A Personal Tale of Body Image and Hiking: The Good, The Bad, and the Uncomfortable
While you can do a lot to prepare for a thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail, there are certain issues that you will not be able to address until the moment presents itself. One element that might easily be overlooked, is how your body will change over the course of your hike. When you walk continuously for over 2,000 miles, the body has to adapt somehow. The tricky thing is that bodily changes are completely unique to each hiker. You might lose weight, you might gain weight, you might not see a change in weight at all. The point is that there is no way of predicting how your body will react, and that can be a scary issue.
I knew from the beginning that I would see physical changes during my hike. For years I had seen my father leave for his section-hike as the dad I knew and loved, and return after three weeks a scruffy, emaciated, mountain man with a wild gleam in his eye. It was actually one of the reasons why I decided to hike the Trail myself. What was this place that had the power to transform someone so completely? It was a horrifying yet fascinating concept. But by the time it came for me to plan my own hike, I was undergoing a major physical issue already. I had an Eating Disorder. And while Eating Disorders are painful mentally, there was no way I could predict what hiking would do to my body.
Hiker hunger. Oh the superhuman power a hiker has to down a ½ pound burger, fries, a huge ice cream sundae and then have the audacity to go back for more. And the best part is that you don’t have to feel guilty about eating at all, because you are constantly earning each bite with every step you take. I was eating more food in one meal that I would have normally consumed in two days.
Hiker hunger also leads to getting Hangry. Because the hunger is so present, food quickly becomes a source of motivation and frustration. You constantly think about food, talk about food, and become very, very angry when you haven’t had enough food. I was already trying to get over a huge obsession with food in another way, so it didn’t help matters that I was launched into this food-obsessed culture. It also didn’t help that as hunger multiplied, so did my emotional mood-swings.
Hiker hunger is also something that is surprisingly unique to each person; how soon it kicks in varies. I remember a moment in Franklin, N.C. during the all you can eat pancake breakfast, hosted by the good people at First Baptist Church. The hunger was beginning to hit hard core for me, while the guys I was hiking with were still eating fairly normal portions. I went back three times for as many pancakes, bacon strips and toast as I could, beating all of the men there. I felt like a pig. Why was it that I could eat so much more than them? If anything they had been hiking harder, and they were bigger. What was wrong with me? I was mentally confused, and was even more confused when I became hungry only hours after hiking out of town. I even attempted to not join the others in a snack-break because I did not “deserve” to eat again after gorging myself.
No one is judging you because everyone is hungry. Even though my hiker hunger came early, it was most likely due to the fact that my body was simply catching up with what it was due. My hiker friends quickly joined me in a ravenous state-of-mind and we all ate like crazy. Hikers all understand the hunger. They would never look down on you for the food choices you make, and relish in taking on one-another in ridiculous food challenges. It is even okay to eat something after it has fallen in the dirt. Some might consider dirt-food, a hiker right of passage.
Your own body might judge you for a little while. Yes, you get hungry quickly hiking every day. But there were moments when I overdid a meal and became horribly nauseous because of it. Switching from a “normal” diet to a steady intake of protein bars, snack-cakes, instant meals, and rich, fatty town-food has a way of shocking your system. It might take some time for you to get used to it all. Not to mention that when you eat massive amounts of food, you might not be as motivated to go out and hike another ten miles. You either have to give in, or fight your own legs and walk some sense into them.
You may still be tempted to judge yourself. Whether you think you are eating too much, or think that you are not eating enough compared to other hikers, your brain might play devil’s advocate. The temptation to judge is simply human nature. I also tended to worry about how non-hikers perceived my vivacious appetite. Trail Magic was difficult because I didn’t want to appear too greedy, but not ungrateful at the same time. I would use other hikers as a basis for how much I would partake, depending on the size of the Magic. And even when safely surrounded by the hub of my fellow hiker-trash, I was still nervous about the obvious physical changes we were all experiencing.
Because there are no mirrors, it is much easier to ignore how you look. I knew that my body was changing, but it didn’t much matter because I was too damn tired at the end of the day to care. I didn’t have easy access to a mirror, and the pictures I took where mostly of the scenery or other hikers. I used my fellow comrades as a mirror in a way; I could tell that I was changing because I was beginning to see changes in them.
Mirrors do happen. You will have to see how your looks change eventually. Coming to terms with your new hiker-identity means accepting the scruffy looking, unkempt, unshaven person you will see in front of you. But it might not just be your body hair that changes. I began to notice muscle tone in my legs that looked strong and impressive. There was also definitely fullness in some areas that hadn’t been there before. You can take a shower and brush your hair, but you can’t brush away how your body decides to modify itself.
Change is not consistent. Some changes will be more apparent in others. There were hikers I knew that became Hulk-like versions of themselves, while others started to become skeletal in nature. The fact that there was no norm for a hiker-body type frustrated me. I didn’t seem to be bulking up, nor was I losing weight. I knew that I was gaining weight. When my mother visited me she told me that I looked “healthy”. What did that mean? I would look at other female hikers and tried to see how I compared, but it all it got to be mentally exhausting. It is not proper hiker-etiquette to single someone out for how much they have changed. Unless they openly discuss a certain aspect of their appearance, it is best to stay silent.
Nothing is permanent. Unless you are Baltimore Jack, You won’t be hiking the Trail forever. You will most likely return to your previous physical identity after you are done hiking. The Trail by no means “cured” me of my Eating Disorder; I still struggle with it every day. But the Trail did give me some essential perspective, and peace of mind that I wouldn’t have been able to find otherwise.
The Appalachian Trail is a teacher of many things, and there will be plenty of unexpected lessons. While you might not have any particular issues with your body, I still wanted to give fair warning that changes are inevitable in the looks department. But try not to dwell on anything too seriously. With change comes growth. My hope for all future and current hikers is that they learn to embrace all changes on their journey; every good, bad, and uncomfortable one.
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