How Thru-Hiking Changes Your Relationship to Your Body
Shortly before I left for my Appalachian Trail thru-hike in 2016, I kept fantasizing about how my body was going to become “better” as a result of exercising all day, every day. This is embarrassing to admit, but I was honestly imagining that within weeks I would become a toned, tanned warrior princess of sorts. I pictured myself with no more cellulite, my ample thighs shaved down to pure muscle, strolling happily through the forest with my new super-lean body. My daydreams revolved around how my body was going to look because of thru-hiking.
Then I started hiking — and how my body looked immediately became irrelevant. Thoughts about body image went out the window and were replaced by urgent physical sensations of stiffness, soreness, cold, hunger, and exhaustion. Like never before in my life, responding to how my body felt became the most pressing thing on my mind. When I would go into towns for my weekly shower and resupply, I would glance at myself in a hostel mirror and note with bemusement that my body had not shed weight but instead had created an extra layer of fat (probably as protection from starvation). As the months passed, I did see and feel the muscles in my legs becoming more defined — but they were also always in pain, which captured my attention more than their appearance did.
Over the course of my hike, my relationship with my body became deeply practical. I learned to see it as a powerful machine that could move mountains if given the right fuel, maintenance, positive self-talk, and rest. I stopped seeing my body as something that other people looked at and started to really live in it. It was the most “animal” and thus the most “human” I’ve ever felt.
I’m not saying that I don’t care about how my body looks anymore. Not at all. Like pretty much everyone, I want to feel my best. But now I understand that feeling my best doesn’t just mean “looking good.” It means, first and foremost, cherishing and nurturing this body that I’m in. It means, instead of holding myself to some standard of external beauty, that I hold myself to a certain standard of self-care. Before I judge myself on how I look now, I first ask myself, “How do I feel? Have I been eating and exercising in a way that serves my physical and mental health? What decisions can I make today to better take care of myself?”
I’m not suggesting that if you have body image issues you should drop everything and embark on a six-month-long hike across the continent to become more embodied. But is there something you can do this year that pushes every fiber of your being and tests every inch of your mental resolve? Is there something you can do that will get you out of your head and into the “soft animal of your body” — even just for a moment? If so, I urge you to do it. The world around you will be better for it.
I will be blogging about my 2018 NOBO Pacific Crest Trail thru-hike here on The Trek and at janelhealy.com, vlogging on YouTube, and posting to Instagram as @janelgazelle. I start at Campo on March 25. I would be honored for you to follow my journey.
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