…Case of the Indigenous Skinny Jean…

Any woman who has traveled to more conservative parts of the world knows the importance of covering up. In some societies, it’s simply not acceptable to rock the spandex-tight, cleavage-popped look that Western women are notorious for. I’m generalizing, try not to be too sensitive. ‘Covering up’ can mean different things to different people, but in countries like India and Nepal, covering one’s shoulders and legs is considered to be the socially accepted minimum.

It’s taken me a few visits to understand, but I’m now able to wear clothes that feel comfortable and appropriate. I throw a shawl or scarf over bare shoulders, and always wear something knee-length. Such dress doesn’t feel oppressively hot in the heat, and doesn’t elicit unwanted stares from curious (to be polite) local men.

My interpretation of local rules and expectations is, of course, my own opinion. Plenty of other women interpret the social norms in totally different ways. And it is this point-the matter of ‘norm interpretations’-of which I wish to delve further.

I would like to bring to your attention two examples of women whom interpret social norms and expectations in their own unique ways.  (Note* These characters are not fictionalized, and are based upon a real life spotting, some moments ago.)

Example One: The I Don’t Give a Shit Type

Let’s call her Debbie Diva.

This woman packs an identical wardrobe in her suitcase, no matter where in the world she visits. She arrives in Nepal fully equipped with her favorite skinny jeans, a leather purse and suspiciously matched accessories. This outfit, alone, causes a stir. To put icing on the cake (akin to putting the word Juicy on one’s rear), she’s showing skin. A lot of it. It’s not just her shoulders which attract attention, but her chest. Her tank top is low, and it takes everything in me to resist from grabbing her shirt and yanking it up high. Turtleneck-style.

In the states, her look would go unnoticed. It’s somewhat stylish, and indeed is representative of something not unfamiliar to the majority of us. But to wear such a thing here, in a village in Nepal…well that is just entirely uncool.

Example Two: The Going Native Type               

Let’s call her Indigenous Irene.

In example two, I wish to highlight a character that lies on the opposite end of the spectrum. This is the girl whom, immediately after getting off the plane, takes to the streets in search for the most ethnic garb imaginable. She interprets the ‘dress modestly’ mantra in such a way that, when purchasing pants, she opts for one outrageously large pair. The insides of the pants are baggy enough to fit a friend, perhaps even two. She buys multiple head scarves, wrapping them around her body, repeatedly, until it’s all but impossible to discern where one body part begins and another ends. She makes profane that which is most sacred, by having one of Nepal’s holiest symbols tattooed on her foot (a most unholy of place, according to Hinduism). In her attempts to go local, she has totally and absolutely failed.

What Would Smaps Wear? (bracelets available upon request)

Want my advice? Wear loose, comfortable clothing. Don’t stop bathing. Accessorize, if you wish, but don’t try too hard to embody that which you don’t understand. Lastly, and most importantly, just be you!

(Note: if you typically dress in a way that leaves little to the imagination, the aforementioned advice does not apply to you. In such a case, don’t be you. Be someone else. At least while you’re abroad. And then maybe at home, too.) 

Thanks for tuning in to another session of World Briefings, brought to you by Smaps Randall.



4 thoughts on “Ethnic Chic

    1. Was it Debbie Diva’s cleavage that gave it away? Good guess, B, and five years ago, you would have been correct. I went to China in 2006 and came back looking more minority than the ‘minorities’. I actually lie somewhere in between the two now. Call it culturally cool…

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