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.
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.
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?