Self-Care Lessons from a Summer in Europe
From nude beaches, bottomless sangria, foreign clothes sizes, and an assortment of what I like to call "body negative" advocates, I have learned a lot about body image and wellness during this crazy summer traveling through Europe. For those who don't know, I spent 3 months studying and backpacking through Europe this summer. It was a whirlwind of emotions, growth, and adventure masked by the challenges of traveling and new cultures. A big part of that whirlwind was rediscovering my relationship with my own body and developing a whole new kind of trust between cramped hostel beds, little sleep, weird food, and the constant struggle to stay hydrated when every place charges for water. I've got five big takeways to share to make up for falling off the face of the Earth for the past few months. People matter.
I don't mean this as a "things don't matter, people matter" platitude, but rather I'm talking about the importance of those you surround yourself with. For a brief portion of the summer, I was traveling with someone who really brought me down. There were no insults or fights or anything. In fact, I thought of us as friends until I really put a finger on why I was feeling down. The way he talked about other people, what we were eating, and the activities we were doing designated him in the "body negative" category. Being fragile and not fully recovered from a past of disordered eating and exercise, it really got to me.
Obviously, I'm a huge advocate for body positivity, but it's different when it's a friend. I had to choose my battles, and I came to realize that this would just be too many battles to fight. I knew he wasn't targeting me in his comments, but my brain was collecting them and recalling them right when I needed some positivity. When I started spending less time with him and being with more supportive, body positive friends, I noticed I stopped feeling so down and was able to boost myself back up. Moral of the story: it matters who you surround yourself with. I could have fought the battles and made it clear the kind of support I needed, but at the time it was better for me to just move on.
It's not you, it's me
After visiting over 15 different beaches in many different countries over the summer, I can effectively support the theory of the spotlight effect cognitive bias. It's essentially the way the brain thinks that everyone is noticing one of your flaws when, in reality, everyone else is also experiencing this effect. Everyone has imperfections and things they are insecure about. The beach is one of the most common places you can see this.
Bikinis, speedos, sunburns, etc. It might seem like everyone is looking at your penguin-shaped birthmark or your unshaven armpits, but everyone else is actually worried about their own hairy toes or belly button. We are all unique individuals, and it's important to recognize that your imperfections make you - and everyone else - unique. Medena beach in Croatia was actually a strange experience because I had never witnessed such body confidence at a beach before. You notice it in individuals' attitudes and behaviors. They know they're bodies are just bodies, and they're just happy to be at the beach. Beautiful.
In case you didn't know, beauty standards are bogus
This is a big one. I remember getting off the plane in Madrid, Spain and being greeted by advertisement for Calzedonia displaying a very thin woman in a swimsuit. I had to look twice because her body actually didn't look real. It was clearly photoshopped - poorly - to a point where her torso looked deformed. I was baffled by the fact that I almost took the photo at first glance. My brain almost registered the photo as the ideal woman. Unfortunately, these unrealistic photos are the new normal. They are ideal, which is not only terrifying but toxic. Although this clearly happens in America too, this one really caught me off guard. Here's an awesome article on media photoshopping if you're interested.
What about your basic needs?
Somewhere in the first month or so of traveling, I had an epiphany. I was with my friend in Budapest, and we'd been walking around all day climbing hills, visiting cathedrals and museums, and stopping to take photos wherever we could. I suddenly became very angry and tired. I couldn't really explain it, and I grumbled my way all the way back to the hostel before realizing that the immediate cure was water, food, and rest. I was thirsty, hungry, and tired. Talk about a self-care breakthrough. Joke all you want, but Budapest is a city you can really get caught up and lose sight of your basic needs.
Self-care is all about understanding what you need and when you need it. It's not always perfect. Psh, after almost 20 years of being alive, I still couldn't figure out why I was feeling so bad. It's about paying attention to your body - your hungry, thirst, energy levels, mood, etc. Test out what works and what doesn't. That is how you improve your relationship with your body.
It's about loving yourself where you are - right here, right now
Here's where I get personal. On top of having limited food options that change every few days and no access to gyms, I have not been able to recover from a severe case of plantar fasciitis in my right heel. It's basically a tear in the ligament that holds the toes to the heel. Translation: I can't run. Not being able to run and having a spectrum of aching to sharp pain from just walking has been both physically and mentally stressful. As a result, my cardiovascular conditioning has suffered, I've lost muscle mass - obviously. My strength and fitness has always been a part of my identity and a way to "prove" my abilities as a fitness professional. Truth be told, it's been really difficult and I fear going back to square one when I get back.
However, these changes have also taught me an important lesson. It's not about what you're working toward or what you used to be, it's about you, right here, right now. My legs have carried me upwards of 20 miles a day and taken me up mountains to see incredible views of places I've never seen before. They've danced all night and kicked in the Mediterannean. My arms have kayaked around the Adriatic, and my back has supported my backpack throughout the entire trip. I may not be at the same place I was 3 months ago and as excited as I am to jump back into my workouts, what matters is that I love and accept my body as it is right now in this moment.
Obviously, these aren't the only things I learned in Europe. Runner-ups include how to eat a fish when it has the skeleton in it, always wear water shoes at rock beaches, it's not always best to take the path less traveled on a mountain, and how much Hven whiskey you can drink while still being able to bike around the island. This summer has been the adventure of a lifetime, but I cannot wait to hit the ground running this fall. Look out because a lot of exciting things are on the way from E.T. Trains!