In America we talk all the time about the constant bombardment of advertisements telling women how they should look. Walk down any street, look into any shop window, or glance at any publication and you can easily see the type of impossible beauty our society idolizes. Thanks to the progressive rhetoric of the times, there are many voices out there telling both men and women to ignore the standards put out by the media and to find body positivity. I thoroughly enjoy seeing things like this image portrayed more and more as the norm of thinking on the subject.
But while my favorite social media accounts and my supportive friends and family have always helped me personally see past my flaws, I think nothing has taught me to love myself more than travel.
Growing up in America, I always struggled to accept two things about myself. I have crooked teeth and I have more body hair than the average bear. You may think that neither of those things is very off putting, but they have caused me severe stress and self loathing throughout my life.
In high school (AKA the ultimate circle of hell) I was called “horse teeth” and mocked for having “manly” hairy arms. While smiling with just my lips became my cure for the first issue, I tried many different options to deal with the second. I bleached, waxed, and shaved my arm hair throughout most of my high school and college years. I took to wearing sweaters and cardigans with diligence to hide my appearance, even on days when a t-shirt would have been much nicer. “No, it’s okay. I’ll leave it on. I tend to run cold anyways.” #meIRL
Coming to China, I didn’t think about how the difference in culture might affect my perception of my body. Expats all know that they will be stared at, especially where we are in north east China where foreigners are less prevalent than more westernized places like Beijing or Shanghai. Walking into a store and being stared at, pointed out by small children, and commented on in another language is a surefire way to ignite fears, doubts, and self loathing you thought had long been dealt with.
My first few months here I hated all of the eyes on me. I felt like I must be 12 feet tall and covered in scales to warrant the looks I got. Even being followed down the street with shouts of “mei nu” (pretty lady) made me both angry at the unwarranted catcalling and anxious over how I presented myself. (The belief in the “privilege” of cat-calling exists in all cultures — sadly) As it has gotten warmer here, I’ve also begun to notice the way I dress is drawing even more stares. Having always been a fairly modest dresser, I am not used to being the most exposed person on the street. While I deem 70 degrees warm enough for a sleeveless top and shorts, the Chinese are still wearing layers from ankle to wrist. Meanwhile, my eggshell white legs and arms stick out like sore thumbs. (Just to clarify, the amount of layers people are wearing right now has less to do with modesty and more to do with beliefs in traditional Chinese medicine.)
So how does all of this scrutiny and heightened insecurity lead to body positivity? I guess because like most things in life when you shine a light on them you are made to deal with them in ways you hadn’t before. My analytic side chose to deal with the situation logically by stacking the standards of America and China next to each other in an effort to show myself that none of it really mattered, and you know what? It worked.
While American woman busy themselves with toasting up the perfect summer glow, Chinese woman are using skin bleaching creams daily to achieve paler, whiter skin.
While curvy is starting to equal sexy in the U.S., I am meeting Chinese girls with killer curves that refuse to eat breakfast because they will never be married looking so “fat”.
And while Americans sexualize and stereotype the sexy Latina trope, the Chinese have their own stereotypes about the promiscuous white women.
When you think about it, every different culture has their own ideas about what is beautiful. Being skinny, curvy, darker, paler, hairless, or natural are all perceived differently depending on where you stand on the globe. With that knowledge in mind, it becomes more difficult to buy into the lie that I’m too hairy, too pale, or too whatever for my current geographical location.
Beauty standards are not universal, galactic truths that all living beings recognize and are judged by. They are simply area-specific, societal constructs that when analyzed have no real power over you. Think about it, if living up to the standard truly mattered, then every time I went to a new place I would feel forced to completely overhaul my look just to be accepted. No one expects you to do that of course. You’re not dressing or doing your makeup to impress other cultures. So don’t do it to fit into your own either. Do what you want to do and present yourself how you wish. Because if you’re worried about fitting in, you never will. No matter where you go there will always be a different and equally impossible standard to strive for. This shouldn’t discourage you to just give up and believe you can’t win. But it should encourage you to change the game you’re playing. When travel opens your eyes to the many interpretations of beauty around the world it is also opening your eyes to the fact that you don’t have to listen to any of them.
If you’re a young person in a disgustingly petty high school situation like I was and you feel that the opinions of the people around you matter more than your own just remember that there is a whole world of people out there with ideas about how you should look. And none of them matter! If you structure your self worth around the ideas of anyone other than yourself, it is just setting you up for a lifetime of pain.
“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent” – Eleanor Roosevelt.
So be your own beauty captain and give a polite wave to all those who strive to measure you by their made-up standard.
You are a person and people are beautiful. No matter where they are on the globe. Simple as that.