Before my first hike, I didn't own a scale and never knew"/>

How hiking through the AT affected my body image


Before my first hike, I didn’t own a scale and never knew what I weighed. I liked beer and bread, running and hiking. People never commented on my body, and beyond the everyday insecurities that usually plague women in my early twenties, I never thought about it much.

At 25, I decided to hike the Appalachian Trail. During my research, I became fascinated by the dramatic before and after images that fill #thruhiking on Instagram in late summer and fall. It seemed like no hiker could complete a trail without posting two side-by-side photos: a photo of themselves before their hike next to a photo of themselves thousands of miles later – more tanned, more worn and generally much leaner. How strange it must beI thought, to have changed his body so much in a few months. When I decided to try the AT myself, I wasn’t going there to lose weight, but I was intrigued by the changes my body could go through. I would finish the course in the best shape of my life, I thought, with clearly defined muscles to prove it. I took a before photo in anticipation.

There was a saying I heard many times during my first few hundred miles on the AT: “At the end of a ride, the men look like they’re starving and the women look like dummies.” The fact that my first hiking buddy on the trail was trying to lose weight probably exacerbated the number of times people told us. We had started from Springer Mountain, the southernmost point of the trail, at the same time, and it was open to its own goals for our next trek. He was one of many people who went on a hike every year in hopes of kickstarting a healthier lifestyle. His candor with everyone we met, from hostel owners to fellow hikers, made us hear the same adage over and over again. We hiked the first 270 miles of trail together and sure enough, every time he could find a scale he seemed to weigh a little less.

Even though that was not my goal, I was also losing weight. Somewhere in Vermont, just over 1,600 miles into my hike, I stepped on a scale and weighed 98 pounds, 30 pounds less than my average. I had spent most of New England battling muscle cramps and weakness and being cold all the time. I wondered if I had Lyme disease before realizing my symptoms were also consistent with an extreme calorie deficit. Meanwhile, my friends on Instagram told me how beautiful my butt looks. I had the body you would see on a magazine cover.

“At the end of a hike, the men look hungry and the women look like models.”

My body was a wreck at the end of that first hike. I had no energy on the trail, I was running out of food long before resupplies no matter how much I was carrying, and my muscles seemed non-existent. I repeatedly feared that my body would collapse before I had the chance to reach the summit of Mount Katahdin, the northernmost point of the AT. While climbing Mount Bigelow in Maine, I vomited repeatedly for no clear reason, wasting precious calories. I had less than 200 miles to go and it felt like my body was trying to reject this job in every possible way. The dramatic physical change was neither fun nor interesting, just stressful and detrimental to my main goal. I never took an after photo.

In our society, it’s widely considered rude to comment on weight gain, but the same is not true of weight loss. Something about my extreme change and how I got there seemed to make people feel like the door was open for comment. People told me I looked amazing, fit, powerful and healthy. But I didn’t feel strong and I knew my body would be back to normal in a few weeks.

Other people told me that my beanpole frame wasn’t sexy at all: “Where did your ass go?” “Are you gaining weight?” “Do you want another cupcake?” they would ask. Both approaches, while well-meaning, focused on how my body looked rather than the amazing thing I had just done.

It’s been a relief to see more conversations over the past few years about the rudeness of commenting on any weight loss or gain, even positively. The constant feedback I’ve received has shown me that remarks of all kinds lead to years of ingrained biases and the inaccurate attitudes about health and weight that we’ve all been conditioned to have. The sudden and constant exposure to them caused me a body image disturbance that took me several years to overcome.

The dramatic physical change hadn’t been as fun or interesting as I had thought before leaving, just stressful and detrimental to my main goal.

I often thought back to the adage my hiking partner and I had heard so often at the start of our hikes. My body after the hike looked more like a model than it had ever been. But it was clear to me that this was not the way my body should be at its healthiest. To my body, that was what hunger felt like.

It’s not uncommon for hikers to reduce pack weight by carrying less food than they need, and even hikers who do their best to fuel themselves properly often go into a calorie deficit. Even if I hadn’t run with so few calories on the AT, hiking is hardly synonymous with a healthy lifestyle. Studies have shown that the amount of physical exercise hikers get does not compensate for the fact that they largely eat things like Snickers, ramen, and Little Debbie snacks instead of a balanced diet rich in whole foods. The disconnect between our appearance and the health we are supposed to have became ridiculously obvious to me.

After many more years of hiking, I’ve learned how damaging the fascination with bodies before and after hiking can be. I spent months thinking of my body as a tool at my disposal before suddenly returning to a world obsessed with what it looked like.

But I’m getting better at ignoring those comments and letting myself live in the pleasure of beer, bread and hiking. I started asking my loved ones to keep the post-hike weight comments to themselves. I aim for neutrality when I think about how my body looks and instead focus on all the amazing things it has allowed me to do. And you will never see a before and after picture on my Instagram.

About Ethel Partin

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