Trigger Warning: "It's Hard to Pack When You Hate Your Body" deals with body image issues and mentions eating disorders.
I’ve struggled with packing and with body image issues for as long as I can remember. It’s hard to pack when you hate your body.
As with many people – girls especially, I became overly conscious of my body when I was 10 or 11. I remember standing in front of the mirror with my friends in elementary school and watching them complain about how fat they were. I want to say they turned to me like in “Mean Girls” and pressured me to join in. But I didn’t need them to, the fact that they were all doing it was enough to make me feel like I had to.
That was the start of my unadulterated hatred for my body.
I’d never seen women do that before: stand in front of a mirror and point out their flaws, focus on the negatives of their body, grab their fat (well, baby fat for us) with contempt.
My mom had always been careful to avoid discussing her body. With three girls in the house and societally created body images issues herself, she tried to shield us from warped body images.
But society was stronger. The moment one of us fell, it dominoed through our family. My step-sister went to high school and came back full of insecurities. I watched my bright, happy sister learn to fear food and larger sizes.
Even four years younger, I was bigger than her. I was built to be. But to my young mind that was wrong. I was wrong. So if she was worried, then I should be doubly upset about the size of my jeans.
I literally have a scar from wearing the tiniest size I could. It’s two thin indents under my belly where the 2000’s low rise jeans dug into my skin so hard that the denim would cut into me.
The 90s Were Not Good For Me
Clothes and my body image issues have always gone hand in hand.
I watched Regina George balk at the idea of a dress size over 5, meanwhile I was nearing double digits. TV shows told me that medium underwear was for fat girls. I read about bikini body diets. I saw ads for Special K where adult women tried to fit into their high school jeans.
Growing up in the 90’s/2000’s didn’t help. TV was all about the size 2 woman, with no curves, who constantly talked about big butts as a bad thing. The clothes were built for women without curves. The tops hung low for flatter chested women, but were near pornographic for a larger breast size. The denim mini skirts could never contain my butt or hung bulkily around my hips when they did.
How could I not hate my budding curves when they prevented me from wearing what I thought I needed to?
That only got worse when I kept growing. My peers seemed to stop at smaller cup sizes, inches shorter than me, with tiny hips when we were in high school. But I kept growing. I even got a growth spurt after graduating from undergrad. It was like I was some mutant in a lab who would keep growing until I dwarfed the planet with my belly rolls.
Clothes felt like the enemy, betraying the secret of my changing body even later in life. The moment a dress wouldn’t fit or a pair of jeans rode too high on my ankles, I would burst into tears. Literally anywhere: at home, at the mall, while trying to get dressed to explore San Antonio.
Packing is an issue unto itself.
I’m hugely indecisive. Ask anyone I know and it’ll be one of the top 10 qualities they’ll tell you. My baba constantly reminds me of the time I held her hostage in the toy aisle at Toys ‘R’ Us long after my sister and cousins had chosen their loot. I couldn’t decide and for some reason I required her presence immediately beside me, not on the bench a few feet away where she could rest her legs. I’m not sure I was even in school yet, but my indecisiveness was already a dominant quality.
That makes the tedious process of packing even more gruelling.
I’m also an anxious person – clinically. So I overthink EVERYTHING. I once tried to pack a snow suit to go to Mexico in case of a freak blizzard. Thank god my mom talked me out of that spiral – but I’m pretty sure I still brought a few extra sweaters just in case.
I think most people struggle with packing even if they have different issues (because let’s be real, none of us have no issues). It’s difficult to lock yourself in to decisions for days or weeks to come. And most people have a lot of stuff that they like and want to bring with them.
If planes still let you travel with cargo trunks, I think a lot of us would be dragging them around the airport.
It’s Hard to Pack When You Hate Your Body
It doesn’t matter what kind of trip it is, who you’re with, how long you’re going for, or even where you’re going: choosing clothes to put on a body you hate is difficult.
I used to bring two wardrobes on trips: the aspirational and the fat-concealing. I’d bring a mix of crop tops I’d bought years before and never had the guts (or I guess had too much gut) too wear, coupled with clothing in larger sizes or that could conceal my stomach.
Then I’d hate myself when I could only fit in the larger items.
