This is a crosspost from Greatist, who published this story about how travel helps me maintain a healthy body image. In it, I talk about how leading National Geographic Student Expeditions affords me the privilege of talking about food, body image, and life with our awesome teen girls and – even for just a few weeks – challenge the preconceptions our society teaches us about who and how we should be. Read the original here.
In the sun-soaked Mediterranean, skin is everywhere. It’s squeezing out between shorts and shirts as bodies wiggle and jiggle down the boardwalk. It’s pressed together on subways and buses on 90-degree afternoons. It’s browned and freckled, dimpled and smooth, rippling like the ocean, and all of it—every inch—is gorgeous.
I didn’t always see it that way. I’ve struggled with my body image for as long as I can remember. As a kid, I would encircle my wrist with my fingers and compare my ankles to the delicate ones at the school desk next to me. My body always came up shorter, fatter. I was born premature, so it took me a long time to catch up to my peers, but I always saw myself as bigger than I really was. Still do.
My insecurities about my body overwhelmed my desire to enjoy myself.
When I spent my sophomore year of college in Italy away from family and friends, my insecurities grew. For the first time, I was completely in control of what I ate, what I bought at the grocery store, and what I ordered at restaurants. And without anyone watching, I fell apart.
“How’s the food?” my friends asked, when I called long-distance. I told them it was great, and it was. But I held up poorly without the support system I didn’t know I had until I left it an ocean away.
For one hellish year and change, my insecurities about my body overwhelmed my desire to enjoy myself. I counted noodles and measured sauce by the spoonful. I dragged my exhausted body miles of postcard-worthy streets each day, sizing up the impossibly fashionable women around me through a malnourished haze.
While my roommates made frittatas with the brightest, freshest produce in the world, I sat down to a small cup of penne with jarred sauce and told myself—and them—I didn’t like to cook. When we stopped by the gelato shop on the way home from class, I made that tiny cup my sustenance for the day. Delicious? Of course. Sufficient? Hardly. Most Americans gorge themselves in Italy; it’s hard not to, surrounded by fresh, preservative-free food that’s worlds away from most of our own. But with my anxiety-fueled starvation diet running rampant, I came home 20 pounds lighter instead.
I returned to the States defeated and diminished, but desperate to go back. I kept thinking of the crusty bread with olive oil fresh from the trees next door and gelato so rich it was a religious experience.
Almost a decade later, I took a job leading high school trips back to Italy. The Americans I traveled with either bellied up to overflowing plates of pasta with a bottle of red wine and a loaf of bread, or sadly nibbled at a salad. But in Mediterranean culture, moderation and appreciation is the crux of living well. My Italian friends shared a sampling of first courses, followed by prudently portioned meats and pasta with a glass or two of wine, and never a mention of what it would do to their waistlines. They savor food as an essential part of la bella vita (the good life).
Around me, everyone else enjoyed life in big, gulping bites. I saw Italian women dress to leave the house as if they were stepping onto a runway, secure in their own skin—regardless of their size. Everyone from my whippet-thin neighbor to my voluptuous linguistics professor savored sitting down to the table with their families and friends. I missed that essential part of the experience in my desperation to whittle myself into an Americanized concept of femininity.
While I couldn’t get back the semester I spent hiding from food, I could teach the next wave of girls not to follow the path I’d stumbled down.
“Oh my god, I am going to get so fat,” one of the girls groaned as we ordered ice cream.
“We are eating, like, twice as much as I do at home,” another complained after dinner.
“This food is so carb heavy,” one whispered as we explored the tradition of homemade pasta.
In American culture, food and imperfect bodies are equally villainized. We’re fed the latest diet fad like a moral imperative. Thin is virtuous, strident, and strong. Fat is deviant, lazy, disgusting. Our bodies and how we feed them are tied to our standing as members of society, and these imperatives teach us we can’t disconnect our diets from our personal worth. But we are more than what we put in our mouths. We are so much bigger than our waist sizes.
“What does food mean as part of this culture?” I ask my students. They sit in silence, staring at their feet and each other, daring someone else to speak first. It’s social, someone offers. Communal. An essential part of expressing love, nourishing the spirit as well as the body.
Every summer, something exciting happens as we consciously explore the cuisine around us—not only the food itself, but the way the locals interact with it. As we watch our European counterparts dive into a plate of pasta and the aquamarine ocean with equal gusto, we stop seeing the dimples on their hips as indicative of their character. From their example, we learn to enjoy local dishes without commenting on their caloric content. And best of all, we take to the beach and the streets without pointing out a jiggle here, an extra wiggle there. We savor la bella vita, warts and all.
My former self stares back at me through the eyes of a student picking at a salad while the rest of the group chows down on plates of pasta. I offer her a bite of mine while we talk about the different ways our cultures approach food and bodies. We talk about how Italians carry themselves, and one bite at a time, we let go of our critical internal monologues.
Broken self-perceptions don’t change in the three weeks we spend in the Mediterranean, not completely. But we question the voices that tell us we’re wrong for being the size we are, the shapes that make us as different as snowflakes. By challenging them, I hope to give those students what I needed when my own negativity overwhelmed me: an alternative to the self-hate our culture shoves down our empty throats.