Freckles and Fashion Fusion

“What’s that?” the lady asked, pointing at some blotchy spots, otherwise known as freckles, on my face and neck and hands, “Are you allergic to something?”

“No,” I replied, “That’s just my skin.”

“You know you can buy some stuff to make those spots go away,” she said helpfully.

I’m covered in freckles. China hates freckles. The only Chinese word I’ve come up with for freckles literally means “black spot” which makes them sound awful, so I can understand why they’re so undesirable.  If I leave my apartment without makeup on, I will get to have the above conversation at least once. Guaranteed.

It’s not just the freckles. One random guy was complimenting my beautiful baby and said, “It’s a good thing she looks like her father because he’s much better looking than you!” His bluntness wasn’t as surprising as the fact that I’d never met this guy and my husband wasn’t with me at the time, but he knew enough about me to make this observation (throwback to that Glass House post from a couple months ago…).

“It’s a good thing all my kids look like their father,” I replied.

The bigger my baby gets, the more I hear, “She’s much prettier than you!” I’m actually so glad to hear that. It could be much worse. If my baby was funny looking, I would constantly hear things like “Hey! Look! That baby looks like a monkey!”

How do I manage to walk away from these comments with my confidence still intact? Maybe the “You’re so white and beautiful” comments I used to get from my Chinese college students help check the negative stuff. All I know is that cross cultural living calls for thick skin (even if it’s freckled) and a sense of humor. Most of all, I know my creator is well pleased with me because I’m fearfully and wonderfully made, so I don’t have to get affirmation of my beauty from the world. And my mom says I’m pretty.  And I think I’m pretty. Sometimes random taxi drivers think I’m pretty (until they see my baby).

It’s been said that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” I never grasped just how true that is until living overseas. The differences can be so overwhelming it makes my head spin. For example, Americans spend money to have themselves baked alive in tanning beds or sprayed with chemicals to achieve the perfect “I just got back from a beach vacation, and now I just exude this health glow!” look. Meanwhile,  women in Asia are spending money on beauty products and spa treatments that promise whiter skin and go to great pains to guard themselves from the sun so that they can achieve that “I stay indoors because I’m well off, and I don’t have to work in the sun” look.

Like our Velvet Ashes writer, Amy Young, who coined the phrase, “Messy Middle,” I often find myself stuck in the messy middle when it comes to beauty and fashion. I arrive in America after 10 months in China and my sisters gasp at the sight of my pale legs.

“It’s summer for crying out loud! Go get some sun!” they say.

I arrive back in China after enjoying a summer in Texas where I didn’t try to stay pale or go to great lengths to get a tan, and my neighbors gasp, “You’re so black!”

When it comes to fashion trends, it gets even more confusing. Urban Asians pick up on different fashion trends than people in West Texas. If I try to follow the latest trends and fads here, I go back there for the summer and don’t quite fit in. Each place has a style all their own, but for one reason or another, I don’t/can’t do what all the “cool kids” are doing. My feet are too big and I’m too tall in China, and my wallet is too small in Texas.

So, what’s a girl to do? I know not all of us enjoy fashion and such, but I like to be a little trendy, get a little dressed up and feel girly and cute sometimes. I’m surely not alone here.

During my time in China, I’ve been through a few phases. In phase one, I just threw fashion by the wayside and embraced my Chaco hiking sandals backpacker girl look, and I was happy with it for that one year. In phase two, I still loved my Chacos, but wished I had a few things to wear on date night or girls’ night out and started to despise my simple wardrobe. Phase three, I finally found a fusion of sorts and arrived at a wardrobe that’s functional, cute and didn’t break the bank. I’m happy here in my messy middle. Let me illustrate by walking you through my current outfit:

1. My bag–it’s colorful and fun, but not a much sought-after, top of the line, designer label often carried by styling Chinese women. It’s probably out of style in America as well, but there’s something of a “global nomad” look to it that I like. I’ve had it for four years and it keeps working (even after I cut out the torn liner), so I keep using it!

2. My skirt–it’s one of my favorites, and like my bag, it’s almost four years old. It goes with lots of different tops and can be updated with a “trendy” necklace or fresh, new top. And, it has pockets. Who doesn’t love pockets?

3. My shoes–most of the time, this is precisely where it goes all wrong for me. I see so many women in this city strolling the streets in heels. They seem to go for fashion over comfort, and most of them have tiny feet. My feet are ginormous, even by American standards. So even if I went for fashion in this department, I’d still not quite fit the bill (not to mention I can’t even buy shoes my size where I live). Since I walk at least 1.5 miles a day and climb at least 10 flights of stairs while carrying a baby, I mostly go for comfort. I do have a few pairs of cute shoes, and they help me feel dressed up from time to time.

