What walking across Spain taught me about body acceptance

In early June I was in the middle of my own personal quarter-life crisis. Almost a year out of college I was working in an American call center in Cork, Ireland, putting on weight sitting at a desk all day, and getting yelled at for not knowing that a bride’s wedding date was going to change after she had already created and ordered 500 invitations. Luckily the yelling ended as soon as she said the magic words, “I want to talk to your supervisor.” With a sigh of relief, and the joy only a customer support agent who has managed to pass the buck can understand, I transferred the call. In a brief moment of respite I checked my personal email. One message from my mother; “I want to do the Camino de Santiago. Would you be free to come with me for a week?”

The Camino de Santiago is a famous pilgrimage which stretches across northern Spain. Pilgrims travel from different points around the world and finish their journey at the Cathedral in Santiago to visit the remains of St. James. I’m not an extremely religious person, but having heard stories of the beautiful countryside and the great adventures to be had along the way, not to mention the premature midlife crisis mentioned above, it didn’t take much to persuade me.  Two weeks later I was on a plane with mum having booked a week’s holiday from work. Many people do the pilgrimage in stages, so we would do 8 days in June with the option of coming back another year to complete it.

I am not a fit or athletic person. I get out of breath just running for a bus or going up a flight of stairs. My mother is an avid cyclist and enjoys long walks so this was exactly her type of holiday. Before we left she promised she would definitely walk with me on the first day. To which I replied, “…What do you mean? Where are you going after that???” The important thing to remember is that the Camino is not a race or a competition. Everyone goes at their own pace. I quickly found that out going over the Pyrenees from St. John Pied de Port towards Roncesvalles.

Despite every promise, I lost mother at the first incline. That day I thought I was going to perish. I cannot describe how hopeless I felt. Every time I seemed to be reaching the summit I would turn a corner which lead to yet another hill. I was running out of water, getting overtaken by every other pilgrim on the trail, and the heat was intensifying. The only thing that kept me going was the voice in my head saying “It can’t go up forever.” Luckily, I was right. Reaching the summit was the most incredible feeling. I really hadn’t been sure that my body could make it the whole way.

This wasn’t the last time I would feel like I might not be physically capable of surmounting such an obstacle. Although I had intended to just do the 8 days with mum, in the end I just couldn’t leave. I called up my employer, asked for extra time and then resigned when that wasn’t possible. It wasn’t the most thought out thing I’ve ever done, but I definitely don’t regret it. I just felt like completing the Camino was a necessity. At a time when I didn’t really have any direction in my life, the yellow arrows on the trail pointed me towards Santiago. The people I walked with became like a family to me and we shared our stories, jokes, and complaints. By day we struggled along, stopping for swing breaks whenever there was a playground, and by night we compared blisters and drank red wine.

The meals were large and quite heavy, all to fortify you for the next day’s walking. In normal life we would all be worrying about putting on weight, but that is not something you need to stress over when you are doing so much daily exercise. Furthermore, the Camino didn’t need you to be skinny. If anything, having big thighs and strong calf muscles kept you going up those hills, and your broad shoulders meant that the weight of a large backpack was barely noticeable. For the first time my appearance was of minimal importance to me. I barely thought about it for a month. I only realized how much time and effort I spent trying to look skinny when I felt the absence of those kind of thoughts from my mind. It was like being on a mental holiday.

The stages of the Camino required a lot of stamina. The first section involves a lot of steep inclines and declines over the mountains, through forest trails and along the edge of crevices. The second part is through the meseta (desert) which is mostly flat but has very little shade. The third stage goes through rainy Galicia, which has similar countryside and weather conditions to Ireland. At the beginning I lagged behind. Luckily my new friends all walked at different paces so I usually had someone to chat to. As my feet got used to the pace I got fewer blisters, and my knees strengthened so I no longer made any weird clicking sounds. By the last week I was made fun of for walking so quickly! I was often way ahead of the others and wouldn’t see them for hours before waiting at a café for them to catch up and join me for lunch. I don’t know when the switch occurred but I really got into my stride and could enjoy the physical act of walking much more.

Reaching Santiago was bittersweet for all of us. It was an amazing accomplishment for everyone in the group. I also had a newfound appreciation of my body for making it across almost 800km (500miles) despite no preparation! I’m at home now, back in normal form-fitting clothing and properly re-integrated into society. There were a lot of lessons that I learned along the trail which I am trying to keep with me, such as; being open to new experiences, accepting people the way they are, and loving my body for what it can do not what it looks like. That last one is the hardest but also the most important. Instead of covering up the bits I’m ashamed of I’m trying to embrace and celebrate every part of my figure. These big arms are great at hugging friends, these chubby cheeks dimple when I smile at someone, and these feet have walked 500 miles.

Katie Dennison is an aspiring comedian, writer and future Queen of whichever country will accept her! She has just made the move from Cork to Edinburgh based on a hunch and what amounts to basically some great life advice from a hippy. To find out more you can follow her on Twitter @KateNora92 or  Instagram @katienora92, read some of her funny articles on Buzzfeed at www.buzzfeed.com/katenora, or take a look at her blog: forcomiceffect.blogspot.ie

[Image via Fox Searchlight]