Tuesday at noon my friend and I started hiking. With 50 pound backpacks on our backs. We wouldn’t return to the car we left in Williamstown Massachusetts until Thursday morning. It was just us, our packs, and the trail for the next two and a half days. I didn’t know it when we left, but this backpacking trip would end up being a huge step forward in my journey to body positivity.
I’ve already written about how in the woods there are no expectations. So often, you’re in there alone, so people’s expectations of you don’t apply. You don’t need to look a certain way. You don’t need to act a certain way, other than trail ettiquette, of course. You don’t need to put on any shows. You’re just you. Hiking alone is one of the most authentic experiences you can have.
Backpacking taught me that these authentic experiences extend to hiking with others as well. There’s an entire culture of the trail, completely separate from the culture of the real world. You meet new people and create these intense relationships for short periods of time. We spent two nights at shelters on the trail and we made friends each night. We shared food and campfires and stories for a night or two and then moved on. It was a sense of community that I’ve rarely found elsewhere. It was comfortable and truly authentic.
I realized later that the reason these connections felt so real and so safe was that no one was trying to please anyone else. We had no expectations of the people we met on the trail and they had no expectations of us. Because of that, no one felt that they had to appear a certain way. No one felt that they had to hide or put on any masks. These were people they’d just met, and may never see again, so there was no gamble in being real.
There was also a sense of shared struggle that allowed us to connect immediately. We’d covered the same terrain. We’d overcome the same obstacles.We’d literally walked in each other’s footsteps all day long.
This lack of expectation and immediate connection with others had the effect of making me forget myself. I stopped thinking about my body in relation to others. I didn’t wonder of other people we encountered thought I was fat. I didn’t think about whether or not I was fat. I wasn’t insecure that my hiking clothes were tight. I wasn’t constantly comparing my body to the bodies of other women we encountered on the trail. I didn’t feel like people were judging me for what I ate. I didn’t feel like judging myself for what I was eating or others for what they were eating. For once in my life I was grateful for my big thighs because those muscles got me up inclines faster than my hiking partner.
This lack of thinking about self started to extend to the trial. When I was hiking all of my focus was on the trail; the terrain ahead and the steps yet to be taken. I had no time to think about the fact that the hip strap on my backpack buckled under a bulge of stomach. I had no time to think about the fact that the fat on my arms jiggled when I swung my arms to keep my balance hopping from rock to rock through a riverbed. These thoughts seemed foreign and out of place on the trail.
While hiking the only thoughts I had of my body were about hunger and thirst. My body became purely biology. When my only thoughts about my body were focused on its physiological needs, suddenly hunger didn’t have moral connotations. When I was hungry I had to eat because I wouldn’t be able to keep moving. When I was thirsty I had to drink or I wouldn’t make it to the shelter. If I didn’t treat my body well it would stop working and on the trail this is dangerous.
I learned this the hard way on the second day of the hike when I didn’t eat or hydrate enough and suddenly couldn’t hike any further. I hadn’t intended to ignore my body’s needs to that level, I just hadn’t calculated for the extra food and water I would need to consume to compensate for the load of the pack. I’m still so new at listening to my body that I didn’t hear the right cues at the right time and I learned that my body has the power to override my decisions about when to fuel it. This was a powerful lesson that I’ve been trying to learn for a year now. It turns out the trail will teach.
Eventually I stopped thinking about the size and shape of my body altogether. It just didn’t matter. It didn’t matter to me and it didn’t matter to anyone else. On the trail, the size and shape of my body was totally irrelevant. Realizing this brought me to the conclusion that in the grand scheme of things the size and shape of my body is always irrelevant. I am a strong, healthy woman. I hiked 18 miles in less than 50 hours while carrying a 50 pound load. My body is capable of amazing things and its size and shape has nothing to do with its capabilities. The quick relationships I formed on the trail also proved that my sized and my shape has nothing to do with my likeability or worthiness, as the friends who love me have been trying to tell me for years. This all adds up to my size and shape being totally irrelevant.
The amazing thing is these lessons in body acceptance have followed me off the trail. When I look in the mirror I see a different body than I saw before, not because it has changed, but because I have changed. The frequency of negative thoughts about my body has decreased drastically. The frequency of any thoughts about my body has decreased. It’s become easier to eat. It’s been easier to get dressed. I bought a bathing suit without crying or even feeling bad.
The trail gave me a freedom I didn’t know I could have. It gave me the freedom I’ve been seeking for years. I’m not going to pretend my body image issues are gone, but I’ve turned a corner I’ve been lurking around for months. I didn’t realize that the phrase “out of the woods” would be so literal.