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What Travel Has Taught Me About Beauty

by Elen Turner Aug 11, 2015

I’m 5’4 with fair skin that burns easily, long medium-brown hair, largish blue-grey eyes and teeth that aren’t too tidy by US standards, but that have never needed any work. My body’s not exactly thin, but not fat either. Most importantly, I’m in good health and I exercise often. I feel confident wearing makeup most of the time, but I don’t fret if caught running errands without.

What I’m describing sounds fairly average, because it is. In much of the Western world, I’m what could be considered averagely attractive. And I’m OK with that.

Growing up in far northern New Zealand, right by the beach, my fair skin was considered the height of unattractiveness. For white New Zealanders, a tan is considered a sign of health and activity. Cringeworthy as it now seems, to say that a white girl was as brown as a Māori was a huge compliment, and one that I never received. I experimented with fake-tan remedies, but it was the 1990s and formulae hadn’t yet been perfected. In the summer, when the school uniform required girls to wear knee-length cotton skirts, the boys would make a fuss of pretending to be blinded when I walked past. This continued for years. In retrospect, I’m sure at least two of them had a crush on me and that’s why they teased me so mercilessly, but that was little consolation at the time. I honestly thought I was hideously unattractive, and no man could ever love me.

After university, I moved to Saitama City, on the far northern outskirts of Tokyo, for a year and a half to teach English. I didn’t expect it, but I became the prettiest girl at the ball. I had blonde highlights in my hair at the time, and although I was taller and fatter than the average Japanese woman (purchasing L-size clothing for the only time in my life), my fair skin and large, blue eyes made up for my less-than-ideal body type. I mesmerized my suburban Japanese students. Although American pop-culture has permeated to some extent, the average Japanese person — especially if they live away from popular tourist spots — rarely interacts with people who don’t have the typical East Asian features.

At the adult English conversation school at which I taught, men and women alike requested me as their teacher. It wasn’t that I was a particularly good teacher (I wasn’t), but that they liked the look of me. At the junior high and elementary schools, it soon became obvious that I wasn’t expected to actually teach anything. I was just there to look good and exude an aura of English. One seven-year-old child gazed into my eyes and asked, in awe, “But why are they blue?”

From Japanese fashion and pop culture, it’s easy to see why I was considered some sort of ideal beauty. Anime characters have impossibly large, light-coloured eyes, and the use of whitening skin creams is de rigeur. Japanese women cover up as much as they can in the sunshine to prevent their skin darkening, even if this means some heavy-duty sweating in 40ºC temperatures. Older women commonly wear head-to-toe coverings that resemble beekeepers outfits, with a visor covering the face and elbow-length gloves. Even younger, more fashionable women commonly cover their legs with stockings, wear full-length cardigans, hats of improbable and impractical proportions or carry parasols (an item I had thought belonged to the 19th century) to prevent a sun-kissed look. Freckles are considered to be as disfiguring as acne.

I quickly discovered, though, that whether or not men act lasciviously bears little relation to how women dress. As a feminist, I had to believe that. Nevertheless, when traveling in India, erring on the side of modesty pays off.

In Japan I played the part of a beautiful person, but my patience with the performance quickly wore out. I was used to getting by on my brains and my competence, not my looks. I felt like a fraud when foreign teachers who were clearly better at their job than me received negative feedback and I didn’t, just because I was considered kawaii, that catch-all Japanese word for cute, pretty and desirable, all at once. This particularly bothered me when African American and Caribbean colleagues had a hard time, when Japanese people even questioned their qualifications or called them names that would be unconscionable in other parts of the world, simply because they didn’t like their appearance. I looked forward to returning to a place where I would be considered average again, where people would actually care whether I was good at my job. In Japan, I got a better understanding of the freedom but also the burden that comes with being considered beautiful ‘back home’: tall, blonde, slim, tanned. For the first time in my life, I was glad I wasn’t.

That was probably just as well, because from Japan, I moved to Australia, a country of scorching desert heat, superlative beaches and outdoorsy lifestyles. Plus one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world. I was average again, but average with a newfound confidence. I didn’t care if my white legs ‘blinded’ anyone when I wore short shorts, or that my height, hair colour or physique weren’t ideal. I knew that there were places in the world I could go to be considered stunningly beautiful, but I didn’t really want that.

While living in Australia, I frequently travelled to India for research. On my first trip there, I tried to look as unattractive as possible, buying too much into the negative hype about its lascivious men. I wore only baggy t-shirts, loose pants and no makeup. I quickly discovered, though, that whether or not men act lasciviously bears little relation to how women dress. As a feminist, I had to believe that. Nevertheless, when traveling in India, erring on the side of modesty pays off. Staring isn’t considered as rude as it is in the West, and men—as well as women—are far more likely to stare at a white woman showing her legs or chest than at one who isn’t. Besides, when it’s hot, humid and dusty, covering up in Indian dress is far more comfortable.

I discarded my unflattering t-shirts and harem pants and replaced them with elegant, tailored cotton or silk kurtis, salwars and dupattas, in a rainbow of vibrant colours. Beaded, mirrored, tie-died, embroidered; nothing was too over-the-top for my Indian wardrobe. I revived my mascara wand and lipstick, too, and collected chunky silver jewelry. My magpie tendencies were given free-reign in India, and I enjoyed the performance of dressing up and becoming a different version of myself. Younger, urban Indians — uniformed in jeans and t-shirts — generally rolled their eyes at what they considered a daggy form of cultural appropriation. But my dress was often appreciated by older or rural Indians, who admired my effort, although they expressed their sorrow at my lack of 18-carat gold bling, a sign that I didn’t come from a wealthy family, or hadn’t married well.

Japan, then India, didn’t exactly teach me to love myself, flaws and all. They didn’t teach me to appreciate my strengths, or any such supposedly-empowering platitudes. What they did teach me was that you can’t please everyone, and that standards of beauty are entirely fickle. That there are more important things in life than the fleshiness of one’s bottom.

Would I prefer more tanned skin or less oily hair? Sure. Am I going to give these things as much consideration as my current research project or Friday writing deadlines? Hell no.

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