See yourself for who you are. Image by Flickr user mat’s eye.

I have a confession: I am a vain traveler.

When I travel abroad, my usually granola-crunching, fashion-shunning, don’t-shower-too-often-in-order-to-conserve-water self suddenly and inexplicably becomes overly conscious of what I see in the mirror.

I start to notice and then obsess over other travelers and what they think of me.

Am I as cute as my seatmate on the plane?

Am I as tanned and road-hardened as the guy at the table next to me?

Is my accent as interesting?

Did I break out on that 10-hour bus ride?

Questions that normally would never cross my mind suddenly fill my head, and I find myself ducking into grungy bathrooms to primp hopelessly in cracked mirrors.

Attempts at tattoos and genie pants

In Thailand I drooled over the exotic tattoos and wild haircuts of my fellow backpackers. “They are so cool and mysterious,” I thought to myself. In an effort to up my own cool factor, I decided to get a tattoo (the design so cheesy that I can’t bear to admit it) on the bottom of my foot. I wanted to be “tattoo cool” but only in a place where no one could see.

Life is even more zen without mirrors. Image by Flickr user hobvias sudoneighm.

Thankfully, I was easily talked out of it by the tattoo artist who, upon seeing the location and describing how deeply he’d have to drive the needle, told me I’d be walking lame for a week.  Cool with a painful price? No, thank you.

I settled for a haircut instead — a whole two inches off!

In India I fawned over the flowing clothing and heavy-lidded makeup of the local women and looked with green eyes upon fellow travelers seemingly floating on a combination of good karma and spiritual enlightenment.

In my attemps to mimic their fashion and zen attitudes, I only managed to look like I had recently suffered an eyeliner accident and had a penchant for genie pants. Not my finest moment, and I would advise fellow travelers to never try out waterproof liquid eyeliner for the first time on the day you plan to take lots of selfies at the Taj Mahal.

Though I was comfortable in my own skin and with my own look at home, I felt boring and plain whenever I went abroad.

Everyone had a cuter swimsuit; more exciting hair; tanner, sun-kissed bodies; and the bold audacity to say, “I don’t care how you think I look.”

I desperately wanted to be counted amongst those with decorated dreadlocks, wild body art, and unusual piercings, but wasn’t even bold enough to try blue eye shadow or short-shorts.

I would look into my little mirror stuffed in my toiletries kit and consider drastic aesthetic changes, knowing in my heart of hearts that my travel would come to an end and I would miss my natural look once back home.

What to do?

The answer came in the form of a mistake

In preparing for a trip, I forgot to pack my little mirror. I cursed my forgetfulness on the plane while trying to check my teeth after a meal.  I panicked.

What if my hair was out of place? What if some giant zit emerged while I slept and I *gasp* went out in public with it? What if I had eye gunk or a stray eyebrow hair?  The horrific possibilities seemed endless.

As luck would have it, I checked into a hostel that didn’t have a single mirror in the entire building. (I checked.) During my three days there, I couldn’t obsess over my looks or see what every passerby saw.

Instead, I started looking more at the world around me and allowing myself to just be there, to be myself.

At the end of the short trip, I caught my reflection in a mirrored shop window and was pleasantly surprised. Though I hadn’t primped or fussed over my appearance in days, I looked…great! No makeup, no hairbrush (I had forgotten that, too.), and no complaints.

After that, I started leaving my little pocket mirror at home.

What’s revealed without a mirror

I realized that while the exotic looks of other travelers are exciting, they aren’t me. Short-shorts aren’t comfortable because I care way more about respecting local culture (no lady knees!) than I do about flaunting pasty thighs. Heavy eyeliner doesn’t suit me because my features are light, and they look best free of artificial gunk. Even my sunglasses tan now looks better than my attempts at body art.

I guess my travels taught me that when I quit looking at myself in the mirror, I start to see myself in my best light, and that’s a look that’s good on everyone.

What do you love about yourself when traveling? Have you ever made a drastic change in your appearance while abroad? Tell us in the comments!