Photo by the author.

I was afraid to go to Thailand.

Maybe afraid isn’t the right word, more like intimidated.

When I think ‘Thailand’ I think beaches, snorkelling, and scuba diving. Which, let’s be honest, basically equates to boys with toned abs in board shorts and girls in teeny string bikinis.

In case you haven’t guessed yet, I have never, and probably never will, wear a string bikini. I may love being in and by the water, but there’s nothing I hate more than wearing a swim suit. And don’t even get me started about shopping for one. It’s my literal hell.

So when I finally decided to go to SE Asia I came to terms with the fact that I would be the fat girl and, after reading some other non-toothpick-sized girl’s posts about their experiences, I knew I would probably hear about it too.

Of course I took this into consideration as I packed for my four months abroad. My mom questioned why I needed so many tops, telling me to ‘just buy some when you are there, it will be nice to shop and get some new things by then.’ I looked at her and rolled my eyes, asking how she thought clothing made in Thailand would ever fit over my boobs.
Her response? “Oh.”
Yeah. Oh.

So I packed my extra shirts and mentally prepared myself for an onslaught of negative comments. I got one my very first day in Bangkok.

“Noooooo! You too big for those!” the Thai man at one of the stalls in Bangkok’s Chattachuck market said to me as I held up a pair of elephant pants. “You need these — much bigger.” He waved me over to a separate section full of elephant pants that, indeed, were much bigger. Except I wasn’t looking for me. I was looking for my best friend who is 6 feet tall and rail thin and definitely would fit in the pants I was holding up. I tried to explain but he just shook his head and eyed me warily. I sighed, frustrated, and put the pants back then thanked him (seriously? Did I actually thank him for offending me?) and left. How deluded did he think I was? I dressed myself every day didn’t I? I’m pretty sure I have a fairly good idea of what I do and don’t fit into. I tried to shove my embarrassment aside, telling myself to get over it because although it was the first, it wasn’t going to be the last comment of this sort.

Back at my hostel I met my new dorm mate — a tiny wisp of a girl from South Korea. We talked as we got ready for bed. Being just girls in the room, I peeled my shirt off in front of her to change into my pjs.

“WOWWWWW! Your skin! It’s so WHITE!” I looked down at myself and my ridiculous tan lines. After summer in Canada and a couple months in the Balkans I had a pretty good tan going on, but since I don’t wear bikinis my torso was its normal, super-white-Canadian-girl tone.

“Why do you let it get so dark?” she questioned. I tried to explain to her that I felt prettier and healthier with a tan. During the winter, when my tan faded, I always felt I looked too pale and sickly. She listened to me but it didn’t click. She clearly thought I was crazy and ended the conversation asking if she could have my white skin if I didn’t want it.

And so I ended my first day in Thailand as the fat girl with ugly skin.

The next few days I avoided malls, stalls, and anything to do with clothing. I felt like a giant riding the skytrain or walking the streets, but I could deal with that. But as the start date for the conference I was in Bangkok for came closer, I realized that my clothes didn’t quite cut it. Reluctantly I went to the mall in an attempt for find something pretty that fit.

I went to Terminal 21 since it was closest, and when I walked through the main doors I discovered that the entire mall was having a massive shoe blow-out. From flip-flops to stilettos, there were shoes everywhere. I brightened up a bit since a few weeks ago I had destroyed my one pair of pretty sandals. Shoes were shoes, right?
Wrong. I asked to try three separate pairs and when I told them I was a size 9 they all shook their head, answering they had nothing that big. Great, now I could add bigfoot to the list.

I wandered the mall aimlessly, window shopping more than anything else when I saw a normal sized looking mannequin in the window. Figuring I had nothing to lose I went inside and started browsing the racks until I came to a shirt I liked that looked like it might fit.

“Would you like to try that on?” The Thai sales girl asked me. I nodded, relaxing when she smiled and took me to the fitting room rather than telling me I was ‘too big.’ Amazingly the top fit, but there was no mirror in the change room so I wasn’t sure it looked good. So, moment of truth, I left my cubicle to find the mirror.

“That’s beautiful on you. The colour looks great with your skin tone” the sales girl told me as I stood in front of the mirror. And she was right — the pink and gold top did look good with my tan. But as surprised as I was that I actually found a shirt in Thailand that fit, I was more shocked with the compliment. I had been so set on constantly feeling like a big, fat, giant that I never for a minute thought someone would tell me I looked pretty.

From that moment on I relaxed. Yes, I was bigger than Thai people. No, most of the clothing in the market stalls would never cover my boobs or ass, but that was ok. I loosened up and put a smile on my face as I explored. Maybe it was the smile, maybe it was just pure luck, but after my first couple days in Bangkok I never heard anything more about my size. Instead, I received a whole lot of compliments.

From Bangkok to beaches I seemed to attract some sort of attention nearly everywhere I went. At first it was my hair; sun streaked from so much time outside. Then my skin; not the colour of it but how clear it was, and my blue eyes. I received the most compliments for my smile; I actually got a little embarrassed on a day trip in Krabi when one of the guides told everyone I had the prettiest smile she had ever seen. Sure, they were just little things, but they were still compliments. Something I never expected to hear on this side of the world.

Things got even stranger when I went to Koh Tao and, after a few days of diving in Chalok Bay, I headed to Sairee Beach to meet with some friends. One of them gushed to me that she had a crush on one of the fire dancers at the beach bar, but she couldn’t get him to talk to her at all. Imagine my surprise when Mr. Six-Pack himself struck up a conversation with me as I passed by that night; ignoring my skinny, bikini-wearing friends.

For the rest of the night he only paid attention to me, calling me his ‘hunny’ and bringing me up front to take part in the show. I don’t know how it happened, but somehow on a beach full of girls in tiny short-shorts and bikini tops, the curvy girl was the one that got the attention.

And then it hit me. Why did I find it strange that I was getting attention? Sure I don’t have a bikini body but that doesn’t mean that I’m a troll either. Like some locals had said, I have pretty coloured hair, nice blue eyes, and clear skin (how that happened when I sweat so much I will never know). And yes, I have a great smile. I was never this self-conscious at home, or in Europe. I look how I look and I do my best to rock it. So why the hell did I let Thailand get under my skin and let it make me feel so self-conscious?

It was a bit of a defining moment, and brought me back to, well, me. From then on I walked around with my head held high and a smile on my face. I danced under the stars at night, and lounged on the beach with all my string bikini-wearing friends during the day. Guys flirted with me, I still received some compliments, and I even managed to find a couple more tops that fit over my boobs. Was I Thai sized? No. Was my ass ever going to fit into the majority of elephant pants sold at the market stalls? Definitely not. But it didn’t matter because size doesn’t determine beauty. Who would have thought that Thailand would be the place to remind me of that?

This article was originally published on Eat Sleep Breathe Travel and is reposted here with permission.

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