How Hiking Taught Me Self-Confidence

Celeste hiking in Los Angeles

 

Written by Dia&Co customer and plus-size hiker Celeste Thompson 

Back in 2013, I was in a very dark place. I was feeling very lonely and I wasn’t comfortable in my own skin. I didn’t like the person I was becoming or the person I was seeing in the mirror. I was terrified at the thought of people looking or staring at me—even something as simple as going to the grocery store made me nervous. When people would ask me to hang out with them or go to a party, I would always say no because I was afraid. If we went to a restaurant, I would think, “Will I be able to find a chair that I can sit in? Am I going to be uncomfortable because people will notice how much or how little I eat?” These simple things that most people never think about consumed me and started to drive me crazy.

I met a group of friends when I was living in Maui and all of them were pretty active. I remember them saying that they were planning a hiking trip. While we weren’t best friends, we all knew each other well and were in the same group. I heard about the hiking trip but was never extended an invitation. I kept quiet about it. I figured they didn’t invite me because they thought I would turn it down or slow down the group. One friend noticed my mood had changed and I told her that I felt left out. Then she said, “Well, we didn’t think you wanted to go because it’s hiking.” They automatically assumed I couldn’t do it, just based on my size. From that moment, I felt like they were probably right. Maybe I couldn’t do it. That was my lowest point.

Instead of calling my friends out and telling them that I wanted to go with them, the situation made me afraid and embarrassed. I wanted to go with them and explore, but I felt like my size made it so I didn’t belong. I wish I would have said, “Is it okay if I go with you guys, even if I can’t make it the whole way?” But I didn’t. Instead, it added to the wall that I was building around myself and kept me even further away by continuing to turn down invitations.

Celeste hiking, going up steps on a trail

I have always liked nature—that’s something that was always in me. I was living in Maui, and you don’t decide to move to Hawaii if you don’t love nature! But I didn’t know anything about hiking or other outdoorsy activities. I never even went camping until just last year. I felt that in order to break out of my shell and conquer my fears, I had to put myself in an uncomfortable situation like hiking. I was searching for that adrenaline rush—I wanted to feel alive at a time in my life when I was so used to protecting myself from pain. Some may say that facing your fears head-on can be self-destructive, but for me, hiking has made me feel like I can conquer the world.

The first hike I embarked on was Lahaina Trail. I went alone so that I wouldn’t slow anyone down and could go at my own pace. The trail is pretty rocky and has no shade, so you’re exposed to the sun the whole time. It’s also super slippery and has a steep incline. It’s not an easy hike. I arrived at the parking lot of the trail and was super nervous. I kept looking for excuses, thinking maybe I needed to come back when it was less hot. The parking lot contained no signs for the trail, so I thought to myself, “Maybe I can come back another day and find out where the best place to park is.” But I knew that these were petty excuses I was creating because I was terrified.

Once I started on the trail, there was a moment of relief—it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be. The pain was real, as I was literally hiking a mountain and scrambling over rocks, but the physical challenge was nothing compared to the mental challenge. There were so many times when I wanted to turn back.

The physical challenge was nothing compared to the mental challenge.
There were so many times when I wanted to turn back.
Celeste hiking over boulders and rocks.

When it was done, I felt amazing. Coming back down the mountain, it got very dark. I was almost stuck because I was so unprepared—I had no flashlight and no walking sticks. When I was descending from the mountain and saw my car window in the parking lot at the bottom, I felt like Wonder Woman. As soon as I could, I tried to unlock my car to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating and had really made it back. It was the most amazing feeling ever.

After that first hike, I was so energized to do the next one. Yes, I was sore for a day or two, but I kept thinking, “Woah, that means I can do another hike! It didn’t kill me!” I told my coworkers about the trail, the same friends who didn’t invite me on their hike, and they were impressed because even they were too intimidated to try it. That hike was my first foray into the great outdoors and hearing that reaction was extremely empowering. I felt like I had opened the door and finally realized that I’m allowed to enter this space that was so unknown to me.

My next hike was Pipiwai Trail, at the biggest waterfall in Maui. I wanted to finally see the waterfall that I had only previously seen in pictures, something I never had expected to see in-person before. It’s a touristy hike, and I knew that I wouldn’t have the privacy that I had on my last hike. I wanted to get comfortable hiking around strangers and existing in my body. The trail is on the rainy side of the island, so even though it was an easier hike, the unpredictable weather means that it can get super slippery in the rain. My coworker and her husband joined but went up a different trail. They made it down two hours before I did, so they started to get nervous about me. When asking fellow hikers if they saw me, a bigger girl on the trail, they said things like, “That girl that just hiked the waterfall? Yeah, she’s coming down now. She’s amazing!”

It rained, it got slippery, but I made it. And the strangers who I was hiking alongside? They recognized the effort I was putting in and that brought a smile to my face. Today, those people I met on the trail follow me on Instagram and like my hiking photos.

