As a young woman and habitual traveler to developing countries, I have always made a point to be keenly aware of local customs and norms when it comes to my wardrobe. It is, after all, the smartest thing to do isn’t it?
Every travel guidebook strongly suggests this course of action for female travelers. Attract as little attention to yourself as possible so as not to be an obvious target for those who wish to rob you or worse. Although it goes against the biological desire of a female to be noticed, it is generally sound advice that you should always adhere to.
At times, especially in machismo cultures, local suitors can actually be more frightening than flattering. In countries like Egypt, attention from the opposite sex can be extremely unnerving.
During my visit to the land of the Pharaohs, my rear end was groped as I was “helped” into taxis, I was regularly bombarded with excessively crude comments, and no one seemed able to resist touching my golden curls which stood out like a sore thumb.
Even though it is highly inappropriate for Muslim men to behave this way towards their own women, thanks to the world-wide distribution of western cinema and television, Egyptians feel confident that we enjoy being manhandled and treated as sex objects because we are often portrayed that way on the big screen. Needless to say, it was in Egypt that I truly learned to appreciate the art of blending in.
I am not suggesting that you dress exactly as local women do, just with similar modesty. After I ditched my shorts and tank tops in the sweltering Egyptian desert, I still did not cover every square inch of my body as do many of the Muslim women. I did, however, try to cover my knees, my shoulders and eventually I tucked my hair away when visiting the more rural areas.
In the same vain, when I traveled through the Andes in Peru, I came across many villages where the indigenous cultures still hold sway. While I did not wear the traditional clothing with layer upon layer of hand woven garments like the women of the region, I still tried to respect the modesty of their culture.
One experience after another has reinforced the advice of the guidebooks: “Dress as the locals do!” This, of course, was the exact advice I received again while preparing for a recent trip to Brazil.
Obviously, I had heard about the tight clothes and the barely-there bikinis of the Brazilian beaches, but I was not at all prepared for the way in which the entire society abides by the “less is more” philosophy of dress.
Brazilian women wear clothes that are ridiculously small and tight-fitting regardless of their age, shape or size. They dress with complete confidence in every square inch of their bodies. It was very empowering to witness at times, yet somewhat disturbing at others.
Even the most petite women are literally popping out of their shirts and rolling out of their shorts. No matter how small a woman may be, if she wears an article of clothing three sizes too small for her – some overspill will occur. It’s just fashion physics.
I thought I could slip through the cracks without being noticed, but I was bringing a great deal of attention to myself with my simple T-shirts and loose Capris. I was obviously a stranger in a strange land committing the cardinal sin of travel safety.
This was the most apparent at the beach where I felt like a spotlight was shining on me in my one-piece bathing suit. Full-coverage swimwear seems to be an unheard of style.
My husband kept reminding me of my own advice. “Don’t you always say that it is safest to dress as the locals do?” he giggled as he prodded me to try on some of the more revealing local bathing suits.
I promptly reminded him that his long swimming trunks were also a source of unwanted attention. Perhaps if he donned a sexy Speedo we would seem less conspicuous as well. He stopped teasing me shortly thereafter.
Perhaps I just could not shake the puritan heritage of my American ancestors, but I simply could not bring myself to dress the part during my two month visit to Brazil. Actually, I don’t think it was my prudence that kept me from doing so. It was simply a matter of logistics.
I am a full-bodied, full-breasted girl, and my supportive under-wire bra consists of more cloth than most of the things that pass for blouses in Brazilian department stores.
If I were to wear a true Brazilian wardrobe, I am afraid that too many innocent bystanders would be hurt in the process and I am not prepared to have that on my conscience. Whatever my excuse, I just could not do it. So for the first time, I decided to break the golden rule and I stuck to my wardrobe from home.
So to all my sisters in travel, I leave you with this piece of advice: When in Rome, dress as the Romans dress. However, if your Rome happens to be anywhere in Brazil, be it beach or mountain, rural or urban, north or south, you’d be well advised to pack your own toga if you are uncomfortable bearing it all.
Kori Crow is from Austin, Texas. She travels extensively in the developing world and is currently in the middle of a nine month journey through South America with her husband. While she loves to travel, she misses her wiener dog, Zeus, very much.