This time of year always reminds me of my 16-year-old self heading into a culture shock experience head on. We had moved to Venezuela, and our class was taking a 3 day extravaganza to Margarita Island. Picture this, at 16 I was a pale gymnast who grew too quickly had to quit gymnastics and took up soccer. My idea of swim wear was a Speedo…
Image from Speedo
By this point, I had not ventured to the beach, and since the internet was not in homes in this part of the world, I had no idea what swimwear to a south American looked like. I was pretty lucky in all aspects of my experience at school, everyone tried to help me, not only with my spanish, but with all aspects of Venezuelan culture. 2 of my girlfriends demanded that days before our departure I was to go to the mall with them. Done, no problem. I went to the mall, the two of them led the way to a hole in the wall, that looked like a clinic. Rapid fire Spanish ensued, I was shoved into a room. I was about to meet my first waxing experience, with non other than Helga the German/Venezuelan who tried killing me with hot wax, I tried running away, but Helga was strong and fast – she even laughed…I tried going home and explaining to my parents that there was no way I was going on this class trip, too embarrassed to tell them why, it didn’t work, but at least I tried.
I thought the wax was it for the cultural experience, but we got to the Island, I was sharing a room with 3 other girls, all awesome, still all friends. They saw my Speedo and broke into laughter. They all said in unison “You cannot wear that” I looked at it, and didn’t know what to say. All of my friends in Caracas looked like Giselle and were bronzed goddesses. Oh boy, they tried talking me into borrowing dental floss and set me free onto the beach, I happily declined, thinking I knew better. They shook their heads and said fine, and claimed I would change my mind.
We got to the beach, which was 5 minutes of walking through the hotel maze of pools. I looked at the maze of bronzed bodies, oh god, everyone, young, old, big and small were wearing tiny bikinis. My friend grabbed my hand, and said “have you changed your mind yet?” I was just stunned, standing there, in awe. Nobody was shy, nobody had body issues. Such a strange departure from Canada.
I took a deep breath and said “I am fine” mean while, I actually wanted to break down in tears or just throw up in the bush.
We found our class, everyone was either lounging, playing soccer or volleyball. I put my towel down. My Speedo now fully revealed. All of a sudden, it felt like the whole beach stopped to stare. Yes, I was the crazy white girl wearing a full piece, in a sea of bikini clad Giselle’s. My friend turned to me, and said “people stare, because you stand out. I don’t know why you have to cover up, you have a great figure.”
Then of course, my very brazilian male friend came over and said “what are you doing? You need to go buy yourself a bikini, you look like a pale tourist – we will go fix this”
That afternoon, the group shoved me into another hole in the wall, and threw tiny bikinis at me. The thing is, sometimes you do have to just go with the culture and be comfortable with it. To this day, I have never worn a full piece! Embrace your body, be proud! If you don’t feel proud, take a 2 week vacation to South America, you will come back changed forever.
Do you have any cultural experiences that has changed you?