Dirty Girls: How To Preserve Your Femininity In South East Asia
CAUTION: I’ve used the word NASTY prolifically in this blog, for good reason because no synonym seems to suffice. And, I am going to make some huge generalizations here about “gendered” hygiene, totally culturally specific and from my experience being a woman and living and travelling with boys (and by boys I mean grown men, you know, the ones who put their dirty backpack on the bed!).
Maintaining good personal hygiene in SE Asia is no easy feat for a resident or a traveller if you are used to a Western standard or have grown up in a 4-season climate. I think it is particularly difficult for women. Living in this part of the world has forever altered my body pH and my perspective on just what sweat is and how many types of sweat there are.
There’s the I’m-at-work-dressed-in-polyester sweat that trickles down you cleavage like a brook.
There’s the I’ve JUST showered sweat—the prickly sweat that makes you wonder why you bothered to shower at all.
There’s the all-out dirty, I-might-have-grown-a-penis sweat that comes when you hike to the top of a mountain in 35 degree heat plus humidity. This may be the closest I will ever come to feeling like a man, thank goodness for that.
But the worst kind is the WTF sweat—the sweat you didn’t even work for. When you’re just sitting, in the shade, doing absolutely nothing and you’re soaked.
And then there’s dirt and it’s a whole different kind of dirt here. I like getting dirty with the boys (now, now). A good barefoot hike is on my list of top ten things to do anytime. I don’t mind being coated in dirt by the end of the day and this is an absolute certainty if I’ve spent the day outside anywhere near a road. But I also love being clean. I love feeling clean, looking clean and smelling clean. And I LOVE being a WOMAN. In order to maintain feeling like a woman whilst living and travelling in this part of the world there are a few things I have to do.
Here are a few tricks I’ve found helpful for preserving your femininity in SE Asia:
1. Shower every day, twice if you can. Showering twice a day is NOT excessive when you live in SouthEast Asia, particularly during shoulder season when the rain has not arrived and it’s hotter than f*cking hell. Just be responsible about it. Keep it short and turn off the water when you’re soaping up. Even a bucket shower is enough to just rinse off that layer of grime that settles on your skin.
2. Don’t EVER wear a white bra, ESPECIALLY when hiking, unless you are curious about the level of disgusting the female body can produce. When I travel I bring one or two items of white clothing and I keep those precious babies stored in plastic. When I need to give the illusion of being fresh I wear one of those.
3. Baby wipes. So you might end up smelling a little maternal but that’s better than the alternative. These have saved me at the end of a no-hope-for-a-shower day. Just a little swipe under here, down there and your parts will sing thank you.
4. Keep tissue with you at all times. I’m close to mastering the “bum-gun” but in some cases you’re stuck going outside. Getting caught with your pants down and no paper is AWFUL, particularly if you’ve been eating the street food, which is slightly irresistible and sometimes necessary. I had the unfortunate case of enduring a parasite and my period at the same time whilst on a very long trek where there was very infrequent access to bathroom facilities. All I can say is THANK GOODNESS for tissue and baby wipes.
5. Get the moon cup (aka “Diva Cup”). After a couple months of enduring what looked like a mass murder in my bathroom I finally got the hang of it, so girls — persevere! This thing has saved me. Bottom line is it SUCKS having your period when travelling in SouthEast Asia, specifically in Indonesia where finding tampons is as likely as finding that tall-dark-handsome in a knitting club. If you don’t have the cup it means you’re stuck with the pad… ugh. A surefire way to kill any amount of sexy you might feel and plastic down there in a humid climate feels nasty and may contribute to thrush.
6. Use body oil instead of lotion. When you sweat you just sweat out the lotion and you’re left feeling like you could scrape a layer of paste from your skin. Gross, I know. But seriously, after an hour in the humidity, give your arm a little scratch and see just what appears under your fingernails, it’s downright nasty. Coconut oil is everywhere in SE Asia and it’s so good for the skin.
7. Keep a change of underwear with you at all times. I don’t think I need to say why. It seems men can get away with wearing the same pair of underwear for several days. We women wouldn’t do that and bottom line is that we have different parts so underwear needs changing daily. Using a thin panty liner (the regular ones or the g-string ones) is also an option when clean underwear runs out but shhhh, we don’t need to tell anyone THAT little trick.
8. Keep a toothbrush and paste on you at all times. There are lots of times when a shower or a simple face wash is not possible. Brushing your teeth can help you feel just a little bit fresh, or at the very least, less disgusting.
9. Treat heat rash easily and naturally. It’s an irritating reality of being in a tropical climate and completely unsexy. On your back, on your legs and yes, on your bum (insert sad face). In addition to wearing loose, breathable clothing and not sitting around in wet bikini bottoms all day, use apple cider vinegar and coconut oil right out of the shower. Dilute the vinegar with some water (1:1 ratio) and then either spray for those hard to reach areas or use a cotton pad to apply it to the affected area. Allow it to dry for a couple minutes and then rub in some coconut oil. The vinegar acts as a natural toner and helps restore the skin’s pH balance. And the coconut oil is just plain good for the skin. Try to find organic versions of both though and test out the apple cider vinegar on your skin first… it’s strong stuff. Note: this is also a good post-shaving practice to avoid razor burn.
10. Keep those legs shaved. The more hair you have the warmer you will be and the more you will sweat. And I think I’ve talked about sweat already. It takes me about 2 minutes to shave all my areas and the result is worth the irritation of having to do it every other day. And coconut oil comes in again here. I use it to shave instead of soap which results in way less skin irritation.
11. Fight smells with tea tree oil. This stuff is amazing. Mix a few drops into some water and spray away, on your clothes, in your hiking boots, in your hair, on your face, on your man—anywhere that needs it. Tea tree oil is a natural anti-bacterial and thus kills the bacteria that produces body odour. And it feels refreshing.
12. Use a homemade body scrub. This doesn’t have to be any more complicated than some leftover coffee grounds, sugar and coconut oil. It smells divine and the caffeine in coffee reduces the appearance of cellulite so it’s a win-win. See below for recipe.
13. When using the squat toilet, a reality in Asia, face the wall! It took me many months of enduring the nastiness of pee-sprayed feet to catch on to this little trick. And be strategic with the force of your spray, don’t get carried away. Work those kegels.
14. Mascara. It’s my one cosmetic. I look much less tired with it on and I feel a bit more feminine when I’m wearing it. It’s going that extra step without doing much of anything. But a word of caution here. Use a good one or a waterproof one otherwise profuse sweating can wind up making you look like Marilyn Manson by the end of the day.
15. Don’t look at the bottom of your feet… full stop.
Coffee Body Scrub: (This makes a lot so half it if necessary)
1 cup of used coffee grounds
6 tablespoons of coconut oil
3 tablespoons of sugar or salt
Mix together and keep stored in a cool place if possible as it will keep longer. Keep for up to about two weeks.
Photo credit: Colleen Thornton
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