When I announced that I was going on a 6 month backpacking trip through Southeast Asia, many of my friends laughed, saying variations of the following; ‘but you get lost getting from our regular bar to your house’ (true), ‘you bring more out to lunch than most people bring for a weekend trip’ (also true) and ‘you’re basically a useless human being and you may die’ (a tad hurtful, but ultimately kind of true).
However, I put their words of encouragement in my already overpacked backpack and headed out. It’s been almost 2 months and I am still alive and kicking it, and, having the time of my life. I figured that traveling would teach me so much about other cultures, other traditions and other people; and it has.
I was acutely aware from a young age how important beauty and physical appearance was. Unfortunately I was a bit of an ugly duckling in my formative preteen/teen years. I was blessed with the perfect trifecta of bad eyesight, bad teeth and caterpillar eyebrows (that’s its medical term of course). Throw in frizzy hair that hadn’t learned how to curl, a body that seemed to be on a different schedule from all my other peers and crippling low self confidence, and my friend, you’ve got a winner. I hated what I saw in the mirror and, retrospectively looking back, believed that if I was beautiful then life would be better.
As time went on, I slowly began to morph from this human version of the ‘Ahh Monsters!’ Dolls (look them up, they are so great) and into, not just a human being, but an a real girl. In the past few years, there have been parts about myself that I do like, but there have been significantly more parts of my physicality that I am critical of; but all being said and done, I am perfectly average looking. People don’t grimace when they see me (unless they know my personality and then might do that) but they also don’t fall to their knees and thank some higher entity for blessing the world with such a natural wonder…okay slight exaggeration.
Additionally, I have been carrying around an intensely critical view of myself for over a decade and that feeling is pretty hard to shake. You convince yourself if you buy just the right eyeliner, get your hair the same shade Miley had before she pulled a 2004 B Spears or watch enough ANTM (pre cycle 15 duh), you’ll somehow like yourself even more because you will feel more beautiful. Of course that feeling never comes, and you think it’s because you’re still not pretty enough. I have now learned through my experiences traveling that the idea that beauty leads to self love and happiness is not true for most. Traveling has made me face my own issues and self imposed concerns head on, while embracing the fact that I am extraordinarily average.
Firstly, I have, excuse my French, gained some real fucking perspective.
Yeah, I may hate what some girl in 5th grade coined my ‘thunder thighs’ (young girls can be just as harsh as Joan Rivers eh), but my legs WORK. Southeast Asian countries have a high number of amputees due to active landmines from past wars, along with many people who don’t have access to basic medical treatment for physical disabilities. This realisation, and seeing it day in and day on out, has made me appreciate, rather than critique, everything my body can do. It has taken me up mountains, helped me run through new cities and allowed me to easily explore and take in every new experience.
It works perfectly in ways that I had taken for granted and the reality is, that’s what your body’s main function is right? Deep down I think I’ve always known that, but it’s difficult to argue with an emotional 15 (…or 20…) year old girl crying because she feels too fat to be in a bathing suit. But remembering all the amazing things that your body can do makes you appreciate it and care a lot less if you’ve got washboard abs as you’re running down the beach, playing frisbee with new friends.
Secondly, I have learned not to care about looking ‘perfect’ everyday and that in turn has led to, not just being more at ease with what I look like, but consequentially has also made looks less important. When you travel, particularly when you’re in the rural countryside, there is no guarantee that there will be a shower, let alone one with enough pressure to allow your hair to dry into perfect ringlets. You don’t wear makeup because you’re just going to sweat it off and who wants to be the only chick at 6AM with winged eyeliner? You’re also just too busy having fun and soaking in every moment to give a fly fuck. Oh, are the bags under my eyes a bit large today? Sorry I didn’t notice BECAUSE IM SWIMMING IN A FUCKING WATERFALL. Doofuses.
You also realise that the people you want to befriend and hang out with aren’t the people with Kayla abs or perfectly silky hair, but people who are kind, who make you laugh and who have interesting things to say. After realising this about others, it slowly starts to sink in that looks are by far the least important thing that people have to offer and that extends to yourself. And you know what? People actually do like me and want to be around me, despite my lack of killer Gigi legs. My self-deprecating humour and sarcastic comments make people laugh, I’m thoughtful enough to include everyone and, surprisingly, am confident enough to talk to mostly anyone (although there’s a 90% chance I’m going to be talking about Harry Potter).
About 4 weeks into my trip, we had spent all day running around a new city in Laos and by the time I got back to my hostel and showered, I was pretty exhausted. But as I combed my hair back and looked at my fresh, but tired face, I couldn’t stop smiling. I don’t think I’ve ever been more at peace with the way that I look than I had in that moment and I felt, even if I didn’t look, beautiful. In the most average way of course.
Lastly, and almost most comically, I’ve noticed that being beautiful is a bit of a pain when traveling because the situation that I described above (you know…cheesy chick flick, stopping and staring in the streets because someone makes your…’heart’ flutter) actually happens. For about 2 weeks I was traveling with a lovely girl, who also happened to be one of the most beautiful people I have ever met, and man, people would just not leave her alone. It’s hard enough being a white western woman – many locals won’t have seen that many people who look like you and so will naturally stare and be curious about you.
But this girl couldn’t do anything without people (mostly men) invading her personal space to take photos with her, taking photos of her across the street, extremely lewd comments (which, to be honest, tended to come from other western travellers) and other similar things. So for me, someone who is already a bit anxious and on edge (thanks for all the horror stories right as I’m boarding the plane momma dearest), it has been an advantage not to feel like the main attraction. You’re able to slip in with the crowds and experience what you came for, rather than dealing with all the other mere mortals who are so enamoured by your angelic like beauty.
Maybe you’re reading this and thinking ‘god you’re a self obsessed moron’ (if so, you and my mother should talk) or ‘why did you have to go halfway across the world to get what most people know by age 18?’ or simply, ‘what bullshit’. Maybe you are, but I care about those thoughts just as much as I care about my baby hair that just won’t fit into my French braid (which, in case you’re wondering, is not at all mofos).
Maybe it shouldn’t have taken me being thousands of miles away from home to start becoming okay with the way that I look, just like maybe I should know that eating 20 Oreos in a 10 minute time frame will hurt my tummy, but both are a learning process and I’m slowly but surely getting there.
I try everyday to have a minute or two, whether it be after a yoga practice, while I’m looking at a temple that is hundreds of years old or lying in bed reflecting on my day, where I mentally give thanks, not to any certain God, but just to the world and whatever is out there, for everything I have, everything I’m able to do, and now, for the absolutely perfect, absolutely average body and face that I have.