4. My cardigan–a hand me down! Yes, I’m over thirty and still love hand me downs. Every summer my sisters clean out their closets, and I hit the jackpot! Teammates are great for this too. As humbling as it may be to admit it, hand me downs are a key to my wardrobe.

So, that’s where I’m at with this whole beauty thing. What about you? Where are you in the mess of being comfortable in your own skin even when your skin doesn’t fit the description of beauty in the culture you find yourself in? Do you embrace any sort of fashion while overseas, or did that, like the rest of your normal life get tossed out the window when you got here?

Photo Credit : Unsplash


  1. Annalisa October 19, 2014

    Every time I see a Guatemalan with [some attempt at] blonde hair, I can’t help but ache inside.  I know people have different views on this, but I think “Didn’t that person think they were beautiful just as God created them?  Why would they want to look like me?  Don’t they know that they are beautiful, unique, and special?”  (And, of course, I hope that the answer was that they just felt like trying it.)

    I hear you with the foot thing.  My fiance and I wear the same size shoes, and his are big even for a Guatemalan male.  As a female, well, my shoe size is a topic for frequent embarrassment; we’ve given up even asking if there is anything in my size in any store.  I’ve even stopped saying “Those are kind of cute.”  (I’m not a shopper.  I can’t spend money on something that I can’t even justify a reason for, but the fiance likes to buy stuff for me; so I’ve started pointing out stuff that I do like.  If he asks me if I would like this or that, I always say that it’s better to save the money for X.  Therefore, the “that is kind of cute” plan works for us.  Additionally, the vendors tend to overcharge us if they see me.  So, it’s better for him to go back later by himself.)  On the bright side, customs never asks if the shoes I’m bringing in are my own even if I’ve brought something for him.

    I second the thing about skirts.  I hate skirts just because they don’t have pockets.  So, I do have a skirt I use from time to time, but it has pockets.

    But mostly when in Rome (or Solola, Guatemala), I dress like the Romans.  And, yes, I feel comfortable like that.  Americans usually don’t believe it.  It’s a really long piece of fabric with a buckle-less belt wrapped around it (and not even tied!).  When you first start dressing that way, you alternate between the fear that the belt will loosen and the skirt (for lack of a better, non-culturally specific word) will fall and the fear that the belt is so tight that you will just never breathe again.  I sometimes wear their top, but often I opt for a t-shirt as it gives me more movement in the arms.  (I think my CG has already seen this photo, but the rest of you haven’t.  In the picture, I’m wearing the traditional top as well.)

    1. M'Lynn October 20, 2014

      Annalisa, Thanks for sharing your beautiful photo! I love it! I’m really wondering if I’d be able to get used to the “skirt” thing you’ve described. 🙂 So funny about foot size…I don’t even walk into stores in America and ask if they have my size!

      1. Annalisa October 20, 2014

        Oh, man.  That is a tough shoe size, then.  I [would] wear a 10.5, but they don’t make them.  (Or at least they didn’t used to.)  So, I have to opt for 11 or 10W in close-toed shoes, and 10s in sandals.  Fortunately, since arriving at my adult shoe size, they have increased the shoe options at size 11.  I used to walk into Payless or K-mart or anywhere, and there would literally be 2-4 pairs of shoes (tennis, running, dress, sandals, whatever) to choose from; no color options, no style options, and if the arch didn’t feel good, I had to choose between suffering and not having new shoes.

        I’m going to see if I can make an instructional video about how to put on the skirt thing and post it sometime this week.  After nearly 4 years of wearing it on a semi-regular basis, I don’t worry about it anymore, and it’s actually kind of fun.  (And it’s something I’d like to share with my sisters here.)

  2. Susan Gaines October 19, 2014

    M’Lynn, your article made me smile throughout the read.  As an outspoken American, your story made me feel like a real sweet heart.  You, however, are the real sweet heart.  How kind and gracious of you.  I’m afraid I would have burst out laughing heartily.  God must get a real kick out of some of our cultural peccadilloes.  It makes me happy for you that you’re able to smile about it.  Good girl!  I don’t have freckles but I love them when I see them.  Susan

    1. M'Lynn October 20, 2014

      Thanks, Susan! Your comment made me smile! There are some things culturally that are a lot harder for me to deal with at times (differences in parenting styles between me and locals in my host country for example), but I’m encouraged to keep attempting a good attitude. Thankfully, I do find a lot of the beauty blunder comments hilarious.

