Sometimes I wish I could observe the world through another person’s eyes. Perception is such an intriguing topic – every last person on earth today experiences the world differently than you or I. And I mean this in the most literal sense. No two people can look at the sky and see the exact same shade of blue. To some, classical music is the most beautiful sound in the world, and to others, it will put them to sleep. One person may love the taste of mangoes, while another will be left at the mercy of nausea after one bite because of that one time in Guatemala when they contracted food poisoning and that was the last thing they had ate before they threw up for twenty-four hours, nearly nonstop, and they know they are not allergic but they just really do not want to relive that memory, thank you very much.
We all collect a series of assumptions as we go through life about the ways in which the world works, and we tend to expect everyone else to share those same set of rules, too. Even when they don’t.
Travel is one easy way to confront the very things you tend to take for granted on a daily basis. The culture we grow up in heavily influences so many of the decisions we make without thinking, relying on our subconscious brain to do the work. This set of rules is a sort of guidebook for how we should show up in the world, the language we should use and the way we should interpret others’ actions or words. It is so deeply ingrained in us we hardly ever stop to think about it or question where a certain belief came from, we just accept it as fact and move on. We need something concrete to build a foundation on, after all, something solid from which we can act.
Constantly questioning things is exhausting. There are certain evolutionary traits that exist in humans that have enabled us to survive for thousands of years, and this guidebook is one of them. It simplifies life for our brain, just like stereotypes do. Instinctively, we want to stick close to our tribe and avoid the “other.” So it is easy for us to get caught up in the business of living, to forget to reflect or question things at all, even when we become dissatisfied with the way things are.
This is because, until very recently, we simply couldn’t. Our brain was taught to ignore the fact that there might be another way, perhaps just beyond our doorstep. But times have changed. We can override our brain’s tendency to avoid other ways of life. First, however, we must be willing to venture out of our comfort zone and expand our point of view.
There are usually a few rules in our guidebook we skim over, never really taking a closer look into how they govern our life.
During my recent trip to Iceland, I was confronted with one of these rules that owned me for several years in a way I wish it never had. When I was eleven years old, I sustained a back injury that put me out for several months. I had always been a very active child, running and playing both in and outside of the gym, and this sudden inactivity was a shock to my body. Inevitably, I gained a lot of weight in a short period of time. After several months of rest, I returned to the gym, no longer the little girl I’d once been. It was as if I’d become a woman overnight – I hardly recognized this body I was attempting to flip around. Add to this the skin-tight bodysuits and tiny teammates, and it was a recipe for some serious insecurities surrounding my physical form. Thus began a battle between my mind and my body that would last several years.
Sometime before adolescence, I’d had an image ingrained in my brain of the ideal body: that was, I should have thin, lean, long limbs and a tiny torso to accentuate my hips. I always admired the gymnasts who had this graceful look over the short, powerful types. When you’re an active kid, it’s easy to maintain this stature. But in time, I grew to envy these long lean girls who could eat whatever they wanted and not worry about putting on a single pound. My body type was something quite different, and I fought, hard.
When I was fourteen, I thought I’d discovered a way to hack my body type to get the look I craved. If I cut out all grains and dairy and ate a diet consisting purely of vegetables, fruit, poultry, fish and a few select superfoods, I found those lean limbs within reach. I started doing cardio five to six days per week in addition to my gymnastics and circus training, and I was terrified of the consequences if I missed a few hours or stepped out of line.
My devotion to this way of life came from all the wrong reasons, and I grew to fear my body.
I would stare at the mirror and pull at non-existent fat around my waist, sucking in my abs as much as I could. Anytime someone took a photo or video of me, I would inevitably hate the way I looked. In the few times I felt I was beautiful, I was nearly always at my skinniest, skinny to a point that scares me to look at now. Ultimately, the image I saw when I looked at myself didn’t match reality, didn’t match what everyone else saw when they observed this tiny girl grow tinnier with every passing month. People I hardly knew were worried about my well being. I was skin and bones and wiry muscle, constantly tired and hungry and cranky.
You are not your body – you are so much more than the figure that other people see. Somewhere along the way, I forgot this little piece of information, and my self-worth became inextricably attached to the way I felt about my body on any given day. I thought this was the only way for me to live; I never criticised others for their lifestyle, I never told anyone they should adopt my way of life. Maybe this should have been a huge red flag, but my brain never got the message. I’ve always been better at helping others than I have at letting myself be helped, and in this instance, it went far too far.
It is easy to lie to yourself for a period of time, but at one point you have to wake up. A little more than a year ago, my parents sat me down and told me this needed to change. For the first time, they managed to get me to see how unhealthy I’d become, how this way of life had become a dangerous habit that could actually put my life in danger if we didn’t do something immediately. Thus, the long road to recovery began.
I think many of our issues about our bodies stem from the stories we learn from the culture we grow up in.
Visiting the thermal pools in Iceland made me realize how much more comfortable people are with their bodies over there. In the pools, you are required to strip naked and shower before you put on your bathing suit and enter the water. Thing is, there are no individual stalls – it’s all communal showers. There is no hiding. But no one really cares what anyone else looks like. Women and girls of all ages adhered to this rule, going about their own business no matter their shape or size. I think it’s a healthy thing for young girls growing up to see this kind of attitude surrounding bodies. There is no fear, no judgement, just acceptance. Everyone has a body with their own strengths and flaws, that’s just the way it is.
While this ritual made me uncomfortable, it forced me to confront the messaging I’d accumulated growing up. This idea that we should all be air-brushed models and do everything in our power to reverse the ageing process is false. Bodies are not meant to be feared; they are meant to be loved and appreciated for all they do for us every day.
I’m not saying these body positivity campaigns don’t still make me uncomfortable. This issue is something I’m still working on like anyone else. I am a short, athletic yet curvy young woman who builds muscle easily with use, and I am learning to own this fact now.
Take a look in the mirror, really stop and look this time. Every body is a good body – so love yours just the way it is.