The following is a guest post by Kathleen:
I’m curled up in my hostel bunk bed, clean and cool after showering off the Bangkok heat and pollution. The sense of awe I had felt that day at the ancient Wat Arun slips away as I look through my photos. All I can see is how bloated my face looks, how unflattering that tent-like linen top is on my curvy frame. The beauty I found so readily today slides too easily into self-loathing.
This isn’t an unfamiliar feeling for me, or for most women I know. But it wasn’t supposed to happen to me now! I had quit my job four months before to travel the world and free myself of my inhibitions and hang-ups and become a wildly self-actualized Cool Girl who never frets about the size of her stomach.
But then I’d scroll through Instagram while sipping a coconut smoothie at a Cambodian cafe or in the back of a tuk-tuk and see photo after photo of wafer-thin 22-year-olds in strappy sundresses and heels with flowing hair. On a mountain, on a beach, in a sacred temple – they were there looking impossibly glamorous and sharing it with the world. I’d be over in a corner of a white-sand beach trying to take a picture that hid the grey streaks in my hair, the curve of my pad Thai-filled stomach, the sweat marks on my grungy leggings.
Part of this damaging comparison game was easy to reconcile myself to. Those gorgeous gowns and all the accessories require much more luggage space than my 35-liter backpack allows, and I value traveling light over hair tools and outfit variety. Anything that can’t be washed out in a dingy hostel sink in five minutes isn’t fitting in my current life.
Those body image comparisons were tougher to shake.
Like most women, my relationship with my body has been complicated from a young age. I remember at age 12 trying to do a workout on my mom’s Bongo Board so I could “get abs and be hot” at my new middle school (ah, the Britney Spears era!).
I’d always been quite thin growing up, from a combination of genetics and a low-key obsession with remaining tiny (hummus and cucumber is not a meal, young me). But in the first few years of my thirties, the weight crept on from the stress eating and drinking from general unhappiness.
So when I took off in September for my solo travels in Europe, Southeast Asia, and Australia, I had an image in the back of my mind about how I’d return triumphant in a year. I’d be bolder, more cultured, wildly chic in a Euro boho way, full of tales of ancient beauties and foreign lovers. And, in my mind, I’d do all of it looking like those Insta influencer beauties.
But in reality, that was never going to happen. I’m 33 and frizzy-haired and wide-hipped. And I spent some late nights in those creaky hostel bunk beds wondering if I was doing something wrong, that my traveling felt world-expanding and heart-opening and life-shifting but didn’t look like that in pictures (or in real life, for that matter). Was I doing everything wrong? Was there something deeply deficient inside of me, just as I’ve always feared? Was I stuck feeling like this forever? And in those lonely and sleepless nights, some parts of my too-porous brain let the shame and fear seep in.
It took a week-long yoga retreat in Chiang Mai, Thailand to start to dig into the roots of those feelings towards my one and only body. Wasn’t it taking me on this incredible journey? I was healthy and young and able to perch my whole body on just my hands in crow pose and hike the Santorini caldera and walk ten miles a day in Paris, and here I was feeling so much loathing and fear whenever I tapped into the thing that was allowing me to do all of this. I left that retreat with a vow to do better. My body has never hated me, no matter how much I’ve hated it. Maybe it was time to return the favor.
So I kept up my mind-clearing sobriety, my new awareness from my regular yoga practice, and I noticed so much. How I love the feeling of wearing clothes that free me instead of restricting me. How I turn my occasional sadness over my singlehood inwards, into thoughts about not being lovable until I am perfect, and how perfect for me means thin. And I unfollowed all those Instagram accounts that called themselves travel accounts but were really just photo shoots in exotic locales, with nothing else to add to the conversation. Not that they were doing anything wrong – I love a flowy dress and a beautiful background and if I had a photographer boyfriend I’d stage me some elaborate shoots too. But they weren’t adding to my own personal journey in the way women like Kristin and @wheregoesrose and @hownottotravellikeabasicbitch and so many others have, and so I let their lovely selves go. I didn’t leave my old comfortable corporate life because I wanted to go off and be just like everyone else. I didn’t want to be a carbon copy of another more glamorous woman – focused on being small and square and fitting neatly into a box, even if that box on is the Instagram grid with hundreds of likes.
This perfection I’ve been chasing my whole life is an illusion. I got a parasite in Laos, a magic bullet for weight loss that more than one of my friends expressed envy over. And the resulting pain and weakness and the hanger (there’s no hanger like the kind eating only tiny amounts of lentils for a month will cause, I wanted to punch everyone I saw eating) softened me further towards this one fragile and resilient and resplendent thing that houses my whole being.
So now I listen quietly to it – not just to what it screams (“I’m hungry! feed me pasta!”) but to what it whispers (“I’m lonely after a day of watching couples make out in Venice and I’d like to dull that pain with carbs and wine”). One of solo travel’s gifts is the time and space to get to know your deepest self.
When I look back at my life as a 90-year-old in an antique rocking chair on a porch overlooking the ocean, I’m pretty sure I won’t regret that ten pounds one way or the other. But I will regret missing out on everything I tried to hide from while loathing my poor innocent body: every long-haired Parisian poet I didn’t flirt with because of my self-consciousness, every picture with my fast-growing elfin-handsome Irish nephew where all I can see is my stomach rolls. This new consciousness is both a rebellion and an acceptance at the same time – thinking critically about why I prize thinness above so many more important things like health, consciously curating my social media to show only what serves me in some way, and accepting that sometimes feeling uneasy in my body is just part of being human, and not a reason to punish myself. I can just feel it and let it go and get back to watching that Sydney sunset.
As a solo traveler, my only constant companions on the road are my body and my backpack. Even when I struggle to zip my backpack, I don’t curse it for being what it is. I love it for the useful tool it is that lets me explore this wild and wonderful world. For the last months of my trip, I’m determined to do the same for my one and only body.
I want to know myself and value myself and nourish every part of my being so I can explore every corner of this wild, beautiful world with my whole heart.