The summer that changed how I think about my body
“Mademoiselle?” The French baker snapped me out of my trance. I was staring at a beautiful case of pastries in an unreasonably gorgeous French village. With the help of my BFF, I was able to communicate my croissant order. Even though I had been in Europe almost a month at that point, I was still struggling to comprehend my life.
I was studying architecture, which is a great major if you want an excuse to travel. The summer after my junior year, I went on a European tour with a small group from my program. We traveled through eight countries that summer, and we were constantly on the move.
Two years before my European escapade, it was brought to my attention by a counselor at my college that I had an disordered eating habits. I had all the behaviors of someone with an eating disorder, but I was never below the medical weight to be considered “anorexic.”
My disordered eating habits in started in high school. I restricted my food intake and occasionally binged. When I moved away to college and I was on my own, away from any supervision, my habits turned extreme. I recorded what I ate in a journal, then I would go to the gym for as long as it took me to burn off those calories. My energy level was dwindling. I was constantly comparing myself to other girls. Socially, I was really uptight. I had made two really close friends, but otherwise I was convinced that everyone was out to get me. I thought everyone was staring me up and down and analyzing me.
After I recognized my behaviors as unhealthy, I was able to seek help and establish a support group. My other years of college were much more healthy than my first, but I still had bad days. Two months before my trip, I was skipping breakfast as I scampered off to physics class. I would make the excuse that I “didn’t have time,” rather than address the issues again. I was still in denial. So if my habits spiraled out of control when I left home, what would happen when I left my home country? Actually, quite the opposite
My study abroad program turned out to be like a miniature rehab. It’s not that the people on the trip could force me to change my habits or even counsel me. But I didn’t have access to most of the things that triggered my habits. Firstly, exercise was eradicated, and I didn’t have access to a scale. I didn’t bring any running gear either because I had not the first clue when I could make time for that. We were constantly traveling, so we did lots of walking. But I had no chance to over-exercise or do any cardio. We also spent our fair share sitting while traveling, in boats, trains, and buses. We stayed in hostels and small hotels. No hotel gyms for us!
In America, I was driven by numbers and facts. Calories. Salaries. Miles. Minutes. Certain aspects of my life slowed down when I studied abroad. I felt like some pressure was taken away, and I could relax a little. In the height of my eating disorder, I spent a lot of time on the internet poring over photos of very thin, seemingly perfect women. It was dangerous. Although I had mostly broken that habit, when I studied abroad, #thinspo was completely taken away from me. I had little access to internet. I logged into Facebook via hotel computer maybe once a week for five minutes. In transit, while on buses between countries, I read books instead. I spent a lot of time gawking at the varying countrysides. It was so refreshing soak in my surroundings and not compare myself to images on the screen of a cell phone.
I used to be terrified of eating in front of people. But during the program abroad, we had so many group dinners in small, beautiful European restaurants, that I had to confront my fears. Eating disorders trick you into thinking people are watching you and judging you at all times. One evening as I looked around at my peers in a German biergarten, I realized no one was actually watching or judging me at all. I felt more relaxed at each dinner. I also had an amazing three-hour dinner with my two dearest friends in a Parisian restaurant. We had a three course meal, of course. We drew silly sketches on the restaurant’s paper napkins and laughed for hours. For someone who was terrified of eating in front of others, that was one of my favorite memories of the trip (and one of my favorite memories ever!) thanks to the company.
Before studying abroad, shopping often caused a meltdown. I would panic if I didn’t fit into the size I wanted. When I shopped for clothing on the trip (because, come on, who doesn’t want to look European in Europe?) they were in European sizes, which I still don’t exactly understand. So rather than focusing on the number, I purchased what fit properly. I was slowly functioning more comfortably without having anxiety about every detail of my day.
Reflecting back on that morning in the French village, it really is one of my most fond memories. While standing in front of those colorful pastries, I realized I was eating breakfast normally, unashamed. I didn’t feel guilty. I enjoyed it in front of my friends, and I just so happened to enjoy it in a beautiful small town in which I could barely speak the language. I believe that being removed from a culture that was so ingrained in my system really helped me to face the reality of my eating disorder. For years I had been so uncomfortable with my own existence. My time away from my home and my habits helped me to find and be comfortable with myself. And thankfully I brought that happiness and sense of adventure back to the US with me.
Jamie Bailey went to architecture school only to become a poor comedy writer. When she is not writing she can be found running marathons, quoting Harry Potter lines, and Instagramming. You can read her blog at http://thepeacemobile.blogspot.com/ and view said Instagrams of her cat and other potentially cool stuff under @jamie.redman
[Image via iStock]