What I Learned From Being a Fat Traveler

by Monica Santos Nov 30, 2016

I have been heavy for as long as I can remember. A healthy appetite runs in my family, but I definitely ballooned at an especially astounding rate through my middle school years. When I was in high school, I was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis and I’ve been dealing with it ever since.

I eat healthy-ish and I try to incorporate physical activity into my daily routine, but I have never really been at a weight I feel comfortable with. My metabolism runs on the hypo-side of things, I’m always exhausted and always cold. I didn’t discover any exercise I enjoyed doing until college and the hours I worked after graduating were not conducive to working out.

Feeling like it was time to try something different, I quit my desk job to go pursue my dream: I wanted to travel the world, write, work on my yoga and meditation practices, and learn. Paired with my backpack and a crazy dream (No, I still haven’t read Eat, Pray, Love) I left for Nepal in February 2015.

Now let me get something straight: my time there was precious, amazing, worthwhile, and I wouldn’t change a minute of it. But there was one thing that put me out of my comfort zone more immediately than anything else I experienced while I was there. I have never been told I was fat more often than during my time in Asia.

People would come up and rub my stomach. The little boy whose parents ran the hostel I stayed in for a week used to pat his belly and tell me, “Miss, you’re so fat!” Around the dinner table, I felt like I was scrutinized for the amount of food I put on my plate, though it was often substantially less than those around me. Later, at the monastery where I spent five months, students who were honestly some of the best kids I’ll ever meet had no qualms asking me, “Miss, why are you so fat?” I remember being approached by the older students whose surprise centered around the fact that I ate out of the small bowls and was still heavy. The school’s abbott mandated that I needed to walk around the school buildings as many as 40 times a day. I felt like my body was under constant scrutiny.

Now, I come from a Cuban family: bluntness is not unusual for me. And I know what I look like. But to be told so often that I was not normal was absolutely humiliating.

Feeling depressed and self-conscious, I turned to a friend of mine who was also living at the monastery. She was a little bit older, just married, and had spent the last year of her life on a traveling honeymoon with her wonderful husband. She was, in essence, living my dream. When I opened up to her, she shared her struggle with similar obstacles. I was shocked. Here she was, confident, happy, accomplished, and she and I bonded over some of our insecurities. I thought she was amazing.

This began a shift in attitude for me. I thought back to that sweet little boy in the hostel. Yes, he was quick to remind me of my size, but we also played cricket and colored, and I helped him with his homework. He even excitedly taught me how to eat with my hands in traditional Nepali style. My students at the monastery taught me prayers, and told me stories, and played jokes, and laughed. They knew I was fat, but it didn’t shape their interactions with me aside from the occasional verbal reminder. My life was moving forward, regardless of the fact that I needed to address the elephant (pardon the pun) in my own self-consciousness.

I didn’t magically get skinny, or stop wanting to have a healthier figure, but I learned something more important about my own body image. After I left the monastery, I took a bus to India by myself. I negotiated tuk-tuks and jeeps, battled outrageous tonsillitis, threw up in a Holy place. I met up with a friend, and he and I traveled thousands of miles across India on local trains. We went toe to toe with people trying to scam us, raced to make trains, got offers to be traded for livestock. We hiked, wandered, explored, and discovered. I had strange, round, amazing experiences full of ups and downs caused by more colorful conflict than I could have dreamt possible. My experiences were about so much more than the shape of my body.

I didn’t let my weight stop me from tasting amazing local cuisine, trying to scale mountains (this one is gonna take some time — I’m still pushing against my own limitations), sleeping outside during a sandstorm, riding a camel, or watching dung beetles roll my poop up into little balls. When I realized that the only person holding me back from anything was myself, the negativity I attached to the fat label dissipated and I had the best time of my life. People didn’t stop saying things, but I stopped caring if they did.

After living outside of the US for 8 months, I met up with a friend in New York who has always been a powerful force in my life. As I explained some of the agonizing I’d done over my image, he told me something I will never forget. “Bodies are the vessel through which we experience life. What a shame to hate yours.

And he was right. I wouldn’t trade a single experience I’ve had, even if it meant never having to be told I’m fat again. My weight still fluctuates (though it does sit at a healthier point by virtue of getting to walk around all day) and my disease can still make me tired and cranky. People still stare.

But you know what? Let ‘em. Because the view from here is amazing.

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