Shorts & Tank Tops Make Travelers in Conservative Places Look Oblivious

It is time for me to publicly say something that will piss a lot of people off: It is foolish for Western travelers to wear tank tops and short shorts in places where locals do not. There is a simple equation for this: If a majority of the people around you are locals and you are dressed less conservatively than they are, you are screwing up. You end up looking like you don’t care about local culture, you risk disrespecting local people just by how you are dressed, and you make Westerners in general look bad. And I think you get ripped off more.

The first time I went to Rome as a teen, I was wearing exactly what I wore at home in upstate New York. Ratty short cut offs. I didn’t think twice about it until my father kindly said, “It doesn’t look like people wear shorts here.” I was confused. What did that mean for me? Was it my job to be as American as I possibly could and educate the people of Italy about popular American fashion? Should I run back to the hotel and put on my only pair of pants? I honestly don’t remember what I did, but that realization stuck with me. My first big experience abroad was studying in New Delhi. I did my research, knew I needed to dress conservatively, and the first time I stepped out of the dorm door I realized I was wearing the skirt of a village woman and a scarf on my head like a hippy house cleaner. All of the other girls on the campus were wearing jeans and t-shirts. Oops. I did it again. But at least this time I was being overly conservative rather than offensive.

Too much of my energy has been wasted on being disappointed by how clueless many Westerners look when they travel. Bikinis are cultural dress for Westerners. I get it. But when you’re in a place where there are a bunch of local people swimming in their clothes, take the hint and consider swimming with your clothes on. It’s actually pretty fun. If you are surrounded by Westerners in bathing suits, that’s what happens in that place and the local people can avoid that area if they don’t like it. When travelers insert their revealing cultural dress in places where local people must go to live their daily lives, travelers are forcing their values on their hosts. 

If you don’t see any local people wearing short shorts and tank tops, consider buying a set of what they are wearing and wear it as part of your experience. When I got to Sri Lanka, I noticed was that women were wearing shin-length skirts, blouses and carrying sun umbrellas. I bought one of each of those things and used them the whole trip. In India I spent $10 to have a lightweight salwar kameez made for me. I wash it at night, it dries quickly, and I can wear it every day. I protect my face from the sun with a scarf like everyone else. It’s so practical, and I think people are nicer to me when I wear local clothes.

You are not traveling in order to force your culture on others, right? You are a guest. Take cues from your hosts.  To me, that’s common sense. Humility is a beautiful thing, and it makes us more open to learning something new. When I travel, I try my best to be what the locals want me to be. Once I get to know someone, then I can be my tank top wearing, liberal American self with them in private. That worked for me in Peace Corps, and that’s the best way I know for me to honor and respect others when I travel.



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