has things that they don’t like about their body, but body dysmorphia is different because the disliked things aren’t real. They are either completely non-existent, or insignificant enough that other people don’t notice them. I can only see in hindsight that those obsessions weren’t real, but at the time they felt significant enough that I believed that I was the ugliest and fattest woman in the world. I still experience some body dysmorphia today, particularly when I am in a depressive period, but it has nowhere near the impact on my life that it used to.

body

So what changed? Travelling alone for the first time definitely made a marked change in the way I perceived my body and myself.

Backpacking has less focus on physical appearance.

Backpackers are a bit dirty. This comes with the territory of shared bathrooms, limited clothes, and a more carefree attitude towards life. While some backpackers still try to dress well and wear makeup, most focus on exploring rather than their appearance. I found that no one even seemed to notice that I had un-brushed hair or no makeup on, let alone that I was wearing mismatched clothes all the time. There are also fewer mirrors in hostels, so I had fewer opportunities to see myself and start obsessing about the things that I saw as wrong with me and my body. When you can’t see the things that you obsess about, you start to think about them less and less. Eventually, you have whole days where you stop stressing about your physical appearance, without even realising.

Increased confidence in social interactions.

I realised very quickly that lots of people wanted to talk to me and learn about me. Backpackers are extremely curious and friendly people by nature, and over time I found it easier to have meaningful conversations with strangers. I noticed that it didn’t matter how bad I thought I was looking that day. People would still want to talk to me if they found me funny, interesting, and approachable. This increased my confidence and reduced some of my social anxiety, and anxiety surrounding my body. I learnt that I didn’t need to be looking ‘perfect’ or whatever my abstract concept of that was. People would want to interact with me because of my personality. Realising that you have a lot more to offer the world than ‘being pretty’ is an incredibly liberating experience that opened my eyes to the possibilities around me.

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Endless distractions.

It’s easy to forget about what your body looks like when you are focused on a multi-day trek, visiting temples in the jungle, or viewing natural wonders for the first time. Travel is incredibly stimulating for all the senses and helps to get you out of your head and be more mindful of your surroundings. When you are in your home environment, it is so familiar. As a consequence, you don’t pay as much attention to the things around you. It then becomes easy to get lost in your own thoughts, emotions, and insecurities. Pushing yourself physically and emotionally to enjoy activities outside of your comfort zone is incredibly liberating from your inner monologue.

I won’t pretend that backpacking has erased all of my insecurities around my body. I still can’t stand on scales without panicking and becoming very depressed about my weight. I still panic when I get pimples and become obsessed with the idea that my whole face is ruined. But the body dysmorphia is a much less prevalent force in my life, and one which I can ignore more of the time. Backpacking alone has definitely increased my self-confidence and allowed me to step away from my insecurities around my body.

 

Do you have issues around your body and perception of yourself? Do you find that travel helps you to step outside of your head for a bit and live in the moment?

10 Comments

  1. Reply

    Medha Verma

    Well written! You’re right about backpackers not bothering much about their appearances because they’ve so much else to focus on- like exploring! Plus the added benefit (if you can call it that) of not having enough mirrors to see how you look! I usually end up wearing whatever I have access to and what is clean, have never thought about putting on make up while traveling !

    1. Reply

      Her Travel Therapy

      Yes! Backpacking helped me to quit wearing makeup completely, and now I only wear it when I’m going out socialising at night. I just found it so much easier to be a bit of a slob when everyone else around me wasn’t heaps focused on their appearance.

  2. Reply

    Edoardo Pucciarelli

    I think a backpackers trip allows you to concentrate outside yourself, and it can help you abandon your self-centeredness because it leads us to face challenges we are not accustomed to.

    1. Reply

      Her Travel Therapy

      Yes I agree. It’s so beneficial to focus on something that isn’t yourself and focus all of your energy on it.

  3. Reply

    forever roaming the world

    Very well written peace and a very real post – We all have our insecurities about ourselves and backpacking really does help with us feeling more comfortable with ourselves as we have other things to concentrate on rather than let our brains niggle at us.

  4. Reply

    ilive4travel

    I certainly think that as a backpacker you become a lot more relaxed about your appearance. I love not caring how I look or having to put on makeup. I have put weight on since travelling, the food in some places is so good. It can be a struggle when you are on the road, being able to exercise properly and eat well. I know though I would rather be on the road and sometimes you have to compromise.

    1. Reply

      Her Travel Therapy

      I put on so much weight when I travelled in Southeast Asia! Everything was so delicious and so cheap, I just couldn’t stop myself.

  5. Reply

    Lisa

    This is a very interesting, and true post for nearly all of us. Body insecurity is something all of us think about, and you’re right that travelling is the best distraction!

  6. Reply

    Laura Barton

    Very inspiring post !! I couldn’t agree more, when travelling you stop caring how you look and wear what evers comfortable 😊

  7. Reply

    beccajtalbot

    This is a great article, and really well written! So many of these things ring true for me too, especially the acne thing 🙁 but meeting new people on the road who are interested in me, and not just my appearance, well that has really helped x

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