I especially love beach holidays because of the sun and the sea. From the beaches in Croatia to Bali to the ones in Malaysia, there’s something incredibly calming about the crashing waves. It’s always a treat to be able to fall asleep under a tree in the afternoon sun, serenaded by the sound of waves and seagulls.
It is also on these beaches that I find my insecurities exposed. The beach is where perfect gym-trained bodies are wrapped in thin strips of cloth (read bikinis), where beautifully sun-kissed human beings dot the coast with their beach waves and pimple-free skin. It is where my self-esteem plummets beyond the ground. I think it is also interesting that my idea of beautiful very closely resembles what the West preaches, but that’s a conversation for another day.
(I attempt to tell you about my insecurities in a nutshell.)
As a child, I was always told that I was pretty, albeit a little too loud for a girl. “Dia seperti jantan,” my grand aunt would say. I was also stick thin and so was always called a “sao mang kai”. As I entered my teenage years, when other girls hit puberty and their bodies began to take on more “womanly” forms, I patiently waited for mine to follow suit. It never did. In school, boys assumed their “right” to tease my flat chest and I tried stuffing my bra with tissues (it didn’t work). The teasing never stopped and I never fought back or told anyone because I felt embarrassed. I felt like there was something inherently wrong with me and no one would ever like me and I would die alone. I believed that I was malnourished or lacked a certain hormone for the longest time ever.
When I was 18, my hips decided to grow to enormous proportions and there was no stopping them. I was told that I had “child-bearing hips” which was meant to be a compliment. Not long after, I began noticing stretch marks across my butt and that made me feel ginormous because the only other time I had seen them were on participants on “The Biggest Loser”. My tummy began to expand too and my family and relatives did not hold back on the comments.
At 21, the skin on my face decided to join in on the fun and betray the rest of me. Acne broke out all over my cheeks and chin, and boy did I go through some seriously depressing months. Going out was a pain and all I wanted to do was to hide everything. “That only makes it worse!” people without acne would tell me. I’d have to resist the urge to slap them and tell them to STFU because they had no idea how incredibly hideous I felt.
My acne hit me the hardest and the scars it left behind taunted me. The deep red marks that took ages to fade continued to tease me long after the pimple was gone. Every new bump that appeared only sent me into a black hole of skincare products, makeup tutorials, beauty articles, supplements, new dietary regiments, an empty wallet and zero results.
I felt like I was going into battle and with each new “cure” for my face, I found a renewed sense of energy and hope, only to have them trampled on when the “cure” didn’t work. I’d have to accept defeat and the sadness would overcome me. I remember staring at myself in the mirror and literally crying at my reflection like Mulan did. (Note the joke at the end to make it seem less sad.)
Over the years, I’ve learnt to cope with it all, to hide everything I didn’t want to be seen and to make it look effortless (because society dictates that I don’t put too much effort into how I look). I learned to dress my body to disguise the scarred and wobbly, and to only show off a sliver of my back, my collarbone or my shoulders. By this point, I had experimented with so much makeup that I had figured out the best way to hide the scars and the bumps on my face.
But the thing about hiding is this: it simply isn’t beach friendly.
“Do you ever feel intimidated by these girls?” I was once asked while on a beach.
Ignoring the idiocy of this question, I replied “Of course I do. I’ll never be as tall, as thin, as booby, as tan or as pretty. I’m simply not built that way, I’m Asian.”
What I failed to tell the questioner was how I was generally okay with my body and face, except for when I hit the beach. My physique only became an issue whenever I had to wear a tight skirt or a bikini. It wasn’t so much showing off my “curves” or showing off skin that bothered me, it was the fact that I would be bearing my flaws to the world. That irked me. Voluntarily bearing my flaws. Who the hell would shoot themselves in the foot like that?
When I began travelling solo, I got to know myself a whole lot better. I learned about Nicole Kow from the inside out, how she interacted with herself and with the world around her. I learned that my surroundings will change and can change, and I can do absolutely nothing about it. But the way I interact with myself and how I think about myself depends on only me. Travelling taught me that, and a few other important lessons in life.
(I’m going to list them all out so that no one misses the most important part of my entire post.)
1. I learned that my skin and acne were a part of me, but it wasn’t all of me. To my surprise, completely sober people would talk to me in hostels, even in my pyjamas with a tonne of pimple cream on my face (the whitish ones that basically look like you’ve put toothpaste on your face). Men would even flirt with me and that blew my mind. Apparently, I can have a good time and pick up men with almost a face mask on. Absolute shocker.
2. I learned that my body was more than stretch marks, wobbly thighs and a belly. It was a moving organism that allowed me to explore and interact with the earth. I might not look like Bella Hadid ever, but at least my limbs work and I can swim, trek, dive, run, hug, kiss, dance and laugh. The best part is I can also write about it all.
3. I learned that no one really cared about what I looked like, except me. Travelling in South East Asia and its warm climates means that my makeup would slip off as soon as I walk out the door. It didn’t take long for me to ditch the makeup. I would layer up on SPF and be done with it because it became apparent that it simply wasn’t worth the effort. If no one else cares about how I look, why do I? The moment I stopped caring, I was able to enjoy my travels for all its intended purposes. I still carry way too much makeup with me whenever I go away though.
4. I learned that I don’t want to hang out with people who only care about how I look. Heck, if I don’t care, why should they? I decided that I didn’t want my friends to hang out with me for my looks because looks fade, which means they might too. I want to look for people who want to be with me for me, not for my gorgeous face or washboard abs (hypothetically). The sooner I came to realise that, the freer I felt. Ain’t nobody got time for that when there’s an entire planet to be explored.
At the beach, I’m forced to strip myself down to the bare minimum and to reveal my flaws in all its imperfect glory. When I’m bearing it all, it’s as though I yell at the world “TAKE IT OR LEAVE IT” and I hear no reply because no one really cares.
You see, I can’t enjoy myself when I’m pressured by some invisible and unnamed minion that tells me to look a certain way, even at the bloody beach. I refuse to worry about an eyebrow melting in the heat or my thighs being larger that that other girl’s when the sun is out and the sky is as blue as the sea. I simply do not have the brain space to manage all these thoughts.
Today, at 23 and a month to my birthday, I am glad to say that I have learned to do more than cope. I’ve learned to love myself and accept me for who I am because no one will otherwise. The lessons have been difficult and abrupt, but they’ve been meaningful and life-changing. I still go through highs and very low lows, but who doesn’t?
My thoughts do spiral every now and then and it takes a lot of energy to regain control. But I know the triggers and the negative effects so I stop them as soon as I can. I would do things like go out with my friends without makeup on, or wear beach clothes to the cafe I work at. Sometimes I confide in close friends and my sister. It’s my little way of kicking that minion in the balls.
The beach is now a place where I am still confronted by my insecurities, but a little less each time. I’d rather lie down with a great book, than worry about what nobody else is thinking.
All pictures were taken by my incredible sister, Sasha Kow. You can find her work here.