Finding a reflection that shows who I am inside

Rewon Shimray | Opinion Editor

Big eyes, full lips, bold brows, tan skin, curvy figure — these are ideal characteristics by American beauty standards. It starkly differs from the Indonesian ideal: plump cheeks with dimples, pale complexion, petite frame.

This summer, I was challenged to identify what set of beauty standards I wanted to base my self-image upon.

For two months, I immersed myself in Indonesian culture. Wanting to focus more on the sites around me and less on my own image, I minimized anything that would make me appearance-conscious. The less I focused on how I was presenting myself to this foreign country, the more I could fixate on what the culture had to present me.

This trip was about me observing my surroundings, not demanding that my environment acknowledge me.

I cut 10 inches off my hair. Limiting myself to one carry-on bag of clothes, I packed a capsule wardrobe based in neutral colors. I purposefully left out make-up and even a hairbrush (which, in retrospect, I realize was excessive and came to regret later). It was the most mild efforts of asceticism one can muster.

Upon arrival to Indonesia, my original intentions quickly backfired. I found myself even more image-conscious than ever before. My long hair and typical colorful clothing were elements of my look I was accustomed to that helped me feel like myself. My morning routine using makeup and a comb were familiar to me; their absence caused a lot of discomfort.

I really struggled without having these staples — also missing from my tool box: peer support.

My tan skin that often elicited envy from my American friends prompted concern from my Indonesian friends. They recommended I wear jackets to prevent any further sun exposure and I was given recommendations for a plethora of women’s whitening body creams — popularized in many Asian countries, such as India and the Philippines.

While being 5’7” was normal in the United States, it stamped me as a giant in Indonesia where the average height for men is 5′ 2” and 4′ 10“ for women. Riding Gojek (Indonesia’s version of Uber), I would plop on the back of a scooter and be able to see clear over the driver’s helmet. I often felt self-conscious of my size.

Insecurity began to take root in me. It sprung from the choices I made before the trip (getting a haircut and abandoning all beauty products). Then, it was fed by the societal preferences of the culture in which I now found myself.

Evaluating my emotional state, I realized that in my preparation for the trip, my self-image was rooted in my apparel and beauty products. Then, throughout the trip, it was based in the beauty standards of the environment.

Placing my sense of confidence in ever-changing aspects of life sets me up for failure. I should find my value internally — in the unalterable stable parts of myself, rather than externally.

I like that the color of my skin indicates how much time I spend outside. My love for nature and outdoor adventures is a huge part of who I am. My facial features and height reflect my Chinese and Naga heritage. These are things that reflect who I am, and I have grown to proudly display it.