How Travel Can Heal Body Image

The uncertainties of travel can place extra stress on people who struggle with how they look. Here are a few ways to make travel joyful instead.

A woman in red swimsuit holding paddle and kneeling on a stand-up paddleboard on the ocean at sunset

Focusing on what your body is capable of doing while traveling, rather than what it looks like, can help move energy away from negative self-talk.

Photo by STEKLO/Shutterstock

Alicia Cook has struggled with body image for more than half her life. The 37-year-old writer can still recall the first time when, as a teenager, she wished she could make herself shrink. “While I’ve come to better accept and almost love my body for what it’s able to do, it’s something that is always in the back of my mind,” Cook says. “I have good days and bad days when it comes to the mirror.”

The pressure can build particularly when on the road. Whether it’s the lack of a routine, social outings centered on food, bikini-clad beach days, or the social pressure to obtain a “vacation body,” the freedom that traveling can offer might feel to some people like a trap.

Cook says she’s found a way to keep her body image concerns in check at home, including abstaining from alcohol and “becoming more and more fond of routine.” However, maintaining a positive self-image while traveling has required careful practice.

“I don’t become an entirely different person just because I’m on vacation,” she says. “I won’t eat dessert every night I’m away, even if the people I’m traveling with do. I try to book trips that fall during a particular time of my cycle, because I know the week leading up to my period my body image is low and I feel bloated. I know how it sounds. But I’m just being transparent because I know I’m not alone.”

More than half of Americans say they feel pressured to have a certain body type, according to a 2021 body image study conducted by YouGov, an international research and analytics firm. A reported 76 percent of Americans believe that women are under more pressure than men to look a particular way, and women are nearly twice as likely as men to describe themselves as overweight, according to the same study.

For those with body image issues, the inherent uncertainty associated with traveling can be triggering, says Kristine Luce, a psychologist and the codirector of the adult eating disorder program at Stanford University School of Medicine.

“Some travelers ruminate and plan excessively in response to the unpredictability of access to specific food choices and exercise options,” she says. “On the other hand, some people who travel demonstrate a pattern of eating that is typical for chronic restrictive dieters and use vacation to abandon all restraint.”

Nicole, who asked to be identified only by her first name to protect her privacy, says prior to traveling she always thinks about where she’ll be able to exercise while away. “I ask myself: ‘Where will I be? What is the schedule? Will there be a gym?’” says the 36-year-old bakery owner, who developed body image concerns after spending 25 years as a competitive dancer. “Anytime I travel, I eat more than usual and feel bloated and guilty. I usually feel OK on day one, but by day two and after day three I feel anxious, like I’m straying too far away from ‘the norm.’”

Nicole says social media has made travel all the more complicated. “A lot of my trips were negatively impacted by the pressure to look a certain way in pictures that will wind up on the internet forever,” she says. “This definitely impacted the way I chose to eat. . . . I wonder how I would have felt on trips if cameras and social media didn’t exist.”

Multiple studies have shown a negative correlation between social media use and body image. When there’s more pressure to document a trip than to simply enjoy the moment, a person is certainly at a higher risk of feeling negative about their appearance. According to Luce, when preparing to travel, it can help to consider the purpose of their trip and what they want to gain from the overall experience. “This can refocus their attention if body image distress threatens their joys, satisfaction, and [the lasting] memory of their travel,” she says. “It’s useful to recognize that how we feel in our bodies—full, heavy, bloated—is not visible to others.”

On a trip, Luce suggests travelers “embrace scents, textures, colors, and flavors of local cuisines and consider their bodily cues.” By remaining present, she adds, those on vacation can enjoy a “more immersive experience.”

One 2017 study found that spending more time in nature can improve a person’s self-esteem and establish a more positive body image. Research also suggests that focusing on what your body can do—whether it’s surfing, hiking, fishing, or climbing—rather than how your body looks during a specific activity can also improve a person’s self-image.

That was certainly the case for Jennifer Hepton, who says that even preparing for a trip helps her better manage her mental health. The 50 year old says she struggled with body image and dissociation after years of infertility and the loss of her stillborn daughter, but she eventually discovered that the act of traveling helped “awaken a new sense of self.”

“I realized that it’s OK to indulge occasionally, and that what matters is the joy and deeper connection experienced through travel,” she explains. “And when I return home, I focus on intentionally living and reflecting on my broader health and well-being throughout the year.”

That’s why Claire Mysko, author of Does This Pregnancy Make Me Look Fat?, believes traveling can ultimately serve as a way to improve one’s body image. “When we are able to sit with discomfort of being out of our routines, it is possible to ride those waves of worry to some pretty joyful places,” Mysko says. “Just as low self-esteem can negatively affect body image, resilience can have a positive effect.”

Jessica Zucker is a Los Angeles–based psychologist specializing in reproductive health and the author of the award-winning book I Had a Miscarriage: A Memoir, a Movement. Jessica’s writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian, New York Magazine, and Vogue, among others. Her next book, Normalize It: Upending the Silence, Stigma, and Shame that Shape Women’s Lives, is due out in spring 2025.
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