Our faces were side-by-side in the long line of bathroom mirrors. She gently brushed a single, smooth strand of hair back into her bun, while I worked my dry hands through my own hair, attempting to untangle my frizzy braid. She applied a fresh coat of lipgloss to her already pink lips, while I wiped the sweat from my forehead with a scrap of rough paper towel.
I had just finished climbing Mount Fuji, and traveled directly to Shinjuku Station in Tokyo to catch a bus back to Takayama. I hadn’t been within 10 feet of a shower, mirror, or a change of clothes in 2 days, so my appearance in that train station bathroom was a particularly low point.
Even still, that moment forced something to my attention that had been subtly gnawing at me ever since we had arrived in Japan: Japanese women, particularly in big cities like Tokyo, always look perfect. No matter when or where you see them, you can count on them to have flawless hair, glowing skin, and stylish outfits. The more I compared myself to these women, the more I became aware that over the last 2 years of traveling, I had slowly let myself transform into a slob.
I wouldn’t say I was ever anyone’s most fashionable friend, but I did put a decent amount of thought into my outfits every day. My closet was always swelling with clothes because I had the surplus money and space to be fickle. I would buy shirts and then wear them once or twice before tiring of them, or deciding that I had never liked them in the first place. I spent at least an hour in front of the mirror every morning. I bought expensive skin products, owned dozens of eye shadows, and wouldn’t dream of leaving the house without carefully blow-drying my hair with a round brush. I always accessorized with at least one piece of jewelry, and I would never let my 5 ft. 2-self be caught in anything shorter than 3-inch heels.
Origins of a Dirty Backpacker
During our work exchanges, I began to find myself doing things I could never have imagined before, like not washing my hair, skipping make-up, and wearing unembellished T-shirts. I had no choice, really. I would have looked completely ridiculous putting on eyeliner at 6am before going out to feed the chickens, or wearing high heels while gardening knee-deep in weeds.
At first, being freed from my morning routine felt liberating. I discovered that getting ready for the day didn’t have to be an hour long ritual. It felt good to wear comfortable clothes and shoes, and sleep in instead of waking up early to shower every morning. For the first time in my life, I literally wore my clothes out. Colours faded, shirts and shoes developed irreparable holes. The only clothing I bought during our 8 months in Europe was a warm poncho, an item that I would have cringed at only a few months before.
When we moved to Thailand and started teaching, I tossed out some of my shabby volunteering clothes, and stocked up on the widely available cheap dresses and shirts. I picked up on the style of all the backpackers around me, choosing baggy, casual clothes made of materials that usually fell apart after one wash.
Finding a Balance
And so that was how I looked when I arrived in Japan: Air-dried hair, little make-up, flip-flops and loose-fitting clothing. But in Japan, the appearance that had once made me feel carefree, now made me feel frumpy. Being surrounded by people who put a lot of care into their appearances pressured me to examine my own, and I realized that I didn’t like the way I looked. Comparing myself to other women might not have been the most emotionally healthy incentive, but in the end, I’m glad I found a reason to reclaim my style.
So now I’m revisiting the pleasure of taking my time when I get ready in the morning. I actually enjoy the process of putting on make-up, and straightening my hair. I’m relearning how to pay attention to the clothes that flatter my body type, instead of just grabbing anything that is cheap and will fit in my luggage. What I wear has always been part of my personality, and just because I love traveling, it doesn’t mean I need to let that part of myself fade away.
When I first started traveling, letting go of my appearance felt empowering, but it turns out that finding a balance between style and function feels even better.
How has traveling changed your style?