Over the past couple of years, the body-positive movement has really come forward. Social media is filled with cutesy, confidence-boosting posts. People, especially women, are working harder to become each other’s cheerleaders and society, in general, is become better (though still far from perfect) at celebrating thick thighs, hip dips, back rolls, and all other kinds of curves that can be found on women’s bodies.
As someone who identifies as a curvy woman and falls between the spectrum of ‘normal’ and ‘plus’ size, I am 100% on board and in full support of the body positive movement. However, while today I have no problem sharing photos of my bikini body at the beach, you wouldn’t catch me dead even looking at a bikini much less wearing one 10, or even 5 years ago.
Like most young women, I struggled with body image issues through middle school and onwards. I come from a line of curvy women on both sides of my family which meant that even though I played on sports teams, grew up swimming, and spent endless days running around outside as a child, I developed bigger curves than my friends. I have never been ‘skinny’.
My self-consciousness about my body started in grade 8. My classroom teacher (who was a woman by the way) thought it was appropriate to comment on the size of my breasts in front of, well, everyone. And not just once, this happened several times. At 13 years old, I had no idea how to react so I just laughed it off while secretly dying on the inside. Looking back, I realize just how incredibly inappropriate it was. I should have told my parents. I should have reported her, but at that age, I just wanted to pretend it never happened.
Despite being ‘bigger’ throughout high school, I think I had it pretty easy. At least compared to some of the other stories from other ‘fat girls’ that I have heard. I can only recall 2 comments that were made (to my face) about my size or weight. Perhaps more was said behind my back, after all teenagers can be cruel. But, at the end of the day, I think my personality and sense of humuor saved me more than anything else. While I was self-conscious of how I looked, I’ve never lacked confidence with who I am as an individual. Perhaps my outgoing persona and ability to make friends easily was my saving grace. However, that didn’t stop the tears in the shopping mall fitting rooms, the panicked struggle of trying to find a prom dress, or the fact that, more than not, I avoided looking in the mirror.
Then came university. Everyone jokes about the freshman 15 but for me it was the 3rd year 60. Yes, I gained 60 pounds in one school year.
If you read my ‘So, This is 30’ post you’ll remember I shared that when I was 20 years old my dad got sick and spent 9 months in the hospital system. I spent those 9 months struggling to balance my job (because yes, I worked my way through university), studies, and daily hospital visits. My mom and my brother were similarly struggling so home-cooked meals were, well, non-existent.
Instead, I lived off of sugary drinks to give me energy and carb-filled bagels that were cheap and filled me up without costing a fortune. I was an unhealthy mess. Not just physically, but also mentally, which just made my self-love battle that much harder.
Fast forward to 2011 and my adventures abroad began when I moved to Galway, Ireland. I spent a few months using Ireland as my base while I explored Europe. I came home with $11 to my name and a sense of confidence that was much needed after the previous couple of years. A sense of confidence that pushed me to try, do, and see more.
While I loved my newfound abilities as a solo traveller, and was confident in myself as an individual, I still didn’t love my body. I wore loose pants, oversized sweaters and avoided beach destinations at all costs. Until 2014 when I went to the south of France.
I spent a week in Nice and while it was too cold to swim in April, it was perfect weather for lying on the beach. Or, in my case, napping on the beach. One day I woke up to find a girl about my age hovering beside me with a sheet of paper in her hand. She told me that she was an artist and had seen me sleeping on the beach. She said she thought I looked beautiful so she drew me. Shyly she handed me the sketch and there I was, face buried on my arms, messy hair falling over my shoulder and back. Her sketch was amazing but perhaps more amazing was that when I looked at the drawing, I didn’t hate it. I didn’t look at it and immediately think “oh my god I’m so fat.” Which got me thinking; if she didn’t see me as huge and fat, then why did I see myself that way?
In 2015 I took the plunge and finally decided to add some beach destinations to the mix. I spent 3 weeks travelling down the coast of Croatia and into Montenegro and Bosnia. This meant trading my beloved baggy sweaters for tank tops and, gulp, swimwear. I still remember my first day sitting on the beach in Zadar. I had just come out of the sea and immediately pulled my cover-up on when I looked around me. There, on that rocky Croatian beach, I saw over a dozen women of all shapes and sizes and ages, each wearing a bikini. Small, colourful, string bikinis. Including a plump grandma who continually ran up and down the beach chasing after her small grandson.
And you know what?
