I turn 40 this year, and everyone keeps telling me I should be upset about it. They ask me if I’m turning 39 again or if I’m going to skip it altogether. No, I’m not skipping my milestone birthday or lying about it; I’m welcoming it! In my 30’s I’ve become much more appreciative of my body and what it can do, especially as it ages, and I owe much of that to hiking.
If I could change one thing about my life, I would like to have back all the time I wasted worrying about being fat because, you see, I was never fat. My weight fluctuated up and down, especially during and after two pregnancies, but I was never what any sane person would call fat. But reality didn’t matter, because I *thought* I was fat and I spent hours obsessing over what to eat, feeling guilty about what I ate, and working out as a way to punish my body for eating.
Even if I had been fat, so what? I see now what a waste of a life it is to obsess over weight. It burns me up now to think how much time I wasted worrying about the size of my thighs or the flatness of my stomach. What utterly inane things to concern myself with!
West Peak in Colorado
I hadn’t always been such a shallow, miserable person. I grew up on Hatteras Island, North Carolina, part of the famed Outer Banks and the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. I was raised literally inside a National Park, and my childhood was spent largely outdoors, going to the beach and exploring tidal flats and salt marshes. Because of its remote location and the fact that the island emptied out after tourist season, I had much more freedom than the kids growing up in the city or suburbs. I surfed, played at the beach, went fishing and clamming with my brother in his Carolina skiff (all of this without grown-up supervision), and grew up immersed in wind, tide, and salt water.
Once I moved off the island for college, I missed the beach and the marsh, but I didn’t have anything with which to replace it. I didn’t know how to be outdoorsy away from the beach. My family never went camping and we rarely went on vacation, so I had never been exposed to any type of hiking or mountains. It would be years before I found them.
In my 20’s while living in the city, I drifted aimlessly around trying to find something I could be passionate about, trying to figure out what my life was for. I was a gym rat, mostly because I had nothing better to do. Working out was something I made myself do so that I would not gain weight. I enjoyed how I felt after it was over, but I never enjoyed the act of running on a treadmill or making endless circles on the elliptical. It was a struggle against boredom the entire time, one of those necessary but tedious tasks akin to scrubbing baseboards or visiting the DMV.
Molly the Golden Retriever in Georgia
Looking back at pictures I realize I was incredibly fit, but I never felt that way. Even when I was teeny tiny, I would see myself in pictures and think I looked fat. My body image issues never escalated into clinical eating disorder territory; they just made me miserable on a daily basis. I spent way too much time obsessing over my appearance and treating my body with contempt and disappointment over its inability to ever be thin enough.
I think I knew instinctively that the way back to myself was through the outdoors. I longed for the kind of wild, natural places I had grown up in, but didn’t know where to find them. It wasn’t until I moved to north Georgia, near the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail and the lower reaches of the Blue Ridge Mountains, that I discovered the forest.
When I started hiking in my 30’s, I began to connect with the kid I had once been, the kid that had no concept of how she should look, the kid whose life was about important things like adventure and exploration. I was immediately hooked.
I had found a form of exercise I actually enjoyed. No more trips to the gym for me! When I first started, it was very much about the exercise. I was excited as I watched the miles tick by because I knew every one meant I was getting thinner and fitter. It quickly transformed into something else. My hikes became much more about my mind than my body. I learned to love the feeling of moving slowly through the woods, one foot in front of the other, taking it all in. The one-two, one-two rhythm of my steps was a comfort. It wasn’t exercise; it was communion.
When I started doing harder hikes, up mountains and longer distances, my fitness became something necessary to accomplish a larger goal, not the goal itself. I wanted to be able to backpack, so I wanted to get stronger. When we booked our annual Colorado vacation, I wanted to make it to the top of West Spanish Peak at about 13,000 ft, so I needed to hike more strenuous terrain in Georgia. In 2018, I set a goal of hiking 100 miles. I ended up hiking 487 miles in 5 states. I began to think of my body as my partner, not my enemy. We were doing these things together.
I would be lying if I said my body image issues have completely disappeared, but they have gotten significantly better. I regard my body with more kindness than I did before, less disappointment. I don’t obsess about how my body looks. I view it more as a vehicle for adventure than an object to be gazed upon.
I’m turning 40 this year and I’m having more fun than I did in my 20’s. I’m happier, more fulfilled. I have wrinkles, I’m not teeny tiny anymore, and I have pains I didn’t have before, but I gratefully accept those things because they came from a life well lived. Besides, I’m prettier on the inside than I’ve ever been.