  3. Lindsey October 19, 2014

    YES. So I have only lived overseas for 5 months so I am still in the “looking like I’m on a permanent short-term trip” phase. My hair is always in a ponytail, no makeup, t-shirts and Chaco flip flops all the time. To be honest, it’s starting to get old. I would LOVE to have a reason to dress up nice now and then. But most days the only people I ever see are my baby, husband and language tutor. And it is SO flipping hot here that it is hard to care a lot!

    Weirdly enough, some of the things I’m very glad I brought over are my nice PJ’s. I got married only 2 1/2 years ago and got some very pretty lingerie at my showers. I only got to wear it for a few months before I was pregnant and too big to fit in it!  When we were packing up and I found all my fancy things it seemed silly to bring them to a third world country-but I was determined to wear them! So at least I feel pretty before I got to bed. 🙂 Hopefully that feeling will move over into my daytime look eventually!

    1. M'Lynn October 20, 2014

      Oh, Lindsey! You get me!

  4. Elizabeth S-G October 20, 2014

    Thank you for this. Any fashion- sense that I had got tossed out the window when I arrived here. Lately it is bothering me that this even bothers me! I wish I didn’t care about the outside so much, but I have always feared becoming a “dowdy” looking M. I guess I mostly fear looking like this in my home country when we go back to visit. My everyday outfit is a local wrap skirt, t-shirt, flip flops, hair up in a bun, and it is definitely practical and comfortable in the heat. I do have a few nice things that I save for trips to town, but they are so impractical to wear here where everything gets dirty and worn out quickly. And at this point, when the women who are living around me have so little that is so shabby I feel it wouldn’t be right for me to dress up more. Like Lindsay, though, I packed some fancy lingerie, and try to make sure that I go to bed looking nice – for myself and for my husband.

    And a mark of beauty in this culture…being fat…it means that you are well off and well fed. I’ve received this “compliment” a few times (although I am not anywhere near fat by N American standards) and have to work hard at reminding myself that it has been given as a compliment!

    1. M'Lynn December 2, 2014

      I have a panic attack every year as I stand over my suitcase packing for our summer in Texas. Then, I call my sister and ask her if I can just borrow her clothes! It’s sad that clothes I’ve brought here were nice and fresh not too long ago, but the washing machine and the general grime of being out and about in China catches up with them so fast! And, to make matters even more confusing, if I wear the same dress all summer like the locals here, I think people would really start to feel weird around me.

  5. Amy Young October 20, 2014

    M’Lynn love the shout out for messy middle living — especially when it comes to fashion. I’ve been asked if I ate to much beef as a child. It took me a moment to realize it was about my weight :). Apparently I didn’t eat enough fish as that would have made me quicker on my mental toes! For what it’s worth, I’ll take being unfashionable with the likes of you to being with those who are supposedly the peak of fashion but dull as dirt!

    1. M'Lynn December 2, 2014

      Amy! Just the other day, as I was scurrying through the market trying to find clothes to meet the requirements of a school function (plain sweater and dress pants…what?! they all have animals or Chinglish on them!!!) the market came alive down each aisle I walked. I was alone, so there were no children to hide behind. All the attention was directed at me. “She ate beef as a child! Look how tall she is!” I hear them say. LOL.

  6. Ashley Felder October 21, 2014

    It’s funny. I don’t care much about what I look like in China. My excuse being, “I’m sure someone else is wearing their pj’s to run to the store, so I’m good.” I mean, really. The fashion there is ALL over the place!

    What I was more worried about was coming back to the States for a semester (now) and being judged by all my friends for still wearing the same clothes when I left, 5 years ago. I mean, I’ve gotten a few pieces here and there, but overall, most of my wardrobe is at LEAST 5 years old (some from college days..10 years ago! eek!)

    But then I got here and looked around at the fashion. Leggings as pants? Weird, 80’s-cut shirts? Skinny jeans are the ONLY option? I quickly settled with the fact that I just won’t fit in. I’ll try not to look frumpy, but I just can’t wear things that either aren’t modest or I just can’t do (80’s!!) just to “fit in.”

    Well, and then I got pregnant, and my plans to update my wardrobe went out the window. So I guess I’ll add another few years to my wardrobe before I can replace some things!