There was no judgment. No side looks, snide comments, or laughs. Nobody cared and as I sat there covered up on the scorching hot day I realized how ridiculous I was being. So I decided ‘fuck it’. It was time to stop worrying and just enjoy myself.
Which I did. Immensely.
Croatia was a blast. I spent my days at beaches with newfound friends drinking beers or fruity cocktails in my swimsuit on lounge chairs and my nights dancing on bar tables with strangers until sunrise. I didn’t worry if my arms looked fat in the tank top I wore, or how big my ass looked in my bathing suit. I just laughed, swam, explored, and danced.
While the best part of this new confidence boost was how I felt about myself and how differently I began to experience things, it also had another interesting effect. It made me more approachable. As soon as I focused less on worrying and more on just having fun I started to get more attention.
In Split, one of the guys at my hostel asked if he wanted me to let others know I was available because he was regularly being asked if we were together or just friends. In Hvar, two of the guys I had met and spent my time with changed their travel plans to follow me along my route. And I always had someone to dance with at the bars (though to be honest, I did pretend to be with one of the other guys from my group a few times because, well, men in bars). While gaining attention from men was never my goal, I’d be lying if I said that it didn’t help boost my confidence a little more.
A month or so later I was on a plane to Thailand. While I felt better about myself on the beaches in Europe, I was absolutely terrified to go to Southeast Asia. I’d read countless horror stories of bigger women who were taunted, teased, and humiliated by the locals for their size and I worried that I would fall victim to the same.
I sort of did. Mostly in the markets when vendors called after me that they had elephant pants in ‘BIG SIZE!’ but I actually loved Thailand. The majority of my experiences with locals there, including a certain fire boy, allowed me to love my curves a little bit more. I wrote an entire post about being the ‘fat’ and ‘tall’ girl in Thailand (which you can read here) so I won’t reiterate it all. But, overall, the outcome was good and my confidence continued to grow over the 3 months I spent backpacking in Southeast Asia.
In fact, I loved it so much that I went back to that part of the world again for about 4 months in 2016. This time with a bag packed with shorts, sundresses, and even a bikini. Again, it wasn’t perfect (I got a few snide comments from a local in SaPa Vietnam about my size), but the good outweighed the bad. I was more focused on diving in Indonesia and the Philippines, hiking in Vietnam, and exploring the temples of Cambodia to worry about what a scrawny old Vietnamese man thought. Plus, the envy that the Vietnamese women in Hoi An who were tailoring my custom-made clothes expressed over my curves more than made up for it (take that, mean old Vietnamese man!).
Without a doubt, travel has allowed me to look at my body in a different way. Seeing how different cultures appreciate beauty has been incredibly eye opening. While I may not have been considered attractive to the Vietnamese men, I got more than enough (sometimes too much) attention in other places. Just because I don’t look like the models in the magazines I grew up reading as a teenager doesn’t mean that there is anything wrong with my body or how I look. There is no universal standard of beauty.
However, while the attention and compliments that I’ve received around the world are incredibly flattering, at the end of the day, that’s not what has allowed me to love my body the way I do today. I’ve learned to love my body mostly because of what it’s allowed me to do. My body has let me explore the depths of the ocean. My body as allowed me to hike through hills and deserts. My body has allowed me to climb, run, swim, jump, and play. My body has allowed me to do what I love most: travel.
My journey towards self-acceptance and body positivity has been one hell of an adventure but it’s incredible how much has changed over the past few years. I enjoy checking myself out in the mirrors that I used to avoid. I buy more form-fitting clothing, I have a drawer filled full of swimsuits, including multiple bikinis, and I feel adorable in sundresses. (PS: You can find my picks for curvy-friendly travel clothing here)
But, I’m not perfect.
I still have bad days where I don’t like how my hips, my boobs, my thighs, or my stomach looks in an outfit. Finding clothing that fits properly can still be a huge pain in the ass, but I’ve learned to laugh about it now rather than cry. And yes, I still have a couple of baggy sweaters in my closet that I occasionally turn to (let’s be honest though, they are also just super comfy).
My body doesn’t define me. The fact that I am curvy, fat, thicc, voluptuous, or whatever you want to call it, doesn’t make me any better or worse of a human being. But, my body is an important part of me and I do value it and appreciate it for everything it does. It may not be traditionally beautiful by everyone’s standards, but there is beauty in strength and my body has proven time and time again just how strong and powerful it is. That alone makes it worthy and deserving of my love.