Learning to Dance Like Nobody’s Watching

cat phase
Said cat phase lasted for many years.

Toward the end of sixth grade I transitioned from my cat phase and stumbled awkwardly into adolescence. I started to care what I looked like, and spent too long in front of the mirror shellacking down every last strand of frizz.

Frizz maintenance required constant trips to the bathroom, including an obligatory stop right after lunch. It was there, in the girls bathroom next to the Craig Middle School cafeteria, that I got my first fashion tip.

I was leaning over the sink, wetting down the stray hairs of my tight ponytail, making small talk with a couple of girls I sort-of knew. I don’t know what we talked about – teachers, the upcoming mixer, homework – but I do know that I was already learning about the confessional power of the female bathroom. Even in my shy, self-conscious years, talking to other girls in the confines of a bathroom was oddly easier than doing it in the wide world.

As I was leaving, one of the girls stopped me.

“Lauren,” she said. “Before you go, just…lift your arms. Like this.”

What? Did I have pit stains? Did I smell? This was atrocious.


“Your shirt. Just lift your arms.”

I did as she suggested, and she swept in and loosened my tightly-tucked shirt. My habit then was to tuck in my t-shirts all the way, without blousing them out even a centimeter. The result was that the graphics were often hidden below the waist of my jeans, the collar stretched down ever so slightly, straining against the tuck.

When my bathroom friend loosened the waist of my Banana Republic pocket tee, the full logo of a lizard crouched on a world map was revealed on the back side.

“There,” she said, visibly relieved. “That’s better. You look more relaxed.”

It was then that I realized there was a right way and a wrong way to wear a t-shirt. Which, of course, probably meant that there was a right and a wrong way to do my hair, or dress at a football game, or generally fit into the crowd. I collected more pairs of Birkenstocks than a middle-aged hippie, plus a pair of Vans, Adidas Gazelles, and Doc Martens. I got a job at the Gap. I paid attention to appearances.

As I got older my ponytail loosened (thank christ), but I continued to be conscious of how I looked and what other people thought of me. That didn’t stop me from rolling out of bed and attending college classes in my pajamas, but it did necessitate plenty of trips to Pitaya and Urban Outfitters to top up my weekend wardrobe. There were regular appointments to get my hair cut and eyebrows waxed, as well as – and I shudder to think of it – sessions on the tanning bed and calorie counting.

And then I started traveling.

Note my t-shirt: The cat phase never really went away, it was just dormant for a few years.

It took a few years, so I really can’t be sure whether it was travel that changed me or just the sheer fact of getting older and growing into myself, but things definitely changed. Six weeks between haircuts turned into six months and I barely noticed. What I was wearing became less important than the places I visited, the people I met, and the things I learned. I became a person who finally understood that the image we project should not get in the way of who we really are.

An article in today’s Sydney Morning Herald contained the following quote:

“I don’t live. I picture other people watching me live, and then I pose.” ~Alec Sulkin

I’m not going to pretend I don’t like to shop and dress up. I still have an inconvenient knack for zeroing in on the most expensive item on a shelf – you could put three pairs of identical, unlabeled flip-flops in front of me and I’d choose the more expensive Havianas every time.

But I used to pose. Even in my first couple of years traveling in Ireland and London, I did certain things based on how I thought people would react when I told them about it.

  • I bought MAC makeup in New Zealand because I thought it was trendy.
  • I wanted to run with the bulls mainly because I thought it would impress people back home. (I didn’t run.)
  • I thought I had to check things off of a travel list because that was the done thing.

As I threw myself into travel, the expectations and concerns about what people might think sloughed away. Not completely – it’s hard to shake – but I grew comfortable in my own skin. I think we’ve all heard the quote that begins, “You’ve got to dance like nobody’s watching.”

I still haven’t mastered that. The only time I can dance like nobody’s watching is – well, when nobody’s watching. But since I started traveling, I started to get the truth behind that statement. The point isn’t to conform and play the game. It’s to get a little bit wild. Quit posing and let the frizz show.

But first, raise your arms. Wiggle around a bit and loosen up your t-shirt.

Now you’re ready.

That's how I roll
It’s Jared’s t-shirt, but seems appropriate.

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  1. I remember your tanning obsession well. I was probably like 10 (you were 15) and I remember distinctly trying to make you get in the pool and swim with me, but you wouldn’t because it was the precious tanning time between 10-2. I remember thinking, ‘Man, what happened to her?’

    Flash forward 5 years and there I was, slapping on baby oil, baking in the sun, only I didn’t have a suspicious younger sister questioning my budding lame-ness.

    1. This memory makes me wish I could time travel, put on SPF 50, and get in the pool with you. I feel like I set a poor example as an older sister. Ugh, my teenage years wasted on sun worshipping and eating processed food.

  2. Do you think that maybe people who travel are less conscious about fashion because we can’t afford it – and if we travellers stick together, it’s not so noticeable that we don’t have the latest trends? I certainly had no style for the 7 months I was in S America. Life’s easier that way though!

    1. Oh that’s one reason for sure. Given the choice between a new dress and food/beers for 2 weeks, I think I know where my priorities lie! I think it’s also why my fashion sense has sort of shifted in keeping to what’s around me. Sometimes I pull out items of clothing that I thought were amazing when I bought them for $1 in India or Cambodia, but in the context of Australia don’t look quite so amazing. I totally still wear them though.

  3. I remember when I was overseas having the awareness that I couldn’t judge people based on their clothes, even if I tried. What mean is, at home, I knew what was trendy and it was easy to see who was in style and who wasn’t. But overseas, from culture to culture, what’s popular changes so much that what I thought was so 80s or really unflattering was actually the latest trend in (insert random country). I could no longer look at a group of peers and make a guess at how popular or trendy they were, I had nothing to go on except my own limited biases from the states. I remember thinking that you truly can’t judge a book by its cover, even if u wanted to, so for me, it allowed me to be less conscious of my own lack of variety in my wardrobe and that has definitely transcended to my non- traveling life as well…sometimes I fear a little too much, but I suppose I can’t have it both ways. 🙂

    1. Right? I still look around here and can’t work out the Aussie fashion trends. And I realized last time I was in Indy that I still have the same style I had in high school, despite not trying to. Still buy jeans from The Buckle. Still find myself going into American Eagle, even though it is way, way too young for me now. Also, after weeks/months of wearing the same thing while traveling and getting used to others doing the same, I find it really intimidating to walk into a clothing shop and attempt to buy things. This is probably why I continue to buy things on seasonal clearance online and have my mom ship it to me just in time for the appropriate southern hemisphere season. Everybody wins.

  4. And if you’ve ever watched someone ACTUALLY dancing as though no one is watching, despite being on a packed dance floor with legions of witnesses, it is a thing of inspirational beauty. Kind of. A willingness to look silly is practically a work of art in itself.

    1. Your comment makes me want to be that person. It is kind of the last frontier of true not-giving-a-crap about what other people think and owning your awkwardness, isn’t it?

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