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The Bali Body
Unpacking the Instagram ideal that shapes the Canggu scene
Disclaimer: If you are currently experiencing body dysmorphia and/or have an eating disorder, some of the content in this newsletter may be a trigger for you.
When you touch down in paradise—where the sun is shining, the breeze is warm, and a bathing suit counts as an outfit—do you ever just feel blah? Welp, that was me, on and off for my first fortnight in Bali.
Initially, I chalked it up to the time-jump adjustment, then to the gut microbiome acclamation, then to the PMS I was feeling. All in all, not a winning trifecta of fatigue, bloat, and the mixed bag of emotions that preludes the period. (Gentleman, yes, we are talking about the woes of the female reproductive system, so buckle up, because, if you know me, TMI is my style.)
I was pretty much PMS-free for the last couple months. The hormones were doing what they were supposed to, things were arriving on time. But, you know how it is, any type of stress can throw the body into a state of feeling unsafe; when this happens the body prioritizes certain necessary functions over other not-so-necessary functions (i.e., reproduction). This means (for most vulva/vagina-owners) the first thing to be put off schedule is ovulation, and thereby menstruation.1 The additional 6-hour-ahead time zone jump, disturbed sleep, and travel routine (aka no routine) left my body feeling very out of alignment. Needless to say, the PMS came crashing over me like a tsunami and was drawn out tenfold. So that was me—and I was experiencing all that in a place like Bali.
Prior to visiting, I knew Bali had a reputation. Bali is to Australia what Cancun is to the U.S. (aka the ultimate spring break destination). Lots of tourists, particularly from Australia and Europe, visit to party and let loose because it’s cheap and beautiful here. It’s a place to get wet and wild, naughty and saucy. Picture anyone from Love Island (U.K. or U.S.) and that’s the type you’ll likely run into, particularly in Canggu. This isn’t to say the whole island is party central. You can visit Bali for a romantic honeymoon or go on holiday with your kiddos; parts of the island, like Kuta and Ubud, definitely have a different vibe. There are serene temples, sacred waterfalls, tranquil rice paddies. For the most part, though, it’s a place of youth, butts, booze, fun, and sex (literally, there are bottle openers with wooden cock handles and wood-carved turtles with phallic heads at almost every street stall).2 It’s an interesting ménage à trois of flirtatious fun, modesty, and zen vibes that coexists in Bali, and the tourists, the expats, and the locals all contribute to this mix.3 Granted, I knew this (to some extent) but experiencing the brunt of it all firsthand was something else.
Perhaps it’s the island’s sex appeal and beach vibe that make it a hot destination for Instagram influencers. (Not to mention it’s cheap; you can get a lot of good-looking food and accommodations for a lot less.) Chances are, if you follow any influencers, you’ve seen them posted up and posting in Bali. They film their villa, their breakfast, them with their booties out (backs arched) at a waterfall. On our first day here, Brooks and I saw two influencers in the wild: on the beach, filming content. They’re everywhere. And the locals know it, too. In fact, it seems they’ve built Canggu, specifically, to be Influencer Mecca.
You know the saying, “Build it, and they will come”? Well, I’m not sure Canggu was explicitly built for influencers, but it is definitely being crafted to their liking. Or, perhaps, the vibe was just that of Bali, and it became coopted by influencers who traveled here and thought it to be picturesque, and so they appropriated it to be their vibe. Soon, so many influencers branded the Bali aesthetic as their own that it become what we associate to be the influencer aesthetic. Who knows; this is all speculation from observation. Whatever the case may be, everything here looks like it’s photoshopped or already has a filter on it. Sleek tropical meets retro modern. Hipster jungle meets effortless surfer chic. Polished boutiques, restaurants, and cafes with the perfect lighting, perfect plates, perfect color combos, perfect names, perfect backdrops—it all feels produced. And when I say perfect, I mean the ideal that Instagram has popularized and influenced us to want. Everything here just looks like you’re looking at it in a little square on your feed. It’s ingenious: The Indonesian tourist industry has found Gen Z’s Achilles heel and capitalized on it.
There are boutiques, one after another, that sell the same matching crochet two-piece sets, the same cheeky bikinis, the same short skirts, sun dresses, platform slip-on sandals, and linen shirts. Even the local stalls sell this stuff at competitive prices. And you see real people wearing these Instagram-ready outfits on the beach, on the backs of mopeds, at brunch. Most of them are taller than 5’8”, with an even tan and long blonde or brunette hair. Everyone seems to look effortlessly European and have a hot accent. (See where I’m going with this?) There’s a type here—and restaurant names like LowCal Cheatery and Bar, the clothing sizes available, and the majority of the tourists that flock here reinforce this. Aesthetics are number one: artistically and physically. There’s an ideal here, and part of it stems from the Western diet and now the booming “wellness” culture that we’ve all been exposed to and are now trying to deprogram from (if we’re even conscious of the hold it has on us).
