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How Travel Helps Body Image

How I Built Body Confidence Through Traveling Alone

When I was 11, my mom signed me up for a week of fancy gymnastics camp, a respite from the dragging New York City Summer as the child of two recently divorced parents who both worked full time. I was not a gymnast in any sense of the word, but gymnastics was my favorite sport to watch, my favorite part of the Olympics, and something I was excited to spend a week doing. I loved, and still do, trampolines. I was an apartment-dwelling city child whose wildest dream was to have a trampoline of my own. I was especially excited to get a chance to jump on the big trampolines spread throughout the gym space. What I did not realize was that the majority of my peers were practicing gymnasts who kept up with the sport throughout the school year, finely tuned tumbling machines with muscles that were taut underneath their tight, embellished, iridescent short and leotard combos. In comparison, I was a chubby kid in shorts and a t-shirt, a messy ponytail, and probably some glitter-accented hair clips, wildly excited to spend a week playing on all the fun apparatuses the gym had to offer.

My sweeping optimism was chipped away at, hour by hour, as I realized I was not like the other girls. I could not physically keep up with their flexibility, strength, and speed, skills some had spent a majority of their (short) lives practicing. The worst moment came when we did a relay race, lined up around the rim of a pit filled with foam cubes. The task was simple: two teams, two people at a time racing from one end to the other of the foam pit, tapping the hand of the next teammate in line once the task had been completed. Sure, I can do this, I thought to myself. But when it was my turn to compete for my team, and I was attempting to wade through the endless foam cubes, the sensation was akin to what I imagined wading through quicksand to be. It was so hard, and in the time it took for me to complete the sequence, the opposing team had seen three of its members start and finish. Fiercely competitive, yet unequipped to compete on this platform, I felt humiliated and disappointed in myself for causing my team to lose.

I was stuck in a foam pit at a trampoline-filled warehouse on the outskirts of Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.
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That same humiliation still rang true 13 years later, when I found myself in a similar predicament. It was July 2017 and I was stuck in a foam pit at a trampoline-filled warehouse on the outskirts of Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. How I wound up in Bishkek is a different story for another time, but I will explain how I found myself in this specific location. A week prior, a friend who was a fellow American spending the Summer in Kyrgyzstan told me about a trampoline park she had heard about. Like I said earlier, I love trampolines, so I was immediately down to check it out. I had long wanted to go to one of these mystical trampoline parks, and the perfect opportunity had now presented itself.

Upon entering, I was promptly looked up and down and asked how much I weighed. I responded that I did not know that number in kilograms and wondered why this woman cared. In a choppy exchange sprinkled with Russian and English, the woman working the front desk demanded I get on a scale in the back room. I said fine, we walked over, and I got on. The results of this test were then loudly discussed among multiple employees, and I was informed that I was too heavy to use a majority of the trampolines. As for my accompanying friend, she didn't need to be weighed, as she was "normal." Given that I had now been deemed abnormal, I was limited in the apparatuses I was given permission to access. Two special, heavy-duty trampolines and the adjoining foam pit were my options. My friend, who was perhaps more mortified than I was, asked if I'd like to leave. Not wanting to give in and show how bothered I was, I brushed her off. Of course not! I had been so excited to do this; of course I'm not going to leave, even if the entire building knows my weight. I can't show weakness. We jumped on the trampolines I was allowed on with gusto and decided to jump into the foam pit. My friend went first and wiggled over to the other side and rolled herself onto the smaller trampolines that would apparently collapse under my staggering weight. Then I jumped outward and fell into a sea of foam, an experience I can describe as anticlimactic at best.

I landed, rolled around a bit, and realized I couldn't pull myself back up onto the matted areas surrounding me. I was in over my head, literally and figuratively, and as I exclaimed to my friend, I managed to grab the attention of the majority of the gym, a group who by and large didn't speak English. Rapid Russian flew around me, probably about me, and five or so mildly concerned spectators had assembled above me. Sweat pouring down my face, I told them, "I'M FINE," zealously attempting to get them to stop paying attention to me. I was inside of that foam pit for 10 excruciating minutes, during which I shooed away many well-intentioned but generally unhelpful Bishkek locals. I wanted to melt into that pit and never emerge again. Not only was I one of the very few foreigners around, but I was the fat one from America who needed to be weighed upon arrival, like the day's catch being offloaded from a deep-sea fishing vessel. And now I was stuck inside a pit filled with foam cubes that likely had collected the sweat of hundreds of jumping Kyrgyz children.

I experienced a respect for my body I had never felt before. This body took me across the world and back.

Given that I am here today to tell you this story, you can safely assume that I did make it out of there, but I can assure you my pride and sense of self took an immense hit that day. But without struggle, there is no progress, and without experiencing the extreme highs and lows that come with owning your body, I wouldn't have been able to develop a true appreciation for the vessel I was fortunate enough to receive. A week after I was gulping down my tears, shame, and disappointment in the trampoline park, I was gulping down tears for a different reason. I was walking along the dusty streets of the ancient walled city of Khiva in Western Uzbekistan, five kilometers from the border it shares with Turkmenistan. I laid eyes on gorgeous tiled minarets, the shades of blue and green standing out against the beige, desert landscape. The images unfolding before my eyes revealed scenes I had long stared at on my laptop screen and dreamed of one day visiting. Bathing in experiences I know I'm so lucky to have, in a place thousands and thousands of miles from home, I was a singular woman blazing my own trail and making my dreams come true. Tears of gratitude rushed forward, and I experienced a respect for my body I had never felt before. This body took me across the world and back. This body kept me safe and healthy and gave me the ability to experience all I did. It didn't matter that my body looks different from some people; we are all different, and my different, "unruly" body allowed me to explore new lands and nourish my soul.

Traveling alone taught me that I am capable of more than I had imagined. At the end of the day, there I was, confined by my body in that it is not going to magically change overnight, but also liberated by it as it reliably took me to the places my heart desired. The world exists beyond me and my body and the endless battle we have been locked in since I was younger. I am a normal woman with a human body, complete with hips that will one day assist me with bringing a life into this world, a reasonably soft tummy my adopted kitten likes to lie on, boobs I sometimes wish were a little bigger but are fun to play with regardless, a sometimes-size-16 body, the size I happen to share with the average American woman. I am a thinker, seeker, and doer. It is an uphill battle to learning to love your body, but this trip was my first stand in attempting to make up for a lifetime of berating myself for looking the way I did.

Image Source: Tess Chapin
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