Dealing with Body Image Back in the Real World
In a post I wrote a few weeks after finishing my thru-hike last August, I described how my time on the Trail had left me confident in my badassery and less concerned with my physical appearance. However, in the six months since then, I’ve noticed some of the effects of the AT wearing off. In some ways, this is a good thing. The first few months of graduate school, I really struggled to get work done because I had such a hard time sitting still indoors. While I still prefer to be outside as much as possible, I have adapted to civilization enough that I can be more productive again.
At the same time, some of the best effects of the AT are wearing off, too. My confidence falters and I care too much what I look like. My college friend Breitside, who thru-hiked a year and a half ago, told me she has been feeling the same way, too.
In some situations, like when I ran a half marathon last week, I noticed that I returned to my hiker self: unconcerned with my sweaty, gross appearance and proud of the work I had done that had left me looking that way. And that’s when I came up with my theory on how to keep the self-esteem and body image I developed on the trail.
Hoarders aside, we humans value objects either for their aesthetic appearance (beauty), their utility, or for sentimental reasons. If we don’t find our possessions beautiful, functional, or meaningful, we discard them. I think we treat our bodies the same way. I am not encouraging anyone to objectify themselves or others, but it seems to me that people tend to place value on their own bodies the same way they place value on inanimate objects.
Yes, I lost weight on the AT just as most thru-hikers do, but in many ways my appearance got worse. By the time I was halfway, my feet had developed these weird callouses that made the end of my foot completely rounded, so my toes had these thick, pointy tips. My shins were covered in bruises and I had some wonky tan lines. I sweated so much each day that I used to say I could season my dinner with the salt on my face (I was joking, but I easily would have had enough salt). But despite these and other aesthetic flaws, I was more content with and proud of my body than I had or have ever been. If Kate Upton offered to switch bodies with me on the day I walked 38 miles, I would have turned her down without a second thought. My body’s aesthetic value was lower, but it’s functional utility was at an all-time high.
But back to the real world, to the normal days since Katahdin. Before my hike, I would have attributed my low body image to the abundance of mirrors, makeup, and magazines around me. I remember looking forward to escaping from those things by living in the woods. Now, I realize that the mirrors, makeup, and magazines are not the crux of my problem (although they don’t help, either). Instead, the problem is that I struggle to value my body unless it is either useful or beautiful.
Last night, as we talked about our difficulties adapting back to civilization, Breitside asked me what I thought the solution was. Now that we are back in the real world, how do we hold on to the transformations we underwent on the AT?
We could just keep hiking and avoid real life altogether, which is not a bad idea. But for those of us who choose to pursue a future in the real world, a future full of sitting down and computer screens and industrial fluorescent lights, I think the solution is to keep our bodies’ functional value high. As long as I keep setting and achieving physical, athletic goals, the mirrors and the magazines don’t bother me at all.
Psychology researchers have identified at least dozens of reasons that people (especially women) are dissatisfied with their bodies, so I know the issue of body image is much more complex than my simple aesthetics vs. utility theory. Still, this realization has helped me reintegrate to post-AT life and hold on to the Trail in a healthy, adaptive way.
I wouldn’t be surprised if many people reading this disagree or think it would be better to value our bodies no matter what (yes, that would probably be better). Still, I hope my point is helpful to other hikers struggling with re-entry to sedentary civilization and I welcome their insight as this process unfolds for me, too.
Happy hiking and happy adapting,
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Posa! I love your theory and it has been my biggest self issue since the trail. I am confident so much more in myself since the trail, but still am struggling with accepting the changes of my body.
I have found now that even though my body is not in hiking shape any more it is still wonderful and useful. I have found that my body is now adjusting to rock climbing and although it is a different feeling then hiking I am still proud of what I can do.
Thanks, darlin’! I’ve only just started climbing a couple of times and it is pretty sick, too. I’m glad that is giving you what the AT once gave us. Keep on being your awesome self! And let me know if you wanna do another race together!
I’m so glad to have seen this post, and to know I’m not alone in my own feelings on my body post-hike/adventure. It seems so counterintuitive, that some of the best effects of the Trail wear off, but they do. I love your theory, and will try to use it myself. I’ve found in recent months that going to the gym (something I never would have done pre-trail) makes me much happier. It’s a weird transition. Anyway, thanks for writing this!