Body Image in the Wild

Published: October 31, 2014

Autumn has finally arrived in North Carolina, so I am dedicating this post to the falling temperatures and leaves. Especially this time of the year, the outdoors can be healing. During the fall break of my most academically and psychologically challenging semester of college, I begrudgingly attended a backpacking trip with Outward Bound. I initially wished that I’d picked something that involved relaxing and recharging; instead I was stuck with what I imagined would be a long weekend of freezing at night, strenuous hiking, and teambuilding activities with a bunch of strangers that I’d never see again.

Overall, the trip was fine. I didn’t feel dramatically different; rather, I was relieved that it hadn’t been a disaster. It was only afterward that I began to understand how much it had influenced me. I had four days of being truly focused and present for the various tasks at hand rather than letting my mind go a million other places. I’d mastered so many new skills, many of which I had always assumed were too specialized and complicated for me to learn. I’d quickly become comfortable with a group of people: even comfortable enough to assert myself when I thought we were going the wrong direction. More than anything, I’d been comfortable in my skin. I wasn’t showering and I certainly wasn’t wearing makeup. There was no ensured privacy when I changed clothes, but I didn’t worry about anyone seeing and judging my body. In fact, I was proud of how hard my body was working for me. I could feel myself getting stronger each day. I enjoyed the deep breaths of fresh air I had to take throughout the days in order to get myself up steep trails, and I enjoyed how thoroughly exhausted I was each night. I hadn’t noticed at the time, but I’d truly felt good. I left the trip feeling recharged and rested after all.

Although my Outward Bound trip was not technically a wilderness therapy excursion, it had been a therapeutic experience for me. There’s a lot of new research on wilderness therapy as the field grows in popularity, so I looked through various studies for correlations between participation in therapeutic wilderness courses and improved body image. What was it about my trip that generally made me feel better about myself?

Caulkins, White and Russell1 saw the wilderness as “a therapeutic medium to foster an enhanced image of the self.” However, the setting alone was not responsible for these gains. The challenging physical activities allowed opportunities for “immediate feedback and success.”1 In other words, reaching the top of a mountain can be as therapeutic as it is symbolic. Arnold2 stresses the importance of using the Earth body metaphor in working toward increased body awareness and body image. Arnold includes risk-taking activities, skilled movement, campfire talks, and teambuilding exercises as critical elements of a transformative wilderness therapy experience.

In the literature, the physical activities on these excursions were associated with a renewed appreciation for participants’ own bodies and strength. Related to this appreciation is the acute awareness that food provides the essential fuel to achieve one’s daily goals. The connection between fuel and my body’s ability to do what it had to do was never as clear to be as on this trip. Outdoor challenges of each day provide opportunities for participants to feel competent and confident in themselves.

This type of strenuous outdoor experience is contraindicated when recovering from anorexia nervosa, but one does not need such an extreme experience to achieve the same sense of groundedness in the outdoors. Just sitting under a colorful tree or walking through the Arboretum on the UNC campus can help to pull your awareness away from your body and take a moment to appreciate the autumn around us. The hard work of recovery will still be there, but a pause to appreciate and experience nature can reinvigorate you for the journey ahead.

1 Caulkins, M., White, D., & Russell, K. (2006). The Role of Physical Exercise in Wilderness Therapy for Troubled Adolescent Women. Journal of Experiential Education, 29(18), 18-37.

2Arnold, S. (1994). Transforming Body Image Through Women’s Wilderness Experiences. Women & Therapy, 15(3-4), 43-54.

photo credit: Ian Sane via Creative Commons