Travel Crushed My Self-Esteem Before It Ever Taught Me Self-Love
“Hola! Hey! Hey! I love you!”
I didn’t even bother turning around to acknowledge the comment. Though my friend and I had only walked a short distance from our house, this was not the first — or worst — catcall of the evening.
“They’re worse than normal tonight,” I said. “This is ridiculous.”
My friend shrugged, “Oh, they’re always like this.”
She had a point.
Catcalling is, unfortunately, a cultural norm throughout much of the world, including my beloved Central America, and whether we walked solo or in groups, a trip to the neighboring city of La Ceiba always involved a slightly uncomfortable amount of it. Walking in the tiny Honduran village we called home during our volunteer placement, however, was usually a different story.
“Yeah, in the city…” I said.
“What? No,” she responded. “They’re always here, it’s always this bad.”
I didn’t say anything else, but in my head I was calculating. The differences between the two of us. The things that would bring more attention to her. Her lean but still much-appreciated curves and light hair to my plus-size waist and dark hair.
Catcalling is by no means a measure of self-worth. But for plus-size women, it carries with it an extra layer.
The feminist in me has a whole lot to say about the catcalling nature around the world. The idea that a woman is seen as no more than a sex object by random men on the street makes my blood boil, as does the fact that “make sure you wear long pants and nothing low cut!” is travel advice frequently given to solo female travelers.
But, despite all those sensibilities, the fact that I could walk down the same street as my friend and receive little to no attention was an indication to me of how unattractive I was.
As a fat woman, I’m conditioned by culture to view myself as undesirable and unattractive. There’s a dichotomy of being a feminist who is also plus-size that my thin friends will never understand. I detest the lack of respect shown to women, especially those of us traveling solo, and am always wishing I had a snarky retort in Spanish prepared for each disgusting comment a man makes to my friends as we walk down the street.
But there’s also a part of me that feels self-conscious about not receiving the same attention as them.
Because if even the creepy men on the street don’t think I’m worthy of attention, who will?
One of the things travelers often say is that they found their self-esteem and self-confidence on the road.
What they don’t mention is that sometimes it knocks you down first.
Back home, I had my comfort zone.
My friends were prettier than me, but I never felt ugly standing next to them. I attracted little attention at bars, but didn’t mind because those nights were about dancing with my girls. And my single status? It was easy enough to convince myself that it was because I lived in a small town, had known everyone since kindergarten, and no one understood my love for travel.
When I hit the road, I was insecure but comfortable. I was a bit afraid of the world and not quite sure of my direction but, ultimately, happy with myself.
Then I started traveling.
I began in the beautiful mountain town of Orosi, Costa Rica. Two days into that trip, I knew Costa Rica would become my home at some point (It did!). Hostel “family” dinners became a regular occurrence, as did bonding over the feeling of your brain exploding after four hours of Spanish class.
And when my new friends decided to take a walk up one of the mountains for a better view of the valley, I said sure. Of course, a “walk” up a mountain is always more of a hike, and after half an hour, my calves hurt, my heart was racing, and I was walking at the speed of a turtle.
The others never complained about stopping a few times to rest, and insisted on going with me when I admitted there was no way I could make it to the top. The tears held off until I was back in my hostel room, alone and defeated.
After Costa Rica, I headed to Granada, Nicaragua where Ladies’ Night became a weekly tradition for the entire group of 20+ volunteers. We spent our days assisting with English classes in several schools in the surrounding barrios and after five days of walking a few kilometers to and from class in the heat and entertaining kids for hours, we were always ready to take advantage of those free drinks for the ladies.
Sometimes it was a low-key affair. Sometimes we spent hours getting ready.
I preferred the low-key nights, always feeling out of place around the Europeans who packed on more makeup than I’d ever owned in my life, wearing dresses from brands I would never be able to afford, when all three of my dresses had cost under $50 USD. Though I would laugh and gossip as I applied my mascara, there was always a level of insecurity around these girls, with their infectious laughter and personalities that demanded attention wherever we went.
And now, two years later on my second solo trip, in Honduras, I couldn’t even capture the attention of the men with nothing better to do than catcall the Gringas.
And the other volunteers? I was included in group outings, of course, but I never found the best friend that everyone else seemed to have.
This group was more down-to-Earth and focused on giving back than those in Nicaragua, with movie nights and popcorn more common than Ladies’ Nights and rum. Yet even among them, I felt a barrier.