I lost so much time packing for trips, getting dressed on trips, and during adventures hating my body. I’d spend hours packing, trying on everything I could find to ensure it fit. And if it didn’t, I cried. But I still packed it. Then I cried again when, after eating my body weight in gelato, I hadn’t magically shrunk to my goal weight (God I hate that term so much). I would swear off eating (which never worked on trips with my foodie family or with my hypoglycaemia), or binge until I could focus on the pain in my stomach and not the size of it.
I used to focus on pulling my shirt away from my stomach rather than enjoying the views of the Amalfi Coast. I’d worry about my back rolls rather than revelling in riding horses in the ocean in Florida.
The moment that sticks with me most was one morning on a mother-daughter trip in San Antonio, when I collapsed in broken heap beside my suitcase. I had gained weight in university – a mix of growing, not eating well, and new medication – and couldn’t get over the new way that my body looked. Years later, I can still feel the sobs wracking my body as I actively hated every piece of clothing in that suitcase – aspirational or fitting, pretty or societal camouflage – for not making me look the way I wanted.
I kept picturing the photos and how my belly would protrude through my T-shirt for all to see. I imagined acquaintances gathering around their newsfeed to laugh at how fat Nina had gotten.
(Who would be messed up enough to even do that?? In my mind: everyone.)
But my mom brought me back. She told me, as she had been the entire trip, that she didn’t care what I looked like. [Admittedly, she’d tried to tell me I looked good but I refused that tactic immediately.] What she cared about was spending time with me on our bonding trip and enjoying our time in San Antonio. She kept telling me she loved me.
I don’t think it really sunk in on that trip. It worked enough to get me off the floor and out the door, but I think it took months or maybe years before I fully understood it.
Even then, I still relapsed into my old habits whenever I’d gain a few pounds or have to stand next to my sisters for a photo.
But I’m getting better. I still hate my body: because of the chronic pain and migraines that I now suffer from. I regret not loving it when it still functioned well. Especially because, looking back, I realize how much I missed. And honestly, even though this is shallow, I was actually really thin and I wish I’d noticed. Maybe then I wouldn’t have gone days without eating over summer breaks to look better in bikinis.
Tips for Packing When You Don’t Love Your Body
I know I’m not alone in this struggle. As a female traveller who spent two years living out of a suitcase, I’ve developed a few tricks to handle the nightmare of packing when you hate your body.
They’re not fool proof. In fact, they’re really just band aids for the real issue: learning to love yourself. I haven’t fully learned to do this yet, but I’m working on it. Try out these tips and hopefully your packing experience will be a bit easier:
1. Own clothes you like that fit you.
That seems like an obvious thing, but it genuinely isn’t. When you gain weight, you often deny it and refuse to buy clothes until you lose it. I used to shop after stomach flus just to be able to fit into lower sizes. This will not help you when you want to try those fancy French cheeses but your zipper is already too tight. Before a trip, invest in a few items that are comfortable and that you enjoy. They can be cheap and cheerful. Maybe get some comfortable dresses that will fit you if you gain or lose a bit of weight (they’ve been my main wardrobe since lockdown).
2. Don’t pack things that don’t fit.
It’s better to have the single meltdown at home than to have it in your hotel room. It’ll also prevent you from trying them on to see if you’ve gained or lost weight on your travels.
3. Pack for what you expect.
Don’t throw in a dozen sweaters if you’re going to Mexico in January (trust me!). If things change – you gain weight, something rips, the weather changes – you can get things abroad. And then you have a fun, if necessary souvenir!
4. Bring at least one item that makes you smile.
Maybe it’s a really comfy pair of jeans or a sweater that makes your boobs look great. Whatever it is, bring it along. If you’re having a bad day, throw it on and give yourself a confidence boost. If you don’t own this item yet: buy it!
I do this a lot with leggings because they’re comfortable and I love the way my butt looks. It gives me an extra bit of confidence to enjoy the way at least one part of my body looks. Bonus, leggings let me eat as many fried oysters as I’d like!
5. Make a list.
As someone who is indecisive and likely to fill a suitcase just for the hell of it, I HIGHLY recommend lists. I jot down the number of shirts, shoes, etc. that seems reasonable to bring for the trip before I even go towards my closet. It helps distance yourself from the clothes before all the options are laid out before you and you suddenly want to take five sun hats. But do give yourself some wiggle room. Taking carry on only and can’t decide between the final two dresses? If they both fit, take them!
