As a child, one of the ways I passed time by myself in rural Georgia was to imagine all the wonderful, interesting places on planet earth that I hadn’t been to yet. The ancient Andes mountains. The valleys and lakes in Scotland. And my absolute favorite, the Australian sunny, sparkling beaches. The older I got, the more beautiful places accumulated on my Must Visit List.
Fast forward years later, though, all the way to 2013, and I had all but forgotten about my extravagant backpacking dreams. I was too exhausted to even think about them. I had just completed seven consecutive years of higher education, and I was no longer interested in the things I was once passionate about. I was living in chronic neck and back pain, which I would later learn was undiagnosed scoliosis.
My hyper-concentrated focus on education had also robbed me of my ability to truly take care of myself. Physically and emotionally, I was in pretty bad shape. Most of my adult life at that point had been defined by my battle with binge eating disorder , and I spent many hours in anxiety-ridden agony over my choices in food. I was simply unhappy.
So I made a spontaneous decision. I went to a two-month, high-intensive yoga teacher training program, and afterward I chose to set off on a whirlwind trip. My mother, upon hearing the news, insisted I was throwing away everything I had ever worked for in my life. Very little could stop me by then, though. I couldn’t explain why, but refocusing on my dreams of traveling felt like the best way to reconnect with the current state of my body. Plus, just the thought of searching for a conventional job in my condition brought me to tears.
I decided first to float over to Australia. Why? I’m not sure. I suppose I could blame it on a children’s book I was obsessed with as a kid, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, in which the little boy dreams of moving down under. Or I could attribute it to the fact that I had spent the last three winters in bitterly cold Boston, and I wanted to wake up in the morning free of frosty misery for the first time in my life. So I traded in my knee high snow boots for cutoff jean shorts and flip-flops (or thongs, as they call them) — and found myself in 95-degree sunshine, on the beaches of Byron Bay.
It didn’t take long to figure out that I stood out like a sore thumb. I used the kind of shoes you have to bend over to put on. I had very pale, complete-opposite-of-sun-kissed skin. I wore a bra. But I was the only one who seemed to notice these differences; more importantly, I didn’t care! Starting from scratch and not knowing a single soul, a fact that initially made me wildly nervous about traveling, turned out to be incredibly freeing. There was nobody I felt like I needed to impress. No standards I had to meet.
In no time, I was enjoying this new liberty I had gained. I experimented with just about everything, from going braless to baking my first cheesecake. I wore, ate, and did whatever made me feel best.
After flitting around the big country of Australia, I mosied on over to Thailand for a little while. My Asia adventures somehow led me all the way to the other side of the earth to South America. I went to Peru, Chile, Bolivia, etc. I spent two full years in transit, hopping from one beautiful place to the next.
Most of the time, I found myself in remote places, where internet access was limited and there were no billboards and flashy advertisements for lingerie. Without countless satellite channels wherever I was living, I was no longer bombarded with perfume advertisements starring over-6-feet-tall model couples rolling around in the sand. The lack of wifi cut out all the hours I used to spend mindlessly browsing through Instagram, staring at the pretty, lean girls doing yoga postures even I found unattainable.
I couldn’t have told you back then how that affected me, but today I can definitively say it was a game changer. Accidentally falling off the face of media-driven earth was precisely the thing that helped me realized just how much I was a slave to all of it. I used to cry (no, literally, I would sob) about how my 5’2, dark-featured, biracial-looking, stout body would never look like the women who donned magazine covers. But voyaging to new places helped me regain enough consciousness to know that those images didn’t have the last say in beauty standards.
I finally was able to live my daily life without constantly having images of white, tall, impossibly thin supermodels shoved in my face from every angle. Nobody was there to tell me what it meant to be normal and gorgeous. Without all the comparisons, I was left to judge my own incredible physique. I had the final say. By the time I made it over to South America, I was finally waking up every morning happy in my skin, not drowning in a pool of self-loathing.
There was another part of the traveling experience that greatly affected me. While I was enjoying so many parts of my new yoga teaching lifestyle (getting up at 10 a.m. and never having to don non-spandex pants), the moving around — from hostel to someone’s couch to a friend’s spare bedroom — wasn’t easy. As a natural homebody, someone who was just born to nest in one spot, I felt incredibly disoriented with the constant movement.
When you’re on the road a lot, you don’t have the same luxuries as you would if you were settled in a home. There’s no organized closet, no neat medicine cabinet to hold all your skincare products, no fully-stocked kitchen to ensure you are making healthy food choices. You’re floating, fluidly moving from one place to the next, totally improvising on just about everything.
In many ways, it’s liberating, in a very Eat, Pray, Love kind of way. But there are so many parts of the constant travel that leave you feeling naked and exposed. You don’t have a routine to hide behind. There is no comfort zone you can retreat back into when you’re not feeling so great about yourself.
And this discomfort, this sensation of not being rooted physically in one place, was the catalyst for me to ground my own two foot emotionally, regardless of my external circumstances. I adopted daily practices that could I could incorporate anywhere and everywhere — five minutes of silence every morning, handwriting affirmations on little post-it notes, stopping before every meal to smell, like really smell, the food that sat in front of me. These small routines became my foundation. No matter how chaotic the world was around me, I stuck to them, and they reminded me that the core of who I am doesn’t have to sway under any circumstances. In limbo I taught myself how to be stable.
As cliche as it sounds, witnessing the beauty of the world put things into perspective for me. How can I not find my body, an extension of the stars in the galaxy, to be utterly beautiful when I’m standing at the top of Bolivia’s Death Road, peering down into a never-ending rainforest? How can I not believe I am perfect and worthy when I stand at the shore of the ocean, watching the magnificent waves surge? How can I not love every inch of my perfectly flawed body when I see that there are no two women anywhere in the world with the same exact physique? It’s impossible.
[Image via Shutterstock]