How Traveling Helped Improve My Body Image
Updated: Jun 16, 2020
By Mel Ciavucco
When I was a kid I loved Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan. Neighbours was one of my favorite TV shows (back in the early days), and I really really wanted to go to Australia. It sounded like the most awesome place in the world, but my family told me it was very far away and too expensive to visit.
We mostly went on holiday to Butlins, which if you’ve never had the pleasure, mostly involves lots of hyperactive kids and drunk parents.
It seemed there wasn’t much hope of ever getting to Australia.
Fat Girls Don’t Travel
I didn’t know anyone from my hometown in the Midlands that traveled. Gap years were for rich kids. Backpacking was for sporty types who wanted to go trekking and kayaking. I hated sports. I was told women shouldn’t travel alone. At school, I was teased for coming in last in our cross-country runs. I despised PE lessons because we had to wear gym knickers (literally just knickers), and I hated my thighs.
I was even embarrassed to wear a swimming costume in front of my family. I wore a big baggy t-shirt over the top to cover my body.
When I was in my early twenties, a friend from my hometown announced quite suddenly, he was going to travel around the world. This friend was like me, working in a minimum wage hospitality job, and he referred to our town as the “black hole of dreams.” I’d already tried to move away from home a few times, and I’d dropped out of university. My confidence was low and my anxiety was at an all-time high.
My friend traveled around the world for ten months, sending me emails at every stop. I longed to travel the world, but I thought I was too fat, too poor, too scared, too female.
I was working long hours in a pub, spending most of my time binge drinking when I wasn’t there. But luckily, I still lived with my parents, so I was at least saving money-- for my hypothetical future travels.
The Critical Inner Voice
My friend came back from his travels, and he kept telling me, “if I can do it, you can.”
A female friend at work was planning to go to Australia and explained the working holiday visa system. Seeing another woman plan a trip alone was the push I needed. It took a few years of saving up the funds, but eventually I applied for a working holiday visa for Australia. I lost myself in the planning and the logistics, until the day I finally booked the flights. That’s when sh*t got real.
How was I going to survive so far away from my family? What the hell was I going to wear on the beach? I looked at those frilly dress-style swimming costumes that bigger women are expected to wear just to make other people feel more comfortable. I would look ridiculous. What would Kylie think?
In the few weeks before my flight, with help from friends and my parents, I continually countered my inner critical voice. I didn’t call it that back then, I thought it was normal to have those kind negative thoughts. I didn’t know my gripping stomach pains were called anxiety. My inner critic told me I was going to fail. It told me I’d run home to my parents again and get laughed at.
Just before I left, my traveler friend gave me a pep talk. He said if I ever doubted myself I should look in the mirror and say, “I’m a f**king soldier.” I told him that was f**king stupid. He kept saying, “Mate, you’ve just gotta do it. Tell yourself, I’m a f**king soldier.”
So I ended up in the toilets at Heathrow airport, my stomach in knots, sitting on the toilet, saying over and over in my head, I’m a f**king soldier. I didn’t care if it was stupid at that point, I had to do something.
I thought I’d probably just spend a few months in Australia and then get homesick and leave. BUT I ended up traveling for over five years! My friend later came to Australia, and we spent Christmas on the beach in Noosa, my first ever Christmas away from home.
Swimwear Will NOT Defeat Me
Traveling is often seen as a form of escapism. But sometimes you just really need to get out of the town you grew up in so you can start to heal.
I met people from all over the world and my confidence grew. I continually proved myself wrong, went on adventures, and did things that I never thought short fat girls were allowed to do– skydiving, bungee jumping, white water rafting, snorkelling, diving, and kayaking! I wore a tankini on the beach every damn day, because getting on that plane was the scariest thing I’ve ever done, and I was damned if I was going to let swimwear or my beach body anxiety defeat me.
On reflection, maybe it wasn’t about swimwear after all. I channelled all my anxieties into my body in the hope that I could change it. If I just lost weight it would solve everything. When really, it was a childhood of being told I was never good enough and constantly being told to change myself to fit in and be “normal.”
Through many years of traveling, swimming in the sea most days, and eating all different kinds of foods-- I never lost weight. I just stayed about the same which I now know is called a set point range, and it’s way healthier than yo-yo dieting.
In Sickness and In Health
I spent almost two years in Australia, a few months in Southeast Asia, and 2.5 years in New Zealand. I worked a lot, travelled, and partied hard at times. The places I worked brought the most amazing experiences and the most amazing people into my life-- some of whom I am still close friends with today.
I spent four months in India which was the most intense and challenging time, yet also very stimulating. But I got very sick -- I barely ate for weeks. Even then, I still did not lose weight. It was then I made the promise to myself that I would never try to force my body into a different size or shape again. All that matters is my health, and that I have a healthy relationship with food. No rules, no dieting, no restrictions. It doesn’t matter what size I am – it’s my mental and physical health that matters most.
I will never be thin, and that’s fine. I am no longer afraid of being fat. There are so many worse things to be than fat.
I’ve come to realize that the fatphobia and self-hatred caused by societal pressure to be thin was more harmful to my health than actually being fat.
The Road to Self-Love
When I returned to the UK, I was determined to land a job in the charity sector, which I achieved. India introduced me to meditation and the power of compassion. I confronted emotions I was holding from the past and began the process of healing.
Traveling didn’t solve my problems, but it gave me the courage to start talking about my past, and I started going to therapy. Self-awareness and self-love is a long ongoing journey.
I’ve experienced different cultures which gave me a different perspective on life. I’ve challenged beliefs I’ve held about myself and the world.
I’m now training to be a therapist, so this is a continuous process of reflection and learning, in the hope to be able to help others too.
Everyone deserves to feel good about themselves no matter where they come from or what they look like. But it starts with doing something scary-- pushing yourself out of your comfort zone.
It’s worth the leap of faith, I promise.
Author Bio: Mel is a British writer, vlogger, and body positive activist. She is passionate about mental health, body image, and gender equality. She works for an eating disorder charity, and is currently training to be a counselor.
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