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Body positive travel: learning to love your body on the road


Body positivity travel

Julia Caesar Rgiznocaytk Unsplash

There’s something quite liberating about packing your bags, jumping on a plane and arriving in a new country. As it seems, travel can also serve as a way to be more body positive as it helps you love and accept your body — just the way it is.

At age 40, Roxanne was caught up in a stressful cycle of playing Mum and Dad to her two kids, ages six and nine, as her husband frequently travelled for work, all while carrying around an excess weight of 20 kilos. “I had gone up and down with my weight since I had kids and, at that point in my life, I was overweight. I wasn’t feeling good about myself,” says Roxanne. “I didn’t find myself attractive, I avoided looking at myself in the mirror and I even stopped working and going to social events,” she shares.

It’s an all-too-common feeling among women. Based on The Dove Global Beauty and Confidence Report, the 2016 data revealed that 89 per cent of Australian women are opting to cancel plans, job interviews or other important engagements because of how they view their appearance. According to Sarah McMahon, a psychologist and director of BodyMatters Australasia, in everyday life people are almost trained to do so much self-surveillance that they’re looking at their bodies and imagining how they look — to themselves and to others — and that has really dominated a big part of their lives. “It’s a real tragedy that so many of us would not participate in things we actually really enjoy and would like to do simply because we don’t like the way we look,” McMahon adds.

Roxanne realised that in order to make a change, she would have to remove herself from her daily world and put herself first. When the opportunity came up to do just that, she took it. “I really needed to be alone and remind myself how to practise self-love, so going to Bali and immersing myself in a different culture for a 10-day retreat focused around wellbeing and healthy cooking really kick-started my weight-loss goals,” she says. “At the same time, putting some distance between me and my family and the daily worries and responsibilities gave me the space to think; it reminded me how to look after myself, prioritise ‘me’ time and also to get up and be physical again.”

Combining this with a mindfulness retreat or a cooking holiday enables us to learn and develop a new skill which helps us inhibit and appreciate our bodies in different ways.

Upon her return to Australia, Roxanne equally brought back with her the relaxed nature she had become so fond of seeing in the Balinese people. “I came back making fresh salads and eating fragrant-flavoured foods and instead of prioritising things like house cleaning and going hard to please everyone, I would instead take myself to see a movie.” As a result, she dropped 20 kilograms in three months and went back to work in her family business feeling happy, energetic and motivated. “Even though I’ve got scars and stretch marks from giving birth, just being in a normal weight zone has made me more confident and I love myself and the way my body looks,” says Roxanne.

“One of the main things that travel does is provide us with an opportunity to step outside our normal world and environment but also outside the mundane routine of everyday life, for a sensory experience of different cultures,” explains McMahon. “Combining this with a mindfulness retreat or a cooking holiday enables us to learn and develop a new skill which helps us inhibit and appreciate our bodies in different ways. At the end of the day, our body is an instrument — not an ornament. Travelling experiences can help us realise that,” she says.

What influences our body image?

Body image can be described as a combination of your personal perceptions, thoughts, attitudes and feelings about your general appearance. In turn, these can have a trickle-down effect on how you feel about yourself, the state of your mental and physical health as well as be a reflection of your self-worth, including how well you take care of yourself.

While a larger, fuller body size was once considered just as beautiful as a slim body shape, nowadays in western societies, cultural prejudice is in favour of a slender body type. This has become the shape to aspire towards. A significant body of research confirms that the greatest influencer of this stereotype is the media, which includes commercial advertisements, television and magazines.

Such media-supported norms have associated thinness and beauty as a highly valuable source of happiness, success and youthfulness. On the flipside, being overweight is perceived as physically unattractive, lazy and lacking in willpower. Consequently, this can have an impact on your behaviour and influence you in trying to change your weight and body shape, which may even turn into an obsession where you undergo plastic surgery in order to look like your ideal personal image.

“Culture tells women from a very young age that their self-worth is wrapped up in how they look and, if you’re not achieving the cultural standard of beauty, some women can take it as a problem they need to fix as opposed to blaming culture for having an unrealistic and unreasonable standard of beauty,” explains Dr Meredith Nash, a senior lecturer in sociology at the University of Tasmania. “In our times, there is a moral panic around obesity and fatness, meaning you are seen as a moral person if you have a body that is very toned and strong,” says Dr Nash. “Overall, for women, self-worth is completely wrapped up in beauty and aesthetics,” she continues.

Based on a report by Better Health Channel, women who diet frequently because of poor body image are more likely to binge-eat, purge food, restrict food intake to the point of not getting required nutrients, suffer from anorexia and over-exercise. New research by the University of Missouri found negative body image to be associated with increased tobacco and alcohol abuse among teenagers. Body-image dissatisfaction can also have a negative effect on psychological functioning, mental health including depression as well as lead to a poor quality of life. The tendency to compare your body to other bodies — which includes wishful thinking to look like a swimsuit model — can lead to emotional distress, feelings of powerlessness and shame and even to the development of an eating disorder like bulimia.

The social media mirror

Social media platforms such as Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat play a major role in creating the current perception of an “ideal” body image.

Recent research published in New Media & Society found that spending time looking at fitness influencers and models on Instagram, and specifically “fitspiration” images, has a negative effect on self-esteem and is likely to make followers feel unhappy with their own bodies. Researchers called this “self-objectification”, which can be a predictor of other mental health problems such as depression and disordered eating.

With more than 65 million posts on Instagram, #fitspo (short for “fitspiration”) images can be used to support strong and fit as the new skinny and intend to motivate followers to get up off the couch, exercise and eat well as a way to achieve their health objectives.