    1. M'Lynn December 2, 2014

      Ashley, I feel ya on that whole “my wardrobe is 5 years old” thing. The “pregnant” season of life can be a bummer on the wardrobe because the ever-changing sizes required for the whole season is baffling, much less trying to stay up with trends. What about just finding pants that just plain stay up?!

  7. Shelly October 22, 2014

    Beauty in our host cultures changes. When I was in China in the early 90’s I heard more times than I liked that I had a big nose. Granted, that might have been a local phrase for all foreigners whose noses have higher bridges than Asians, but I really do have a long nose. And in middle/high school it did bother me.

    Ten years later, back in China, I actually had a woman ask if she could take my picture because she thought my nose was beautiful. Well, I had NEVER heard that before!  I can’t change my nose anymore than you, M’Lynn, can change your freckles, so I have accepted the fact that in the host country, I might get some “big nose” comments.

    As for fashion, I remember visiting Guangzhou in January 1993 and feeling completely frumpy. I was wearing every layer of clothing I owned for this go-as-cheap-as-you-can trip to what I thought would be a warmer place because it was south of where I was living. It wasn’t. The women on the street wore heels, stylish skirts and coats. In my “home” city, I was doing okay, but in the big city, I was clearly unfashionable.

    Now I am in the US for a stretch, and I find myself evaluating what I packed from China. Just the other day I was  thinking that I need to do something with my wardrobe of long-sleeved T-shirts, fleece jackets and cardigans. So I started looking at skirts, trying to find something cute, comfortable and versatile. How cool would it be to get a pair of tall boots to go with that cute skirt?  But that all takes money.  How often would I wear said boots once the snow flies and the skirt might not be warm enough? Fashion boots aren’t that warm. Hm? Well, I talked myself out of the boots, and I haven’t found that cute skirt.  But I did remember a book Amy Young read and wrote about (Jen Hatmaker’s “7”), and told myself that I didn’t need more, I just needed to learn how to vary what I have and not try to be like my neighbors.

    I think the basic T’s and cardigans will do just fine when I carry myself as a woman who believes herself to be beautiful.

    1. M'Lynn December 2, 2014

      Responding to comments…I’m taking the “better late than never” approach. haha. I read this a while back and I’ve been wanting to agree with you on the winter thing. Winter comes and all fashion goes out the window for me. It’s just about staying warm now! (except a cute scarf or hat might help me not to feel like such a frump). I’ve thought about reading the “7” book, but I’m honestly a little afraid of it!

  8. Cecily Willard October 26, 2014

    Got the big feet thing going on. (Can I just say that I HATE shoe shopping?!)  I am all about comfort.

    I do gasp at some of the women’s shoes I see walking around town!  And how the women stay upright when they walk on the uneven, cracked sidewalks–that is a wonder!

    1. M'Lynn December 2, 2014

      Cecily, shoe shopping is for the birds. Maybe it’s better that I can’t buy shoes here because there’s an entire market devoted to shoes and they’re all so pretty. I have no idea how the locals here can wear the shoes they wear. It really is quite amazing.

  9. Kelly Marie November 16, 2014

    Oh I loved this post! I’ve been living in Tanzania, east africa for just over a year now and yet can relate to so much of this. Firstly, light skin is also hugely prized here. So as a white woman, specifically of the plumper variety, I’ve never received so much attention as I do here. Sometimes it’s flat out hilarious. Of course, to a degree, it also goes hand in hand with the assumption that “white = wealth” and so I’ve received my fair share of on the spot marriage proposals.

    But I also totally related to your “phases of fashion”. I think everyone lands in the “backpacker” category for awhile while you figure out what works. Though I have yet to give up my chacos, they are just the most practical for life here. Hah. Skirts without pockets are also a downer (though I’ve gone and put at least one pocket into most of my skirts that were without…)

    Here in Tanzania many people have their clothes custom made by a local tailor (which seem to be on every corner) with bright patterned fabric called kitenge. Either that or there are these pre-made dresses (which are basically moo-moos) that are also bright and patterned. Though a total no-no in American culture I now own 4 of these pre made dresses and they are SO comfortable, and as long as I belt it at the high waist, they don’t look so blob shaped 🙂

    Sorry this was so long but I just related to this post so much!

    1. M'Lynn December 2, 2014

      Kelly, Glad to read your comment. It’s just been sitting there in my email “to-do” pile that I’ve been ignoring as I go “to-do” something else. lol. The moo moos sound awesome. Thanks for sharing some of the flare of your local life with us!

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