Women are at the forefront of the travel industry, making up 56 percent of leisure travelers and reportedly going on more solo trips than men. While women travel for a wide variety of reasons, some researchers suggest that this discrepancy in numbers, especially when it comes to solo travel, stems from women’s propensity for self reflection. After all, time away from home can provide the perfect environment for introspection, which for many women can even become a therapeutic experience.
Early on in her life, Leila Farquharson didn’t see travel as an avenue for personal development and healing. As a Bahamian who spent her childhood visiting Florida often and later built a career in the tourism industry, travel has always been a part of her life.
Her experiences abroad only took on a different meaning as an adult after she left an abusive marriage in 2014. Working with a therapist after her divorce also became the catalyst to heal from childhood traumas, including abuse by a family member and the bullying she received for being plus-size.
Farquharson says seeking therapy and telling friends and family about her experiences were critical components of her healing process, but travel also played its role.
“When I started traveling again [after my divorce], I went on a business trip and started thinking to myself, ‘What you’ve been through shouldn’t bring you down. There’s a lot more out there for you to see,’ and so that’s what I did,” Farquharson says.
This work trip to Germany turned into an opportunity for Farquharson to explore on her own terms, focusing on what she wanted to see and do. She went on solo trips to Austria, Switzerland, Italy, France, and the Czech Republic over the span of several weeks.
“The goal was to heal and get Leila back,” Farquharson says of that time in her life. And the efforts paid off as the sense of freedom she felt allowed her to slowly shed many of the issues that had been holding her back.
“I feel so free when I travel because it gives me that urge to live and to continue to live for me,” she says.
Now, Farquharson is more confident than ever before and uses her platform (@darkbeautyl on Instagram) to document her travels in hopes of encouraging other people to see the world. She especially wants to inspire other plus-size women like herself who have overcome past trauma or are still working towards that goal.
“A lot of curvy people out there sometimes have a fear of traveling,” she says, citing potential issues like unfit accommodations or snug airplane seats. “I’m here to say it doesn’t matter. There are going to be challenges, but do you, see the world, and forget about everybody else.”
Farquharson isn’t alone in using travel to heal and build self-confidence, especially as a plus-size woman. Soraya Orelien found herself in a similar situation after leaving a damaging relationship.
“I recently got out of a toxic situation, a situation where I felt lost and found myself to be unworthy. I didn’t see myself as beautiful, sexy, or anything. I was told that I ate too much and was too fat for this person to date. I was truly broken. I literally didn’t know who I was,” Orelien says.
But a solo trip to Tulum helped Orelien reconnect with herself and rebuild her self-confidence.
“This trip truly brought out the best in me because I allowed myself to be present with my emotions and feelings. I allowed myself to let all of those toxic feelings and people go because they weren’t conducive to my wellbeing,” she explains. “Once I did that, I was able to begin my self-love journey.”
For Orelien, part of that journey looked like reciting daily affirmations in the mirror, telling herself that she was beautiful and worthy. She even stepped out of her comfort zone during that trip and did a photoshoot that went viral on social media.
“I came back home from that trip feeling rejuvenated, and I promised myself I would no longer allow anyone to treat me as less than, or tell me that I am unacceptable because of my body size. I am curvy and confident!”
Now, Orelien uses her experience to help others as a self-love coach who “empowers plus-size, curvy, and midsize women to love their bodies and themselves wholeheartedly.”
Although she’s a big traveler and says exploring the world has a uniquely powerful ability to help people change their mindset, she also recognizes it’s not the only way to achieve these results, especially since not everyone has the ability to travel.
“[Traveling] is an extra form of self care in your healing journey. However, you can achieve the same results by working on yourself and your trauma right now,” Orelien says. “There are several ways to do that: therapy, journaling, joining support groups, leaning on family and friends, the list goes on.”
Sociologist Karen Stein, who wrote a book about how travel can impact a person’s identity, agrees.
“A vacation is essentially about introducing some contrast with our everyday lives and allowing the flexibility to do and be different things. One does not have to travel to do this and a person can do things within their everyday environments to introduce contrast, flexibility, and change,” Stein says.
Stein’s research and work “comes from a perspective in sociology that the self is made up of multiple identities that are shaped by our place in society,” she explains. According to Stein, travel allows people to “reshift and reorganize identities…[By temporarily] setting some in the background, while shifting others forward, we can use travel as a way to reexamine our priorities and devote our time and attention to identities and commitments that we, perhaps unwillingly, have to put in the background in our daily lives.”
In this way, exploring the world, especially through solo travel, allows people the time, space and freedom to explore different sides of themselves without the outside pressure of societal expectations. At times, this can even provoke a change in perspective about the issues a traveler is facing in their life back home.
“Travel can be healing in various ways—breaking up a routine, forcing one to take in new information, offering a sense of agency when we’re able to successfully negotiate a new environment, especially in another language,” says Dr. Michi Fu, psychologist and
Public Outreach Network Coordinator of the California Psychological Association. “All of these can do wonders for someone whose brain has locked into a specific pattern in order to survive.”
For women who may feel hesitant to travel on their own, especially internationally, Fu suggests “having a date with yourself in a familiar setting [like] dinner and a movie, where you’re not likely to get lost, as an experiment of being comfortable being with yourself.”
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Farquharson agrees, adding that domestic travel can also be a good way to start slowly breaking out of your shell. And for those who feel self-conscious about stepping out into the world because of past negative experiences, Farquharson says it’s important to stay true to themselves.
“I want people, especially curvy women, to know that no matter what size they are, they can come out of a bad situation. They can overcome it. I don’t want them to change who they are to make society feel comfortable,” she says.
“At the end of the day, you are living for yourself. People shouldn’t let society make them feel uncomfortable. Period.”