You’re Not Alone.
Issues surrounding body image, health, and beauty can be pretty difficult to grapple with in general. But what happens when you’re suddenly placed in a new cultural context? While studying abroad, you may realize that the new people around you hold different standards and values when it comes to these subjects, which can make things a bit confusing. During my experience studying in Cuba, for example, I’ve noticed that it’s very common for people to openly address others’ weight. This can be off-putting and even hurtful for some students. Generally speaking, however, comments about weight are seen as normal by many people here, and are not at all meant to be hurtful. This disconnect reflects how standards of beauty differ between cultures.
These interactions have made me think a lot about the ways in which students from the United States experience body image issues while abroad. After witnessing my friends struggle with self consciousness after weight change, and after dealing with it myself, I decided to address these issues with one clear message: It is incredibly normal for bodies to change when placed in a new context, especially during a stressful period like study abroad.
There are a host of reasons as to why our bodies might start to look and feel different while we’re studying and living away from home. Firstly, adjusting to and living in a new country can bring about lifestyle changes: habits for basic tasks like eating, exercising, and sleeping may not be quite the same. For example, you may have different foods available to you, or you may eat more or less than you normally would. By no means is this necessarily a bad thing: one of my favorite experiences in Cuba has been sitting around the dinner table eating the delicious food made by my host mom. Stress may also lead to changes in weight. Studying abroad can undoubtedly be a stressful experience, and stress often affects us physically. It can be really easy to criticize ourselves for these changes, but in reality, they’re very common. Moreover, already existing insecurities and struggles may be exacerbated while adjusting to new cultural norms and coping with the day-to-day pressures of living in a different country. These are only a few reasons among many as to why someone may gain or lose weight while abroad.
How we process these physical changes often reflects the contexts that we come from. In Cuba, for example, weight gain does not hold the same negative stigma as it does in the United States. When someone here mentions that you’re gaining weight, it’s normally meant to indicate that you’ve been enjoying yourself and eating good food. Coming from the United States, however, such comments can often be hurtful. For me, these cultural differences show the subjectivity and strictness of our own beauty standards. While this fact may not make it easier to accept our changing bodies, it’s good to at least keep in mind.
What to Do?
If you’re struggling with accepting your weight changes while abroad or afterwards, I can assure you that you’re not alone. So, how can you deal with these challenges and focus your energy on enjoying your experience abroad? If you feel like you’re undergoing a lot of stress, it’s important to find ways to manage it that work for you. There are a variety of resources with recommendations for doing so. Self care can mean a variety of things to different people, such as journaling, taking a walk, talking with a friend, spending some time alone—it really depends on what works for you. Talking with support systems and/or a counselor are also great ways to help you figure out solutions.
Instead of highlighting ways to lose or gain weight, I believe that it might be more helpful to think about lifestyle decisions that can help you feel good in your own body. You may find ideas like intuitive eating and joyful movement helpful. Perhaps you haven’t been getting enough sleep and you need to carve out time to rest more. While it can be really hard to do, moving away from shaming yourself and instead brainstorming ways to help yourself feel comfortable in your body may make your study abroad experience more fulfilling, and will most likely lead to better health down the road.
Lastly, if you have dealt with disordered eating in the past, or are worried that you are going down that path, there are many resources that you can access for help. And as always, the IFSA staff is happy to work with you to ensure that you have a safe and enjoyable time abroad.
Amanda Grolig is a sociology major at Haverford College and studied abroad with IFSA at the Universidad de La Habana Partnership in Cuba in the spring 2018. She served as a Health and Safety Advisor for IFSA through the Work-to-Study Program.