I'm also a feminist and psychologist. And, having spent the last two weeks in Sri Lanka, being told by white people what I "should" wear to the beach, I've come to the solid conclusion that, No. Not every part of every culture deserves my respect.
Mind you, 90% of the suggestions come from some white dude who hasn't worn a shirt in days, and whose board shorts are so low his dick is basically showing.
Correction: it's their culture. It's not my culture.
It's hilarious that the same people who, back in the Western world, think a woman's choice is important and slut shaming is bad... get on a plane, abandon their choice and allow others to slut shame them.
It's hilarious that people expect me to oppress myself, just because others allow themselves to be oppressed. (Edit: I'm referring to Western women who abide by backwards customs, not women who are actually, violently oppressed)
It's hilarious that people think I'm going to travel abroad, but leave my dignity, autonomy, self-respect, confidence, comfort and values at home.
I know this isn't a popular opinion. You're welcome to disagree with me. You're welcome to go to Sri Lanka and wear excessively hot, conservative, sticky, wet clothes all the time. But here are a few reasons that, in my experience here, that is totally unnecessary:
1. I'm not a racist who assumes all Sri Lankan men are disgusting animals who can't control themselves.
No, the men here don't harass you for wearing a bikini to the beach.
I've been harassed, for sure. My second night here, I went to this cool carnival in Galle. A man followed me back to my hotel... and when I left for breakfast the next morning, he was waiting outside. He followed me around for several hours that morning.
My third day here, I was walking along the beach -- fully clothed, not that it matters -- when a man approached me and said, "Where are you from? How long are you in Sri Lanka? How is your sexual activity? I would like to have with you."
There is a grossness to the culture. There are gross men who, apparently because of representations of Western women in the media, think white women will just... have sex with them? Even if they're old and fat and don't even speak English?
But these men are the exception, not the rule. Because #YesAllWomen. But #NotAllMen. Amirite?
Not a single man has harassed me since I arrived in Weligama. Sometimes I can hear them talking, and it sounds like it's probably something lewd about me. But guess what? I'm too stoked about the waves I either just got or am about to get to give a shit what some strangers in the street are saying about me.
Harvard was traditionally an all-men's school.
Women in the U.S. didn't used to have the right to vote.
Black people used to be slaves.
Aren't you glad these things have changed? Progress is a good thing.
It's funny to me how many people want to "respect" regressive and oppressive aspects of one culture, while demanding that similar aspects of other cultures change.
For example, there are plenty of neighborhoods in the United States where elderly white residents don't want "coloreds," "Orientals," and "Air-abs" living nearby. It's not the tradition there.
Should we respect that? Because that's their culture?
Where do you draw the line between "respecting tradition" and oppression, segregation, and other regressive social norms?
3. If you leave anything on the beach, it gets stolen.
So basically what you're saying is, I have to wear all these extra clothes to the beach. I'm allowed to take them off when I go in the water...
But while I'm in the water, some addict jacks my shit.
It's dumb to bring stuff to the beach, knowing that it will get stolen. If you want to insist that I "cover up," then be sure you're going to buy me new shirts and sarongs and stuff every day.
4. Only a tiny minority or Sri Lankans care what I'm wearing. The rest eagerly greet me with a cheerful, "Hello!" -- no matter what I'm wearing.
I've been surfing two- to three times per day for the last two weeks. That's a lot of walking to and from the beach. And it's a totally fun walk! Because in the five minutes it takes to get to Fish O's, several children will run from their homes to the side of the road and shout, "Hello! Hello! Thank you! Bye!"
Women of all ages have greeted me with the same warmth -- though perhaps, with less energy and enthusiasm.
I see fewer men during the day, since presumably they're off at their day jobs or driving tuk tuks. But those I do see often smile. Or they don't say anything. Or, if they're teenagers, they talk excitedly to their friends -- possibly about the white girl who's walking down the street.
