I’m sure most people have gone through a time where they question if they’re beautiful or make changes to their appearance in some way to be more beautiful. Beauty is one of those things that is purely subjective, but we often look at as something that is clearly defined.

As I travel, I notice that what is defined as beauty is different from culture to culture. No surprises there. But, what surprises me is how the way I look is received in different countries/cultures.

I’m not a conventional kind of beauty by New Zealand standards. I’m a big white woman, and when I’m at home I think I’m considered to be too big to be considered beautiful. I remember a time, lying in bed next to a man who when I asked what he was thinking, he responded with “I’m just trying to imagine what you’d look like if you were skinny. You’d be so hot if you were thin”. Looking back on that now I don’t feel the hurt I felt at that time, because everyone is entitled to their opinions.

While I was in Dubai a couple of days ago, I noticed an African man watching me as I crossed the street and walked by. The look on his face said it all. He has just seen a woman that he likes and is deciding what to do about it. A while later as I walked past the same spot, he got up and came over to me to introduce himself. He told me straight up, wow you are so beautiful. We talked for a while and I sat with him as he told me about his life in Dubai. He started singing to me (he apparently sings in a couple of clubs there) and I felt like any day that begins with being serenaded is totally a good day. Despite his advances, I wasn’t interested. Not because he was unattractive (he really wasn’t) but because I didn’t really enjoy his stories about how smuggling cocaine into the UAE is a lucrative opportunity.

Yesterday, here in Kuwait, I went to a cafe for Shesha and Arabic coffee. I was ushered into a booth with high partitioned walls and tinted glass, out of sight from the men in the main area. When the guy came to serve me, he stopped at my booth and smiled with the warmest smile I’ve seen in a while. He started speaking to me but he barely speaks English and I only speak English. I placed my order and he looked at me with that wide eyed warm smile and said “You, beautiful” and put his hand over his heart. Each time he came to change the coals, he would graze my hand and through words I couldn’t understand he put his number in my phone and called himself so that he had my number. He messaged me on Whatsapp and proceeded to send me pictures of roses and love hearts. No doubt this sounds a bit creepy, but this guy seems very gentle and harmless. Given that I’m alone in a foreign country where women are treated very differently from men, I sat back and trusted my instincts. Today I went back to the same cafe, not because I wanted to see him again, but because I wanted shesha and arabic coffee. Earlier in the day I asked a taxi driver to take me somewhere for Turkish coffee and I was dropped at the white girls version of starbucks where every drink comes with lashings of whipped cream… not quite the authentic experience I had in mind. Anyhoo, this guy was working again and remembered my order from yesterday. This time when he handed me the pipe, he moved the frill on my dress to cover the small amount of skin that was showing on my chest. Through charades and a language I don’t understand, I think he was trying to tell me to cover up because a man might walk past me. I smiled and he kissed the top of my head. I can’t imagine a scenario like this happening at home, and whilst I have no interest in pursuing this man, I didn’t feel threatened by him.

A couple of years ago in Krabi, I was in a reggae bar buying what I probably shouldn’t have been buying whilst in Thailand. One of the guys said to me ‘you are so beautiful, I really like your body’. At the time, my insecurities about my body were a lot greater than they are today and I said, ‘oh, you like my skin colour? I am so white”. He said “No, I like your body” and proceeded to draw in the air the outline of my shape… like some describing the shape of a coke bottle. I swallowed hard and said thank you, letting the words wash over me fighting the urge to disagree and air my insecurities.

Many moons ago when I was about 18, a man I was close to at the time said to me that no matter what I think about myself there will be people in this life that love you and people that will hate. Some will be so turned on by you and some will be so turned off. How that person feels is outside of my control and is no reflection on how I feel about myself. Looking back, I appreciate those words and there’s clearly a reason they’ve stayed in my mind many years later.

Whether I’m beautiful or not, is not for me to decide. It is a description made by somebody else. To some, I am beautiful. To some, I am not. The point is not whether I agree or not, the point is whether the attraction is mutual or not. Just as everyone is entitled to their own opinions, I’m entitled to mine too. The trick to managing those feelings is to not try and control someone else’s view or perception, but stay true to your own.

If I could go back in time, I would tell my younger self not to worry so much about what others think. Worry about your dreams and how you’re going to achieve them. Don’t worry about whether or not you’re ‘enough’ for someone, concentrate on loving yourself enough to share your mind and body with someone that you truly care about.

At home, I feel ordinary and sometimes below standard. When I’m away I am exotic with an accent. At home, I feel intelligent. Away, I feel simple. Does any of that really matter? No, because it’s a state of mind.

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