6. Pack for the experiences.
This ties in to your list making. When you’re writing your list, think of what you’ll actually be doing. Will you be riding horses? Then you need the appropriate clothes and footwear. Hiking? Definitely pack a sports bra. Going into the Moroccan desert? You’ll need a winter coat (trust me, it’s COLD at night).
It helps take the choice out of it to some extent. If you know you have to bring a bathing suit, you’re less able to fret over the decision.
7. Always have a back up outfit.
This is always a good rule. Don’t be that person who brings enough underwear that they could shit themselves every day of the trip. But do bring an extra outfit in case you want something different. Maybe you’ll spill eggs down the front of that tank top you planned to wear (yes, this happened to me). Maybe your sock will get a hole in it. Or maybe you’ll just want to wear another dress. It’s always better to have an extra option.
8. Eat before you try on clothes.
This goes for packing, shopping, choosing clothes for a long day, whatever! You should always be able to fit in your clothes after you eat.
I used to shop after stomach flus, then buy clothes I would never be able to fit in again. It was a waste of time, money and fabric.
Now I eat a decent meal before choosing clothes. Having my blood sugar levels stable helps me make decisions, I can be realistic about how it will fit, and I can actually fit in it later.
9. If you’re crying over a suitcase, it’s probably not about the suitcase.
I can’t count the times that my mom would sit on the stairs of my basement bedroom while I cried amongst toppled piles of clothes. In the end, it was never about how airplane tyranny was preventing me from bringing all the shirts I loved (most of which didn’t fit). It was usually about my body image issues. We tended to glance over them as I was still so locked into my eating disorders and warped view of myself that her kind words didn’t always get through to me. But even that small talk about what I was really upset helped calm me down. Once I confronted the real reason I was upset, I could breathe again. Find someone to talk to: friend, family, therapist, whoever! (Well, maybe not whoever. Your grocer doesn’t get paid enough for that.)
10. If these issues are getting in the way of your daily life, see a therapist.
Notice that I don’t say go to the gym or eat better. Honestly, I eat really well and exercise 7 days a week, but I still have body image issues. It’s not about how you look; it’s about what you feel inside. If you’re not happy, talk to a therapist. They can help you come to the root of the problem, discuss societal issues that may be at play, and can recommend some paths to feeling better.
11. Remember: the people that matter love you regardless of what you look like.
I’m blatantly stealing this from my mother, but it’s genuinely great advice. Real friends and good family members won’t care what your body size is. And if they do, cut ’em loose. I don’t necessarily mean cut them off, but at least cut them off from discussing body image or weight with you. Surround yourself with people who make you feel good and make you happy. Those people will be there for you no matter what. In fact, they’re the best people to go to for step #7!
12. Think about all the amazing things your body does.
Like I said, my body has been failing me in recent years, but I still find this step super helpful. Sure it’s stopped digesting dairy, but it still does a lot of amazing things. My stomach isn’t flat? Yeah well it’s holding 7 metres of intestines in there! My thighs are thick? They give me the power to run 5km! My head is too big? Well that’s probably my dad’s fault cause he’s got a giant head, but hey at least its a giant skull that looks good in hats!
It’s easier to start to appreciate your body when you remember the positive things that it does.
Spend 10 minutes a day on your trip stretching.
Don’t do some insane workout and lose half your day in the gym, or be too sore to enjoy a cool new city. Instead, devote a few minutes in the morning or evening to stretch out your muscles. You’d be surprised just how much it helps you learn to appreciate your body.
I use @ownitbabe‘s saved Instagram story stretches (she’s an amazing body-positive Instagrammer and she used to be a personal trainer).
It doesn’t take long to do and you’ll feel more connected with your body. It also really helps with aches and pains after a long day or tramping across Budapest. Easing the tension in your muscles helps ease the tension in your mind.
When you feel physically good, it’s easier to like your body.
Body Image Issues Are Serious
This post deals with some serious issues that I don’t want to trivialize. Body image issues and eating disorders are extremely serious and should be properly treated. My therapist has been a huge help in working through my issues and helping me learn to accept my body.
If you’re struggling with these issues, please reach out to a licensed professional for help. Talk to your family and friends for support. And know that you are perfect just the way you are.
Remember, body image ideals change from decade to decade. In the Palaeolithic era, the feminine ideal was the Venus figurines. In the 60s, it was Twiggy. Society changes its mind about what it likes as fast as my sister used to change husbands in kindergarten* (*daily). It’s more important that you love yourself than that society does.