I'm from Western New York. We spend maybe 100 hours out of the entire calendar year in a bathing suit (more or less depending on whether you own a pool or live by the lake). That amount of time has decreased as I've grown up. Time in the summer sun went from two glorious months or more to whatever I can squeeze in during the busy weekends. Basically in our town, if you want to, you can hide from public view in baggy, non flattering clothing for about 9 months out of the year, and really you could stretch it year round if you're really committed.
Then, last October, I was thrust into a long term relationship with skimpy clothing. I realized quickly I was living in a climate I had only ever traveled through; never stayed in. The locals, who are incredibly accustomed to the heat, dressed very conservatively. It seemed like even in the blaring sun, they were comfortable donning their polyester trousers and blouses. I, on the other hand, felt like I was drowning in my own sweat, even immediately after showering. I accepted quickly that leaving my hair down was going to be something of the past for awhile.
For the first month or so, I did what I always do, and covered up. I wore my clothes I carefully and thoughtfully chose to pack to cover the parts of myself I don't particularly like (despite feeling like I may melt inside them). It was habit. I've never been entirely happy with my body. Not on an unhealthy level, just the way I think most women (and men) look at themselves: always thinking we can do better. I also was raised with a very conservative outlook on what is considered appropriate attire. Showing skin just isn't what ladies do. As a result, I've always been cautious about my clothing choices.
I traveled to and from my room to the pool to the beach, always with a sarong or a pair of shorts or a T-shirt. Then, even on the beach, I would relentlessly situate myself to minimize any rolling or smushing of skin. Meanwhile, other foreigners were much less reserved. Girls were sunbathing topless. Guys were wearing smaller bottoms than any I own. How offensive! How disrespectful! And frankly, there were A LOT of freakishly good looking people.
Fast forward to a few weeks into my trip. Slowly, I started wearing less out of what I justified in my head as "necessity". It's just too damn hot, I reasoned. I traded my bathing suit with more coverage for the one that Victoria's Secret calls "cheeky". I bought a neon crop top. A crop top: the piece of clothing every woman who has never had washboard abs dreads. Because a crop top was going to help me cool down, right?
After a few weeks and a lot of reflection, it finally occurred to me. I wasn't doing this out of necessity, I was doing it because it actually felt kind of good. I felt sexy. I felt like I was celebrating my youth. And then I did two really brave things:
1. I bought a thong bikini
2. I sunbathed topless (Repeatedly)
Dear conservatives (and mom), please forgive my indecency, but it felt amazing. At 26 years old, I made a conscious choice to celebrate my body. This wonderful gift that allows me to experience so much of this amazing life.
Here's what I discovered about myself: Back home, I never would've been able to get to this point (reason #5,837 travel is awesome and changes your life). I questioned if maybe I only found this new confidence because it seemed like I had lost a few inches since we left home. This fact has still not been confirmed and could entirely be in my head. Being at the end of the trip, I realize the inches were not the motivator. I have just reached a new comfort level with myself; no matter what size I am. And that's pretty awesome.
I also realized the really good looking foreigners weren't descendants of Gods as I'd immortalized them. They just had confidence, and that immediately makes people more attractive.
I was much more comfortable showing off in front of strangers (and of course my fiance, who was totally loving this, as you can imagine). The big question that arose was why was I okay dressing/acting this way in front of strangers but not my friends back home? I had opened myself up to criticism from men and women from all over the world; why would my friends' opinions be more difficult to deal with? I think it's an important thing for all of us to consider. We should be encouraging our friends to be comfortable and love their bodies. We don't need to hide from each other.
Now, let's be clear, I'm not the newest advocate for nudist colonies or anything like that. We also traveled through parts of countries that requested conservative dress out of respect for the locals, and I happily obliged. I still firmly believe in appropriateness. But it's important to note, America is a bit of a prude in terms of showing skin. There's nothing wrong with baring a bit when the time is right.
I guess the take away from this is that we all need to spend more time in a bathing suit. Not to feel bad about how we don't really use that gym membership, or how we could have skipped that pizza last night, but to find all the things we totally love. And really, most of the things we hate are mostly in our heads anyways. If you open up to yourself, you will reach a point where it feels right. And when it does, the opinions of others will melt away... similar to my makeup in Bangkok heat.
"Enjoy your body. Use it every way you can. Don't be afraid of it or what other people think of it. It's the greatest instrument you'll ever own."