Celeste hiking to a waterfall.

Hiking then became part of my identity. My coworkers would ask where my next hike would be and began tagging along. My mom started describing me by saying, “She lives in Hawaii and she loves hiking.” That felt good to hear, especially because I had previously been so ashamed of my body, and now my body was accomplishing incredible things.

Then I moved to California, away from the size-inclusive Hawaiian culture, and I felt like I needed to protect myself again. My cousin, who lives here in California and is one of my best friends, became my shield. Anywhere we went, I felt like I had permission to be there because I was with her. I thought that people wouldn’t see me because I was with her, because she’s normal. Because of my size, I didn’t feel comfortable being completely alone. I didn’t feel like I had the same right to be there as everyone else unless I was with someone who looked normal. I realized that I needed to become comfortable with and start relying on myself. I wanted to go on my first solo trip. Like when I started hiking, I wanted to face my fears head-on.

I decided that I wanted to hike every state. Each state has something different and beautiful to offer. But most importantly, I wanted to do it alone. I was afraid of traveling alone and showing up to a small town where they aren’t used to seeing super fat people like me. I wanted to reach that level of comfort. My cousin was looking for someone to drive her to Burning Man and I realized that this was my opportunity. I gave her a ride, and from there I embarked on my first solo journey. I had no plan, no hotels booked—just a dream of hiking in every state.

I didn’t feel comfortable being completely alone, I didn’t feel like I had the same right to be there as everyone else unless I was with someone who looked normal.
Celeste hiking through a cave.

I left my cousin in Reno, Nevada. I was about to drop her off, when I was suddenly terrified. I had the worst feeling in my stomach and I wanted to go back to Los Angeles right away. She told me, “You came all the way here. If you turn back, you’ll regret it. Just go.” So, I continued on. I was still extremely scared. I was going to be driving through Idaho, which I’d never been to. But my biggest fear of all was how people were going to see me. As a fat person, I can tell you that just imagining how others will view you is the scariest thing. You feel like they’re going to laugh at you or judge you. The media has made bodies like mine into a joke.

 

Eventually, it was midnight and I was still in Nevada. I came up to this tiny town of 1200 called Wells. I was starving and wanted to stop to get something to eat. I had always been afraid of eating alone, because being the fat person eating all alone was such a sad stereotype. But there were no drive-thrus in sight, so I parked at the local restaurant and told myself, “I’m hungry, and I deserve to eat.” That was the first time I ate at a restaurant alone. Then, I went to the first hotel I could find. I took everything out of my car into the hotel room so my car wouldn’t get broken into. I barricaded myself in the hotel room and pushed a table up against the door in case anyone would break in. I slept with my keys in my hand. I had never been truly alone before, so I went to great lengths to feel safe. Looking back now, it makes me laugh at how much work I put in just to sleep. But the next morning, I loaded the car back up and got back on the road.

 

Celeste hiking in Los Angeles

On that trip, I was gone for about 20 days. I hiked Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, and Nevada. All by myself. My next hike is going to be Kilimanjaro with the Curvy Kili Crew. I needed to book two seats on the airplane for the flight there, find a double-size sleeping bag to fit my body, and a custom jacket—but I’m not letting that stop me! I’ve even applied for the Guinness World Record for the heaviest person to hike Kilimanjaro. I’m 430 pounds and I want to break the stereotype that people my size can’t accomplish feats like this. We aren’t lazy. We aren’t fat because we don’t care about ourselves. I hope that someone who feels stuck, as I did in 2013, hears my story and is inspired. After Kilimanjaro, I’ll hike somewhere in Europe. I’ve heard a lot about fatphobia in Europe, which is very intimidating, but I want to face my fears head-on again. I am ready to struggle on the mountain because I feel like that’s the only way I’m going to learn about myself.

We aren’t lazy. We aren’t fat because we don’t care about ourselves.

 

Hiking makes me feel so invigorated and alive. I get a rush of adrenaline and have to do real-time problem solving. Hiking has taught me to get in tune with my body for the first time in my life. It’s taught me how to feel exhausted and recognize exhaustion. Before that, every time I felt tired, I assumed it was because I’m a fat person and fat people are always tired. That wasn’t the case—what I was feeling was depression. Now, my body is always impressing me by accomplishing more than I think it’s capable of. My body does amazing things. It hikes a lot! These accomplishments give me so much confidence.

I want to inspire people who feel like they don’t belong outside to get out there and explore. Never put yourself down because you need an extra seat on a plane. You deserve to take the trip. I would plan trips and then always say to my mom, “Hopefully by next year I’ll have lost weight and can go.” It never happened, and I sank into a deeper depression because of it. For years I didn’t travel because of my size. Don’t let that happen to you. Nature and our wide world are big enough for everyone to fit.

Dia&Co customer Celeste Thompson used to turn down invitations out of fear of her size getting in the way. Now, she’s ready to set the world record for the heaviest person to summit Mt. Kilimanjaro.

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