Like many millennials who value experiences over paychecks, I left my comfy job and NYC apartment in July of 2017 to travel the world. I was in search of an adventure. Or, perhaps if I’m being a bit more honest, in pursuit of the parts of myself I had never been brave enough to explore. From the outside, I seemed confident and collected — a courageous young professional who was willing to go freelance full-time to tour a dozen or so countries. But inside, I was afraid of what traveling would do to my routine – or rather the prison I had sentenced myself to. Weight gain. Lack of sleep. Missed opportunities.
You see, before this leap of faith, I had deep, dark insecurities. I spent three years focused on losing weight, falling in love with fitness and fearful of carbs in the process. Exercise was no longer a way to relieve stress, but rather something I had to do – something that would keep me the size four I couldn’t imagine surpassing. I criticized every pore on my face and refused to leave my apartment without a heavy hand of makeup, concealing my dark circles and acne scars from adolescence. I had created such an unrealistic definition of “beautiful” for myself that I spent my time obsessing over every angle of images and worrying about being pretty enough to ever meet someone.
Fast forward to my trip and all my fears came true, of course. How could they not? How can you refuse the generous red wine pours from handsome Portuguese waiters? How can you not be tempted by salty homemade ramen in its birthplace of Japan or the moonshine in tiny Thai village? How can you say ‘no’ to spontaneous trips, late-night dance parties, food tours, and taco-eating contests? I was on a culture-rich ride that would teach me more about myself than I could have ever learned staying home and sticking to my same schedule.
When asked about traveling the world, there is one moment that always comes to mind. The tour guide was explaining the farming process, detailing the rich history of the northern Thailand mountains that surrounded us. He pointed out piglets on one side, calves on another. But I tuned out his words and stood in awe of a village elder who sat outside of a house made of straw. She wore a bright yellow sweatshirt and a traditional Thai patterned scarf as a skirt. Flip-flops barely protected her feet from the rocky dirt that served as her flooring, and her hair was wrapped loosely on her head.
She was wrinkled. She had no teeth. She was blind. She didn’t fit any of the traditional standards of beauty, but she was one of the most beautiful people I had ever seen.
I stayed behind, leaving my group of friends who were already onto the next part of our multi-cultural exchange, to inquire more about the woman who had caught my attention. The translator explained that no one, including herself, knew much about her other than the fact that she loved dogs and children — even without being able to see them. When she wanted to get to know someone, she would trace her hand across their face, identifying the details through touch.
Within minutes of meeting me, she was able to recognize my inner beauty, something I had struggled to recognize for so long.
I sat beside the woman, and she instinctively took my hand, rubbing my knuckles intently while mumbling quietly. After, she took my hand to her lips and kissed it a few dozen times, laughing as her eyes scrunched up to the cloudy sky. She placed her other hand on my cheeks, then my forehead. Lastly, my lips and nose. She told the translator I was lovely — and that I’d be blessed. I replied with the only phrase I had mastered during my month in Thailand — kob khun ka — and asked if she would iterate my gratitude.
This was six months into my trip. My makeup had smeared off while hiking in the humidity, and I had given up on my hair, whipping it up into a loose ponytail. I wore blue yoga pants that were a bit too snug, because at that point, I had gained ten pounds. But none of this mattered to her. Within minutes of meeting me, she was able to recognize my inner beauty, something I had struggled to recognize for so long. We sat hand-in-hand for a long time, not speaking, hearing only the silent sound of humanity passing between us. It’s a sound so faint, we often ignore it.
By the time I unpacked my bags and started thinking about a new home base nine months later, I had gained nearly 15 lbs. Sure, while being back on a schedule meant leading a healthier lifestyle, helping me drop some of the weight, what the experience gave me was a refreshing attitude toward my sense of self. Those pounds didn’t carry the same weight they would have a year ago. I accepted that I may never be as fit as I was before my passport meant more to me than the number on the scale, and that I may never have the flawless skin I so often cried over not having. I may never fit into a mold that, frankly, no woman can ever wiggle her way into. But I don’t need to. And what’s more, I don’t want to.
I choose my comfortable jeans, now a size bigger, that allow me a slice of freshly-baked Danish bread, topped with avocado and eggs on a Monday morning. I choose the breakout on my chin that’s there because I can’t resist the so-called best ice cream in Boston, my new homebase. I choose to forgo a night of sleep in exchange for a night of dancing with my best friend, as she turns another year older, another year more gorgeous.
Blame it on turning 30 — or give credit to that wise Thai woman who had never heard of face serum — but instead of disposing my flaws, I’ve found gratitude in them. They are the map of my journey, of the people and the places who have helped me arrive at this age, at this time in my life. They show what Instagram could never detail. They eliminate barriers and standards and illustrate that the most powerful quality any of us could have is love. For others, of course. But most importantly, for ourselves — #unfiltered.