I felt self-conscious when I spoke, that it was too loud or too opinionated or too fast, concerned that nothing I said could be as interesting as their stories, until I barely spoke at all. I hesitated to contribute to group discussions about what to do over the weekend or where to eat until the rest had voiced their opinions, not wanting to be the one to suggest the opposite and inconvenience others.
More and more, I found myself purposely staying on the outside of the barrier, not wanting to bother those I lived with.
My breakthrough happened the night I chose to stay in instead of going out with the group, already deciding I would be left out.
I was five pages into my journaling when it hit me.
I was basing my self-worth on what others thought. I had, unintentionally, turned down my personality to match those around me — even though it left me feeling inauthentic and uncomfortable.
Back home, I prided myself on being independent, on not caring what others in my tiny town thought of my life plans, and only allowing inspiring people in my life. Why would travel change that?
Did I really want the attention of men just looking for a wild night with any Gringa they could get?
It was startling to see how far into my shell I had crawled, how much I had changed in my pursuit of fitting in.
I was terrified of being “too much.”
In a society where women are subconsciously taught to take up as little space as possible, I already felt like my plus-size body was taking up all of my allotted space. Asking — demanding — for more by putting myself out there and trying to meet my own needs, whether that was through participating in an activity that I wasn’t already good at or taking control in a conversation about volunteer theories, seemed unreasonable.
I was holding myself back from getting to know others, because I thought I wasn’t worthy of being known. I ran away from any guy who took 10 seconds to talk to me because it must be a joke. I stopped speaking Spanish because everyone else could speak it better. I didn’t offer alternative opinions because I didn’t want to be the one rocking the boat.
That wasn’t who I wanted to be. I didn’t want to be afraid. But, as my best friend reminded me over Facebook, the only person who could change this behavior was me. It’s easy to place the blame on others, that they’re doing or saying X or Z to make me feel this way, but in the end, I control how I react, how I feel, and how authentic the “me” I present to the world is.
It’s happened slowly.
I began making an effort to connect with the volunteers. How could anyone decide I was worth knowing if I wasn’t showing my real self?
Going out was still a struggle. Comparison is a hard pattern to break, and I will never be a size four with perfect boobs that don’t require a whole lot of padding to have any cleavage. But I do have long, beautiful hair and I know my eyes light up when I smile and, hey, that one dress does make my boobs look pretty great.
I’m not the most outgoing person, and sometimes I talk too much when I get excited, which happens easily. But I refuse to believe that sharing love freely is something to be ashamed of, and neither is passion.
Just as importantly as stepping into my personality, I stopped doing things that made me uncomfortable.
I didn’t like salsa dancing — not because I didn’t know how, but because I just don’t like dancing. So I stopped doing it. I don’t like being around large groups of people when I practice something new, so I found a select group of people I felt confident speaking to in Spanish. I’m not — yet — physically able to hike up mountains, and if I’m being honest I’ve never been a huge nature lover anyway. So, the next time the other volunteers were going on a hike, I decided to stay back. I spent the afternoon curled up with a smoothie and a book, they had their fun getting scraped up on a hike to a waterfall, and we all enjoyed our afternoon — something that would not have happened if I had chosen to go with them.
It hasn’t happened overnight.
I left Honduras over six months ago and that first solo trip to Orosi was over two years ago — and it’s still a work in progress. Speaking Spanish in front of others is a struggle, and there are days when I look at my friends and can’t stop comparing our outside beauty. But those days are becoming less frequent.
I discovered that saying no to things I don’t enjoy gives me time to say yes to things I do.
My friend, one of the first people I met in Orosi two years ago, got married in Costa Rica a few months ago. The morning after the wedding, we had a cleaning party that quickly turned into an extension of the night before — friends hanging out, drinking, and laughing.
There is a photo of me posing outside under an arch, and I still remember exactly how I felt in that moment: alive and free. The sun shining on my face, the dirt beneath my bare feet, my song playing in the background.
I danced for hours that day, for no reason at all, not caring who was watching or what they were thinking. For perhaps the first time, I felt purely, authentically me.
Maybe travel didn’t crush my self-esteem. Maybe it just revealed how low it already was.
And then, it showed me how to be the girl dancing for no reason at all, no longer jealous of the girl next to her, lighting up the room with her love.