How Going To Burning Man Sent My Negative Body Image Up In Flames

by Iris McAlpin

It's August of 2013, and after years of hearing about Burning Man, I'm actually on my way to the legendary Black Rock City, a place many call “home.”

In truth, I know very little about what I'm getting myself into, but I have consistently heard Burning Man described with adjectives such as “magical,” “life-altering” and “mind-blowing.”

As a self-proclaimed experience junky, that doesn't seem like something I want to pass up. There is just one problem. All of the photos I've seen are of bronzed beauties with svelte supermodel bodies, dressed in gorgeous, revealing costumes, on what appears to be the surface of the moon.

And me? Well, I'm Scottish (read: pale), curvy and bulimic.

Convinced that my body is shameful and disgusting, the idea of running around with a bunch of glamazons in their underwear is panic-inducing.

"I am going to look like a beluga whale next to these girls! What if they see my cellulite? What if people think I'm ugly, and no one ever loves me again?"

As ridiculous as it may sound, this is what's going through my head, but I decide I'm going anyway.

Within seconds of arriving, I am pinned down on the playa floor by a beautiful young greeter, commanding me to make “dust angels,” as the rest of the welcoming committee cheers me on.

I can't help but laugh. Their playful, loving energy is contagious.

As I stand up and try (in vain) to brush the dust off my shorts, I notice something. This young woman, this bright, fun, giggly woman who is clad in nothing but a black thong leotard, isn't a supermodel.

She is beautiful and vibrant, but she doesn't have a conventionally “perfect” body. She has a little cellulite, too! And she isn't covering it up.

She's happy with it, celebrating in it and spreading joy to others in it.

As someone who hasn't worn a bathing suit in public for years, I can't even begin to process this.

As we drive through the city to our campsite, I become increasingly confused. Who are all of these normal-bodied, nearly-naked, happy-looking people? Where are all the lingerie models? Where are all the lavish costumes?

I struggle to reconcile my experience with my expectations. Burning Man isn't a giant, other-worldly runway show; it's a lot of dusty, smiling faces.

As the festival goes on, I do see some stunningly gorgeous people who look like they're straight out of the pages of a magazine, but they are just part of the beauty of the place, as everyone else is. I can't bring myself to run around in my underwear, but something starts to shift.

By the time I leave, I'm still not quite sure what to make of this place called Black Rock City. I just know it is the best place I have ever been, and I need to go back.

Surprisingly, my second year is a lot more challenging than the first.

The novelty of a flame-throwing octopus vehicle in the middle of an LED wonderland has worn off (a little), and I'm not expecting a desert full of Burning Man Barbie and Ken dolls anymore.

No longer am I refreshed by the sight of a curvy woman sporting leopard booty shorts, and I'm confronted by my unwillingness to join her.

On the one hand, my definition of beauty begins to shift. It's no longer about looking a certain way; it's about how people are acting.

Are they being loving, open, authentic and vulnerable? Are they spreading joy? Are they owning the skin they're in?

These are the most beautiful people I see on the playa, and they all look radically different.

On the other hand, I feel completely and utterly trapped in my view that no matter what anyone else looks like, my body is gross. It just is.

The insanity of this double standard eats at me for the entire event. I manage to have some fun, in spite of the internal battle, but in the quiet moments between the chaos, I feel like I'm being torn apart.

After a few more days immersed in a city of self-expression, I realize I can no longer stand to live inside of this limiting framework I created for myself. I look to the temple on the horizon, a place where many cast aside their demons, declare new futures for themselves and leave behind their grief.

I make my way toward the beautiful wooden tower.

I write a letter saying goodbye to the self-hatred I have worn like a suit of armor for so long. I promise to be kinder to myself. I promise to let myself celebrate my body. I promise to let myself experience joy.

I place it in a pile of books, notes and relics, and leave it behind to be destroyed. As the temple goes up in flames Sunday night, I weep as the ashes escape the conflagration and dance around us. Despite the punishing nature of those thoughts, they have kept me company over the years, and I don't know how my life will look without them.

The transformation is not immediate as I hoped it would be. The next month brings with it an increase in bulimic behaviors, as if it is letting me know it won't be done away with so easily. The critical, shaming voices grow louder.

I begin to lose hope.

But then, I remember what I saw out there in the middle of the barren desert. I remember the openness, the vulnerability, the unabashed ownership of one's self in all its varied forms.

I realize there is no other way to shed the weight of denial than to shine a light on it. I can't hold it all in and expect my woes to go away, and I can't heal my wounds in a vacuum all by myself.

I do the unthinkable, and I tell everyone I'm close to what I'm dealing with. I own up to having an eating disorder, after pretending it had been gone for years. I begin to share with more and more people what my experience with self-hatred and body shame has been like for me.

Almost overnight, the beast quiets.

I stop counting calories. I start a blog.

I begin speaking publicly about my struggles with bulimia and depression. I wear a bikini at a pool party for the first time in years.

My life completely alters. I am happy.

As I made my pilgrimage back home to Black Rock City this year, I knew it would be a whole new world for me. And how did it go?

Well, you can see for yourself.


All photos by Daryl Henderson.