Lead researcher of the study from the Centre for Emotional Health at Macquarie University, Jasmine Fardouly, explains while this shift from extreme thinness to health and fitness may, at first, sound healthy, these images are still driven from a culture that says women need to look a particular way. Unfortunately, the trend still matches society’s beauty ideal, making it just as damaging for body image.

While travelling, I noticed more women embracing their bodies in bikinis no matter their body shape, which inspired me because I realised, I didn’t have to be chiselled or have a beautiful model figure to be proud of my own body.

Subsequent research found that the most vulnerable social media users are those that seek approval for their looks online but also those who compare themselves to others. For wellness coach, Hollie Azzopardi (28), following all the #fitspo women online with the six packs, thigh gaps and bikini bodies did, at first, act as motivation to push herself harder in the gym and influenced what she ate. “When I was at the most intense stage with my body, I worked out twice a day starting at 5am before work, followed by a session right after work and I even took part in a 12-week online fitness program at a time when I didn’t need to lose weight,” says Hollie. “Most of the time I would feel good about my body but then I would jump onto Instagram and see these amazing bodies and compare myself to them and this would make me feel crap about myself again, so I pushed myself even harder,” she continues.

“People tend to post the most glamorous and attractive images of themselves including presenting the ideal life version of themselves on social media which, in reality, is not their true representation,” explains Fardouly. “Even so, this still gives people a lot of opportunities to compare their appearance to others and most of the time women think other people look more attractive than them on social media,” she says. In a 2014 study for Beauty Heaven Australia, the findings reveal that 57 per cent of women regularly edit themselves to look better online and 60 per cent admit having untagged themselves if they feel they don’t look good enough.

Additional research conducted by Fardouly found that after making comparisons on social media, women were more likely to restrict food intake, exercise for weight loss or to change their appearance. She also found that these behaviours were all linked with eating disorders but were not the cause of them. Additionally, her research also concludes that browsing Facebook for even 10 minutes puts women in a more negative mood.

Body positive

For Hollie, a trip to Europe with her partner had a transformational effect on how she viewed her body. “When we stepped foot in Amsterdam, I decided I was going to let my hair down and allow myself to experience the different cultures we were going to visit. This felt like a kind of instant relaxation and the longer I spent immersing myself in various cultures, the more I realised there was more to life than always having to eat healthy and being obsessed with my body shape. While travelling, I noticed more women embracing their bodies in bikinis no matter their body shape, which inspired me because I realised, I didn’t have to be chiselled or have a beautiful model figure to be proud of my own body. I remember being in Greece coming off the back of two months in Europe where I had eaten whatever I wanted and stepping on the scales in the hotel room only to realise I was the heaviest I had ever been in my life. Surprisingly, I didn’t feel upset about it; I realised I was also the happiest I had ever been in my life. This was a great wake-up call; that my happiness isn’t determined by my weight or the shape of my body but by the fact that I had just gotten engaged, I was enjoying myself and doing things that I loved.”

“Travelling exposes us to different cultural standards of beauty and different body shapes and sizes, giving us perspective on what we think is normal. In some cases, travel can change the way we see ourselves,” explains McMahon.

Upon her return to Australia, Hollie switched to following body-positive accounts online. “There’s a self-love movement on social media that’s increasing in popularity, which tries to encourage women’s acceptance of different shapes and sizes and is trying to challenge what we think is beautiful and attractive,” says Fardouly. “And this representation should be of all the different bodies in the world and of all different cultures, rather than promoting specific ideals that a large amount of women cannot attain,” she says.

Feel good naked

While pushing yourself to look fit doesn’t seem to be the solution to sustainable body-esteem, pushing yourself out of your comfort zone may act as a way to refresh your self-image. When PR manager Lauren Trucksess (31), moved from the US to Korea in 2012 for a year to teach English, she didn’t realise going to traditional Korean bathhouses and getting naked would have a transformative effect on how she viewed her muscular body. “I grew up doing gymnastics and competitive cheerleading, so I felt that I had too many muscles and looked manly,” she says. “And because in Seoul, the ideal body type is completely the opposite of mine, when I first began going to the bathhouse and was surrounded by thin Korean women, I felt uncomfortable about exposing my body and being out in the open. But when I stopped imagining that they were looking at me and critiquing my body, I started going more frequently and the bathhouse kind of became a safe space for me to be myself and unwind.”

Stepping outside her comfort zone allowed Lauren to stretch beyond her preconceptions and beliefs about herself and challenge herself mentally and socially. This allowed her to become happier and embrace her differences.

“Ever since Korea I’ve had peace of mind after realising that image is not everything. Self-acceptance for me is more about protecting my body and feeling good about what I’m putting into it, which has had a positive flow-on effecBt on my stress levels and how I relate with other people,” says Lauren.

Over to you

Prioritising personal over cultural values can prove to be the way forward. “Self-kindness and recognising that we’re more than the sum of our body parts is the first thing we need to practise if we are to overcome body dissatisfaction,” says McMahon. “Therefore, being mindful of the judgemental thoughts of yourself and not reducing yourself and other people to how they look is a technique to use to move beyond your own criticisms,” she says.

Fardouly recommends taking some time out from social media and being selective with which accounts you follow. “It’s quite possible that going on a digital detox for even a week can improve your wellbeing,” she says.

As a sociologist, Dr Nash believes we have to change social structures to create change for the collective. “Asking women to change their minds about their bodies is not fair. For women, the ideal world is when we are valued for much more than how we look, but for our personalities and other characteristics.”

If you or anyone you know is struggling with their body image, please call The Butterfly Foundation’s National Helpline on 1800 33 4673.