This doesn't change, whether I'm wearing denim shorts or board shorts or bikini bottoms.
Of the dozens of people I see on my way to the beach each day, only one has ever looked at me scornfully. As I got closer, she said, "That is bad in Sri Lanka." Or something to that effect.
So... maybe one person was offended. Honestly, though... I don't care. If she didn't like what I was wearing, she didn't have to look. She's allowed to dress how she wants, and I'm allowed to dress how I want.
That's my observation -- but it's supported by conversations I've had with local female entrepreneurs and business owners. They say that Sri Lankan men have been horrible to all women -- both locals and tourists (and even three-year-old girls) -- but that there is a new government and a new president, and they are cracking down on that kind of behavior.
They weren't sure if the culture could change -- but they want to try. They want to build a country where women can succeed and tourists feel safe and comfortable. One woman, who runs her own hotel and coffee shop, also somehow manages to volunteer as a director at an NGO that's creating a more gender-equal Sri Lanka.
They want me to feel comfortable here. They want me to have fun and enjoy myself. And they don't give a shit what I'm wearing while I'm doing it.
Because here's the thing about culture: it's not static. It's totally dynamic.
5. I don't want to be complicit in oppressive, violent social norms -- and I don't want to contribute to rape culture.
As a social scientist and intellectual, I don't believe any religion, culture, or idea should be exempt from criticism. Whether it's trans rights, Islam, or feminism, the idea should hold up to criticism and analysis.
And, to me, to allow sexist norms in a culture that isn't mine to dictate how I dress would mean being complicit in rape culture -- something I have spent countless hours fighting against.
Rape culture, sexual violence and victim-blaming are unacceptable, whether you're at a Stanford frat party or a Sri Lankan surf town.
One piece of advice that changed my life was to follow the 80-20 rule. Consume 80% of the time, create 20% of the time.
That's why I started this blog!
But lately, I've realized that travel should also follow the 80-20 rule. You absorb, participate, listen and learn 80% of the time...
But in order for this to be a true cultural exchange, you need to give back 20% of the time.
Whether I'm delighting children in Laos with tales of lobster diving in California, teaching my surf buddies in Malaysia how to swing dance, or explaining the American electoral college system to a Swedish expat, I think it's meaningful and important to give, and not just take. Give knowledge. Give a story, a lesson, an experience. Show and tell what it's like to be you -- because, otherwise, you're just being selfish.
Every day in Sri Lanka, I give. I give cash to tuk tuk drivers and restaurant owners. I give business to local entrepreneurs. But I also give a glimpse into my world. Is it really so horrible for women, men, and children to see a confident, independent Western woman walking alone down the street with a surfboard and a bikini?
Would it be better if they just had no idea what it was like in another part of the world -- or if their only representations of Western women came from porn and Bollywood?
I don't believe I should be a passive recipient of another culture. I believe in meaningful exchange, where both parties have the opportunity to gain perspective, learn, and grow.
Because, remember: locals aren't zoo animals to be gawked at. They're human beings to be interacted with.
7. I don't want to.
Probably this should have been my first (or maybe second) point. But, you know, I had to go for the rhetorical effect.
I dress how I want to dress, and I don't dress how I don't want to dress.
Maybe I don't want to be complicit in rape culture.
Maybe I'm afraid my stuff will get stolen when I get in the water.
Maybe it's too hot to walk around in a rash guard.
Maybe it's too uncomfortable to walk around in wet board shorts.
Maybe I just like the feel of the wind and the sun on my skin.
Maybe I'm not obsessed with what others might maybe be thinking about me.
It doesn't really matter, and I don't really need to justify.
I love traveling. I love experiencing and participating in new cultures. But I'm not going to abandon my morals, values, or personality because a couple of white people think I "should."
Again, you're welcome to disagree. You're welcome to travel wherever you want, and dress however you want.
You do you. I'll do me. And we'll both be happy.