I'm embarrassed about all the time I've spent thinking about my weight. No one has ever told me I needed to lose any. Doctors mark my weight "average," and aside from a few middle school incidents, friends, family, and strangers have been positive about my body. But I'm not always happy with my appearance. Although I strongly believe in accepting all bodies and am grateful to be healthy, I have spent much of my life wishing I were thinner.
I am, like I said, embarrassed about this. I want to love my body as-is and enjoy delicious food without angst or calorie-counting, but that can be a challenge in a thin-obsessed society.
Though I have no interest in dieting, I long to be carelessly thin. I want to be like the Gilmore Girls, who shamelessly devour all kinds of junk food and take-out while maintaining model-size bodies.
And actually, sometimes I do feel thin. Unlike the stable meter on my scale, my perception of my weight oscillates wildly.
One summer, I took a photo of myself in the same spot every morning and wrote down how I felt—everything from sleek to slug. A month later I looked back to see nearly identical photos of an average young woman.
I hoped the photos would serve as proof that feeling particularly fat or thin was unconnected to my actual body. But twenty-something years of thinking is hard to overcome.
So I tried the opposite approach. Instead of documenting and analyzing my body, I decided to entirely ignore appearance. I packed a single outfit, no hairbrush or mirror. I set off to backpack the Continental Divide Trail, 3,000 miles from Mexico to Canada.
At first I felt awkward in my hiking gear. I wore spandex shorts that cut into my thighs, a dorky quick-dry skirt, baggy shirt, and size 11 sneakers. I had never been particularly athletic, and had certainly never relied on my body to survive.
But outside, it was up to my knees and thighs to navigate me over mountains and across rivers before I ran out of food.
Soon, my weight and appearance didn't matter. On trail, I cared for myself in the detached way you might control a SIMS character. I ordered myself to wake up before the sun and forced my feet into cold wet socks and sometimes frozen shoes. I hiked up mountains in hundred degree heat, then hiked through the night to avoid heat.
I had conversations with my body as if we were separate and I were its coach: "I promise I will give you chocolate and a break if you get over this mountain."
I constantly monitored my energy and hydration and worried about injury. Would the sharp pains in my feet worsen? What if the sun rash on my hands spreads up my arms? Were my numb toes getting frost bite?
And I guiltlessly ate whatever and whenever I wanted. I devoured pink frosted cookies, cheese puffs, whole loaves of banana bread. I woke up in the middle of the night to eat snickers dipped in cream cheese.
Over time, I grew stronger and leaner. The more athletic I became, the more grateful I was for my body's tolerance and endurance. It turned out that the thing I had hated about my body—its proficiency at holding onto fat—was a major advantage on trail.
Compared to male hikers, who often become gaunt over time, female hikers remain in relatively better health because of the way our bodies handle fat storage. Women have held speed records over men on both the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trail. (Of course, a lot of women also stop having periods due to extreme exercise and low body fat too.)
After five months and 3,000 miles, I was 10 to 15 pounds lighter but just looked like an athletic person. I was still within the "healthy" range for my height, and my thighs still rubbed together.
I returned home with a new goal in mind. I wanted to stay active, but not spend any time, energy, or money on appearance. I decided not to buy shampoo, beauty products, jewelry or haircuts. I wanted to be like Steve Jobs and have only one great outfit I could wear anywhere.
But, like walking back into a room you previously didn't realize stinks, returning from trail to regular life made me aware again of how much appearance matters. And for most of society, looking good means being thin.
At the end of trail, a fellow hiker told me that I had always been cute, but was "like a model" after losing weight. Back at work, I was told I looked great, which I knew meant thin.
I received "compliments" from strangers on my uncut, unwashed, and uncombed hair. One woman said, "It's really cool how you can just let your hair go like that." A thirteen year old girl asked me if I cut my hair myself since my bangs were crooked.
I started wearing deodorant again. I moved into an apartment with built-in mirrors in a city covered in mirror windows, so I watched myself as my ribcage disappeared into fat and my hips slowly widened. I jogged and cut back on mini-pies, but four months later my body is back to its average self. Some days I feel beautiful, some days not.
One morning I woke up sick and remembered how amazing it is to have a body that usually works. And I was grateful for it again, even if it doesn't always feel great.
Still, I'm back to my worrying self. I want to be loved and admired, and sadly in our culture that usually requires combing your hair and watching your waistline. While I haven't yet bought any beauty products, last week I gave in and got a haircut.
Myla Fay is a designer and a long distance hiker living in Chicago.
Images by Myla.