The stereotypical blonde surfer gal, the fashionista travel blogger, the nomad, the Aussie surfer bro: I’ve seen them all here, in the flesh. And there I was among them: sweating, bloated, pale, streaked with cellulite, and dotted with splotchy red kisses (already!) from the mosquitos, wishing I was a bit more toned, tan, thin, and able to go out, sans glasses, and be able to see.
My rational brain said, “C’mon, you’re being silly.”
My emotional brain said, “I don’t feel pretty.”
And my even more emotional brain, living in my stomach, said, “I want carbs. Now.”
Silly as it may sound, I was feeling a bit ugly amongst all those tale, gamine-thin, European women. My PMS brain dragged me deep into a comparison trap that was made up of imaginary netting. My brain knew better; nevertheless, the Instagram-culture shock was hitting me harder than the very real adjustments of driving on the left side of the road and having to remember to be cautious of the tap water.
Funny how fluctuating hormones can put a filter over our perception. Ladies, I feel this one will resonate the most with you, since society has done us pretty dirty with messaging on how we should look and how we should feel when we look a certain way, or don't—particularly in a bikini.4 When I'm at my most vulnerable hormonally, and thus emotionally, I'm humbled and horrified to discover that messaging I thought had simply washed over me throughout my girlhood into womanhood had actually been internalized. We have magazines, billboards, commercials, movies, social media, and sometimes other people in our lives (deluded, too, by this messaging) to thank for reinforcing "ideals" that leave us feeling less-than in some way simply because we're more. More junk in the trunk, thicker in the hips, hairier, rounder in the face. But more doesn't mean less than. In fact, for me, more finally meant healthier.
Personally, I know these bouts of negative body image will always pass, and I know, in my conscious mind, that they’re a product of my hormonal brain chemistry messing with me; so, I try not to get too stuck on it. I still wore the bikini, trying to remember that “every body is a bikini body.” I pouted through the “I don’t know what to wear” PMS blues and frustration. I enjoyed every meal we had. I cried when I was feeling a bit vulnerable. I got more sun, chilled out, read books. I waited for the PMS storm to pass.
Experiencing Bali in that negative headspace, though, made me see it for what it could be, what it was for me those first couple weeks. For some, it could be a total trigger. Initially, I was looking at all the boutiques, wanting to shop to feel better, wanting to acquire something to look better—to look more like the women I saw around me. I went into one shop and tried on a dress. After much deliberation, I decided not to buy it because a) I didn’t feel tanned and toned enough to wear it and b) I didn’t want to spend money on something I didn’t look good in.
After the PMS passed, though, I was seeing those stores for selling a brand, a promise to become a type of person (if you bought that dress), the type that a lot of us see when we open that app. And that isn’t me—that isn’t even them. It’s all an illusion.
Eventually, when I walked around Canggu, I saw all those fashionable, model-esque women, and they, too, had cellulite and some sun burn. I swam in the ocean and saw someone with big, red welts on their arms, just like the ones I had. (They, too, were at the mercy of the mosquitos.) I saw a beautiful woman on vacation with someone who appeared to be her partner, and they were bickering the whole dinner. They looked like any other hot Instagram couple, but they clearly weren’t enjoying each other’s company. What would you know? The age-old adage is true: Appearances aren’t what they seem. Bali definitely has some less than appealing sides to it, and the majority of people who visit may look a certain way, but how do they feel?
As the body dysmorphic fog cleared, I could see all the imperfections around me, all the humanness of those around me. I went back to that store a few weeks later and tried on the same dress again. In that moment, it felt like butter on and that’s all that mattered, just that good feeling. After a few weeks, I started to appreciate just the feelings and my own humanness once again.
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Confused? Have questions? I suggest you do some quick Googling (or ask me) to fill in the blanks on any reproductive and sex ed you might’ve missed. (C’mon, it’s 2022!)
Per the new penal code that Indonesia just enacted, which is awaiting approval by the president and will subsequently go into effect in a few years, this may change the vibe of Bali in the near future, as it will certainly deter certain types of tourists (i.e., those unmarried and/or a part of the LGBTQ+ community) from visiting. Don’t know what I’m talking about? Read about it here.
Bali’s got a fertility thing going on. I believe this has to do with the island’s local mythological history, but I’m unsure. Bali is definitely one of the most laidback islands within Indonesia, but I can’t say for certain how it compares to the rest of the country since I haven’t been anywhere else in Indonesia except for Bali. Bali is definitely a free for all, simply because it has to allow for more freedom in order to keep tourists coming back. How this will change per the new legislation mentioned in footnote #2 will be interesting.
This isn’t to say men (and those who identity as male) don’t struggle with feeling like they need to look a certain way or be “masculine”. Regardless of sex and gender, we’ve all received messaging on what it means to be in one way or another, and how we should feel when we look a certain way or don’t look a certain way.