Reflections on Returning Home After Studying Abroad

Originally posted on HuffPost Young Voices.

While I was catching up on Made in Chelsea (post-study abroad life) an advert for Wilkinson Sword popped up. It showed a girl talking about jumping into a hot tub at a barbecue, something that she apparently could not have done if she wasn’t ‘bikini ready’. This touched a nerve with me. The weight-loss bikini ready adverts have been banned, so why does Wilkinson Sword think that this is an ok message? It got me thinking about how anti-body hair, image obsessed, and intolerant I was before this past year.

Compared to my primary school and secondary school, Loyola is a pretty liberal place. I remember being made fun of when I was about 10 years old for having hairy legs. My mum doesn’t shave, doesn’t often wear bras, and has a very eccentric style, which I now greatly appreciate. But, when I was growing up, this mortified me. I tried desperately to make her shave when we went on holiday, and used to hide her leopard print, diamante sunglasses behind the microwave. I used hair removal cream for the first time on a school trip to Paris in year eight. I remember my mum being really upset when she found out. The idea of female body hair being disgusting comes from companies like Wilkinson Sword wanting to make more money, as women don’t typically have beards to shave. Some of my friends at Loyola don’t shave and they still get male attention and people don’t look at them in a horrified manner. It’s ok. People can do what they want.

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Before last year, I felt like I had a type of body dysmorphia. I weigh eight stone, yet I would try on a bikini in a shop and grab disgustedly at my love handles and cringe at the fat on my stomach. I’m only just coming to terms with my body, and it felt amazing spending Spring Break in Miami with a group of 10 girls of all different shapes and sizes in bikinis looking amazing. We weren’t talking about our weight – no one cared.

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Another thing I’ve come to realise since being at Loyola is how much we slut shame and how bad and unnecessary it is. We think it’s bad in the UK, but some of the friends I made from South and Central America had it ingrained in them that they shouldn’t have casual sex, and felt a huge amount of guilt if they did. If someone wants to sleep with a lot of people, then it’s fine, and if they don’t, it’s also fine; it’s no one else’s business.

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It’s hard not to make quick judgements about someone based on what they’re wearing. If a girl is wearing a short skirt to lectures in the morning it may seem inappropriate, but if she feels comfortable like that then it doesn’t matter. It’s not hurting anyone. In addition, I have to stop assuming that I can tell someone’s sexuality from the way they dress. If a guy wants to wear make-up or typically feminine clothing and claims to be straight, who am I to label him as anything else? People don’t have to fit into generic categories.

I’m trying my best not to sound too preachy or self-righteous in discussing things that I’ve learned or come to terms with this past year. Most importantly, studying in the south of the USA has made me realise just how privileged I am. Concerns with physical appearance are trivial. If I want to cover bruises or blemishes on my legs, I can easily walk into a store and buy skin coloured tights or plasters for my white skin. These things are not so easily accessible for my black peers. This is just one of the things that I used to take for granted. Since studying at Loyola I’ve realised how much institutionalised racism affects everyone. From day to day things like finding the right colour concealer and foundation for darker skin tones, to police prejudice and brutality.

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