The other day I rediscovered a journal entry I had written on one particularly happy day in Australia, when I had sat down and thought about how my life was different on this continent than it was back home. I questioned why I was so much happier and stress free in a strange country halfway around the world, than in the country I was born and spent my whole life in.
When I walk around Australia, I don’t suck it in. I don’t avoid eye contact and I don’t look at the ground. This country is too beautiful to do that. I look at people, and I smile. Because I am happy. I wear what I want here. I don’t know these people, these people don’t know me. Neither I nor they care what I look like. My nails have not been painted since their American polish chipped off. I don’t wear make-up on the weekends. I also don’t wear shoes. No one looks at me judgmentally. Not too many people look at me at all I’ve realized. Those eyes I’ve always felt were watching me are too preoccupied with the birds and the river and the clouds. As are mine.
I realised I had a different attitude in Australia, and it was a direct reflection of my surroundings. The environment and people that I was living amongst had a different priority system than America. People cared a lot less about appearance and a lot more about interacting with strangers. Whenever I was thrust into social situations with random companions, they were more likely to start a conversation with me than size me up and retreat to their smartphones, as I often encountered in the States. It was a learning experience for me to say hello to the person next to me on the bus, and realize that the sales-girl generally cared about how my day was, without trying to sell me anything. I had to stop judging people on the streets and in my classes as strangers, and instead approach them as friends I just hadn’t met yet.
Sometimes I’ll wear a dress to school. With boots. And sometimes I’ll wear running shorts. And thongs. If I want to get fancy, I’ll get fancy. If I don’t feel like changing out of my pjs, I won’t. If I want to play dress up and try on grunge or prep or hippie, I do! And I have fun doing it. And no one calls me out for changing styles. So many times I’ve been afraid to wear something or do something to my appearance here, and then I remind myself, I’m in Australia. It doesn’t matter what I do; no one here knows me and no one at home will find out.
In America, or at least at my university, there is such a strong pressure to look good. To be fit, dress stylish, and always look presentable. In Australia there was no complaining about gaining weight, no comparisons of this body to that body, and no critiquing of others’ outfits. People seemed to genuinely dress how they wanted to dress; they wore fashionable clothes for fun and didn’t worry about silly stigmas and stereotypes associated with certain styles. Appearance was not something discussed in casual conversations, simply because it wasn’t something people really paid attention to or cared about.
But why does it matter what I do at home? Doing things “because I’m in Australia” has started feeling less like a reason and more like an excuse. Do people back home really care what I look like? And why should I care if they do?
The day I made this realization was a turning point in my life; the moment in my time abroad where I recognized I would be returning home with more than physical souvenirs. I learned a new set of priorities and developed a deeper self-confidence that I still maintain.
Maura Connolly is a student at Wake Forest University and studied abroad with IFSA at the University of Queensland, Australia.