How Travel Has Improved My Body Image
I must have been around ten. I was at primary school and using the bathroom. As I washed my hands, I looked in the mirror and saw myself, all of a sudden aware of what I looked like. I registered my pink cheeks, blonde hair and glasses. It was as if I saw myself for the first time. I was not particularly happy with what I saw. My personal story of body awareness is nowhere near unique. Like many other teenagers I struggled to accept my body. It felt like every year a new insecurity popped up. My skin, facial features, legs; you name it, I hated it.
I carried this perspective with me way into my 20s. For years I did not feel comfortable wearing shorts or swimwear. I used to try and secretly check my reflection whenever I could, just to see if I at least looked a bit acceptable. Of course I tried to avoid my picture being taken, or would hide my flaws whenever I could. In hindsight, I realize how much energy I spent on this. What a waste of time! I didn’t start to overcome this until I started to travel this year.
My inner critic was probably busy elsewhere because traveling has made it much easier for me to appreciate what is, including my own body. Instead setting myself up for failure with unrealistic beauty standards, I started to focus on my body’s abilities. My yoga practice also played an important part in that.
European women go outside to get a tan, while many Asian ladies buy beauty products with whitening properties. What some of us try to hide, some others wish they had.
How lucky I am to have this body, this vehicle in life that takes me all over the world. I’ve been sick a few times, and even ended up in a hospital in Indonesia. But that does not outweigh the fact that my body carried me up the hills of Munnar in India, allowed me to surf the waves of Weligama in Sri Lanka, to go trekking in the jungles of Sumatra in Indonesia, swim with elephants near Chiang Mai in Thailand, and explore the Black Forest in Germany. Not to mention my travels in the mountains of the Italian Abruzzo region and horseback riding through Cuba…
The different cultures and countries that I came across have also influenced my body awareness. When I started traveling in India I realized it was probably best to cover myself a bit. Not just because of the local traditions, but also to protect myself from the sun and mosquitoes. Actually, it was nice not always feeling like I had to show as much skin as possible. I felt very comfortable and pretty in my saree and tunic with leggings. It worked for me.
In Asia, people seemed to be impressed with my blonde hair, pale skin, blue eyes and height. The upside is that when people express their appreciation for your looks all day long, it does work miracles for your self-esteem. Yes, I know it sounds superficial. Eventually it also made me feel like a zoo animal. Being stared at non-stop and hearing girls giggle at me made me feel insecure.
After spending almost seven months in Asia, I decided to pay Europe a visit again. It was not until then that I realized how different beauty standards are across the globe. While some women cover themselves, Europeans show a lot of skin during the summer. European women go outside to get a tan, while many Asian ladies buy beauty products with whitening properties. What some of us try to hide, some others wish they had.
As a girl or woman in Europe it is not always easy to deal with the current beauty standards. We are constantly confronted with looks that are simply not attainable for normal human beings. So we try to lose or gain weight, wear make-up (or excuse ourselves for not wearing it) and tell ourselves what clothes we can and cannot wear. We strive to be as fat, cellulite and wrinkle-free as possible.
How lucky I am to have this body, this vehicle in life that takes me all over the world.
I was in for a shock when I arrived in Cuba. Instead of hiding their love handles and dimples, Cuban women show them off in super tight, revealing clothes. And you know what? It suits them. They have zero shame in their game. As they should! Would it have something do to with the absence of the Western media in Cuba?
My skinny body might have been far from the Latin American ideal but I have never felt more comfortable and feminine in my own skin, regardless of my clothes or the fact that I had not worn make-up in almost a year. There is a pride in female looks in Cuba and it is contagious. I could still feel this female pride when I continued my journey to Colombia.
My feet touched the concrete as I crossed the road. I had to use all of my strength to keep my surfboard from escaping from underneath my arm. As I struggled to hold onto the board I tried to navigate my way between American and Japanese tourists. Meanwhile I could feel the bottoms of my swimsuit creeping up, not leaving much to the imagination of anyone who might be watching me.
Ten years earlier I would not have imagined crossing a busy boulevard like this in Waikiki in my swimsuit. I would have been thinking about the white skin, dimples and stretch marks I would expose. However, after eleven months traveling the world, it didn’t bother me that much. Traveling solo across multiple continents has changed the way I perceive my own body tremendously. Yes, I know I do not look like a photoshopped model or a professional surfer. I am more than okay with that.