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In the Desert: Friendship, Body Anxiety & Healing

How my friend and I found support in one another in Santa Fe.

When Izzy and I first decided to take a trip to New Mexico, we hadn’t realized how magnificent the landscape would be despite having looked at photos. We decided on Santa Fe because both of us are Northeasterners who had always wanted to see the desert. When we booked our trip, I also hadn’t realized how much our weight/body anxieties would threaten to undermine our vacation.

Izzy and I have been friends for a few years, after we met at a job in New York where we shared one big cubicle, like roommates sharing a dorm. Oftentimes at noon I would watch Izzy heat up veggie patties and stuff them between a toasted English muffin. “Sad diet food,” she’d say, tearing open a packet of salt to sprinkle on her sandwich.

On our first night in the Land of Enchantment, Izzy and I were steeped like tea bags in a natural hot spring carved into the side of a cliff. The hot spring was in the town of Ojo Caliente, home to some of the oldest and most beautiful mineral springs in the state. A waiter in the town of Chimayó told us about the springs and said we should go. It was a long drive from where we were staying in Santa Fe, the waiter told us, but the natural rock formations and geothermal waters that seemed likely to cure any ailment would be worth the trip.

What I came to learn was that everyone has different ways of coping with weight anxieties.

Though I’ve traveled with plenty of friends, Izzy was the first traveling companion who has experienced extreme body image anxieties and a history of disordered eating patterns—like me. But before our trip, Izzy’s diets didn’t seem out of the ordinary, as I was accustomed to hearing even the most confident women I knew sometimes make self-deprecating comments about their weight. In fact, it was because Izzy talked so openly about going on diets that I thought she must have a healthier relationship to her body than I do. What I came to learn was that everyone has different ways of coping with weight anxieties. It seemed that for Izzy, it was cathartic to acknowledge and mention other women’s bodies, but for me, it was triggering.

As we sat in the hot springs, I leaned back to soak in the steamy bath and pinched the fat on my legs. Izzy watched a woman walk by, “Look at her,” she said. “Fuck her.”

I zoned in on the thin yet buxom woman lowering herself into the water, and my mind was transported to that gray cubicle, and I no longer felt like I was on vacation.

Having picked up on my silence, Izzy abruptly uttered, “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” pointing at the eroded rock wall. I nodded. Izzy and I both hate our bodies, but at least we can agree on the rocks. The point of the springs was to help us relax, but neither of us felt very good.

This is a view from the Tent Rocks trail, which winds through a slot canyon and several hoodoos.
photo by Stephanie Jimenez

Over the next few days, we hiked through the badlands of Navajo Nation. The land stretched out farther than we could see. Rocks the colors of blood oranges and tangerines dotted the sides of the highways. Izzy and I rolled down our windows as we drove by mesa after mesa, trying to eliminate any and all barriers between us and the incarnate beauty of what we’d only seen in Windows desktop backgrounds.

We ate sparingly between brief stops at gas stations, but despite the wonders and beauty around us, I was more focused on my phone’s step counter. Being away from home also meant that I was away from my normal workout routine, and I was fixated on compensating for my lack of exercise by restricting calories and making sure I was still being active.

On our last night in Santa Fe, we decided we deserved at least one nice dinner. In a swanky restaurant, we began with bread served with three kinds of butter. Still, I drank more bourbon cocktails than I ate food. Within hours, the two of us were drunk, and stupidly, we got in our rental car and drove back to our Airbnb.

It was only after we were in the Airbnb driveway that I finally admitted I was hungry, having restricted my calories all week and having drank so much. I insisted we go out for more food and held up my phone to show Izzy the only place that was open: a McDonald’s 20 minutes away.

Having any kind of disorder or mental illness doesn’t mean you can’t travel—it just means you need to be as honest as you possibly can.

Online, and on Instagram, I’d seen dieters and fitness instructors indulge in the very occasional high-calorie meal—their #YOLO meals. That night, I made a tasteless McDonald’s pastry my YOLO meal—and it was nearly my last since it wasn’t safe for either of us to be driving that night.

The next day, as sunlight crept past the purple mosquito net draped across our bed, Izzy and I looked at each other with regret. Traveling with others always requires compromise. But when people with the same destructive tendencies are involved, traveling requires more than just compromise—it requires being deliberate about not indulging in each other’s possibly destructive behavior as well as supporting one another through tough times. Having any kind of disorder or mental illness doesn’t mean you can’t travel—it just means you need to be as honest as you possibly can, especially if you’re traveling with someone who doesn’t know what you might be experiencing. As awe-inspiring as it is, traveling can also be emotionally exhausting and stressful. It’s okay to tell a friend when you need support or when you feel triggered. A true friend, regardless of whether they can relate to your experience, should be able to understand and respect that.

But with Izzy, it’s also easy to find the light.

Since that trip to New Mexico, Izzy and I have grown closer. She is one of the few people who knows how deep my anxieties run, and when she sees me beginning to spiral into self-loathing, she helps pull me out of what she calls our “dark place.” It’s too easy for us to go there, she says. But with Izzy, it’s also easy to find the light. She is one of the most loving, supportive, and generous people I know, and together, we can laugh for days.

As we drove to the Santa Fe airport to go back to New York, we said goodbye to the New Mexico landscape—a landscape that Georgia O’Keeffe has rendered so beautifully that it looks like a dream— and where patches of darkness follow magnificent bursts of light. It’s obvious that a place like that could inspire a new way of seeing and being in the world. A good friend can do the same.

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