Bonfire of my Vanities: Beauty Habits and Backpacking

I scroll through the pictures I took a few hours ago at a temple in Laos, shaking my head. Did I get worse at photography with an upgraded iPhone? Why don’t these look as chic as my photos from Europe? Am I getting uglier?!

As I paw through my toiletries bag searching for a bobby pin to subdue my unruly hair before I head out for a yoga session, it hits me: I’m not suddenly getting uglier. I’m just totally inattentive to my physical appearance here in a way I never have been before.

solo female traveler in a temple in Laos in front of stupa with a cat asleep in her lap
Me and my new best friend, both makeup-free.

In my previous life as a person with a home and a job, I wasn’t particularly high-maintenance, at least not in a visible way. Heavy makeup and perfectly straightened hair are not my jam. But in hindsight, I did a lot of behind-the-scenes work to keep my hair tamed, my skin soft, my features flattered subtly.

Keeping up appearances

All the products (just ask my old roommate how much of the bathroom cabinets I took up, or check my Sephora Insider status), the nine hours a week spent training at my fancy gym followed by liberal use of their $32 a jar body butter, and the tired evenings spent preening and plucking and bleaching and masking added up.

But now I don’t have room for my Korean body scrubber and four kinds of body lotion (one for exfoliation, one for shimmer, one to smell delicious and one for not smelling at all so it didn’t clash with my perfume)(I know it’s a LOT). I don’t have room for anything but facewash and one simple moisturizer. It’s simple by necessity in my lil backpack.

But even in my first leg of this trip in Europe, I kept my standards up pretty decently. I wore super light makeup most days, I wore my hair down, I took a lot of long baths. I wore red lipstick!

What a glam time, in hindsight.

How vanity has melted away in the Southeast Asia heat

In Southeast Asia, there are no bathtubs anywhere I’ve stayed. My curly hair balloons immediately in the humidity here, and any makeup slides right off my sweaty pink face immediately. So my hair is generally in a bun, and my face wears only sunscreen, and my feet are permanently clad in Tevas. Or as I disparagingly call them, action sandals.

Solo female traveler in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia at Batu Caves
Me and my Tevas: a love story

I should probably talk about how this is all deeply freeing! Minimalism and no makeup forever! I’m so beautiful without it and you are too!

And admittedly, I’m saving time in the morning and mostly I still look like a decent human being (though a sweaty and decidedly unchic one). And it’s not stopping me from having an amazing time.

But the funny thing about long-term travel is what you learn about yourself along the way, and it might not be that you’re a minimalist.

Finding beauty in the world but missing it in myself

I miss my soft skin and my less-frizzy hair. I miss carefully outlining my Cupid’s bow with a crimson swipe before I go out. I miss perching on my sturdy Ikea sofa and delicately swiping on the thinnest layers of nail polish (something I’ve always found deeply soothing!).

None of this is enough to make me pack up my bag and go home, of course. I have decades of manicures ahead of me! But it’s so interesting to learn what I truly value, even if it’s something generally classed as a frivolous waste of time.

For me it’s caring for a body that I struggle with, doings something that adorns it instead of punishing it as I so often do. And I enjoy being soft and glam and just a little shiny and smelling like a literal fucking rose (Chloe, to be exact).

I’m getting real into my tiny shiny silver Tevas though, so those little dudes might stay.

Want to get my latest blog posts, news, and updates right in your inbox a few times a month? Sign up for my newsletter!

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.