In this essay, writer Nina Garay recalls how traveling to her father’s hometown in Honduras for the first time helped her see her body in a different way.
My earliest memories all involve a desire to travel. I used to dream up elaborate adventures that would I take, and every day in school I had to bring my bright purple duffle bag packed and ready to go in case the opportunity presented itself. What was so important to me at five? A velvet bucket hat (very fashion) with a bright pink flower, books, and two bathing suits. This inevitably led to a lifetime of back problems, a love of accessories, and a deep desire to go all over the world.
I grew up and lost some of the tenacity of that girl. Puberty came early for me, in 5th grade, I was taller than every boy in my class and wore big t-shirts to hide the outlines of the training bras that weren’t a statement, but a necessity. From that point on my relationship with my body was challenging. Throughout my teenage and college years, my weight fluctuated, and I spent a lot of that time in clothes that would hide as much of me as possible.
I was still planning elaborate adventures in my head, but even in my imagination, there was of a photoshopped image of what I looked like. My insecurities held me back from a lot of opportunities and I created a belief in mind that because my body wasn’t perfect, my experiences couldn’t be either. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t rational. That I was a feminist! That I knew better! Insecurities run deep, and they seep into places you don’t always expect. Even when I was at my thinnest, I still found something about my body that disappointed me–the dimples on my thighs, the white stretch mark on my hip, the fact that I absolutely could not pull off high waisted jeans.
After college, and in perhaps one of the most insecure phases of my life, I went on a ten-day trip through Central America. It was my first trip abroad, and I was going to be spending time in Honduras, where my father was born and raised. I purchased a backpack, and once again filled it with books and reluctantly a bathing suit. I kept thinking about the stereotypical carefree traveler, and I decided I could do that too. Deeply untrue. I care a lot, and I was dreading putting on a bathing suit. And every outfit I packed was purposeful—to fit the aesthetic in my mind that I wanted to convey; a patterned dress for sight-seeing, a blue scarf to tie in my hair, and the perfect leather bag that felt like what a “traveler” would choose.
The trip was amazing. I met people from all over the world and was exposed to a culture, that despite being mine I didn’t know much about. I ate fresh fruit, climbed a volcano in Nicaragua (I couldn’t believe it either), and went scuba diving in Honduras. I danced in a bright blue dress that I bought at a small shop on a whim. On the day that my group went to the beach for the first time, I remember hesitating as I looked around. Then it dawned on me how ridiculous it was to deem some bodies as better than others, and that I had no right to do that to anyone, myself included. I was healthy, my body was able to carry my all the way to the top of that volcano (again a true miracle, it was so steep) and I was scared to wear a bikini on the beach? I wasn’t interested in wasting any more time or energy on feeling that way.
I didn’t need to feel ashamed about the way I looked, I wanted to celebrate it. I didn’t want to flat iron my curly hair, I wanted to embrace it. As long as I’m comfortable, I should be happy to dress for my curves. Spending time in the place where generations of my family had lived, where my dad brought my mom when she was just two months pregnant with me, I was connected to myself in a way I never had been before. I didn’t need to hide in clothes, I could celebrate myself in them. I felt free dancing in that bright blue dress. I might have a lot of black in my wardrobe, but I know I don’t have to avoid the red dress that I love because it’s louder or more obvious.
I also met people who could offer different perspectives on how they view self-image and style. Leaving the bubble of American beauty standards (thin, White, European features) and meeting people who didn’t buy into that as the only way to be beautiful, made me realize how much I had internalized those ideas, even if I had decidedly rejected them. Traveling helped me reset the old narrative that I still had playing in my head; that my body needed to look a certain way for me to have exciting experiences. Because I was doing so many of the things that I had always wanted to do, and I was doing it with every part of me–cellulite on my ass and all.