Returning from Study Abroad: Losing and Rediscovering my Self Confidence

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The saying “I left my heart in x location” gets tossed around so frequently that it’s become a cliché, but after returning from my semester of study abroad in Florence, Italy, I genuinely felt as if I had left some part of myself there and I was left feeling like I had reverted back to the version of myself I had been before my semester abroad, filled with self-doubt and hindered by my fears. I had been so happy to discover myself opening up in Florence, leaving my inhibitions behind and becoming a much more outgoing and confident person. I remember thinking that when I got back home, I would be able to do so much more, things I would have never considered doing before because they seemed too scary and I didn’t believe I could do them, but in Italy, I no longer felt those fears, or at least believed in myself enough to face them. When I first arrived home, I felt confident that I could retain these skills I had fostered while abroad, but after a few weeks at home, I realized I no longer felt the same. It was as if the confident and independent version of myself could only exist abroad and I had left her there when I flew back to the U.S. I went to apply for summer jobs and felt very unsure of myself. I got a job at a boutique, but I felt intimidated by the customers and my fellow employees (some of whom were three years younger than me). I acted meek and insecure. I could sense myself acting that way and I hated it, but I also didn’t know how to change it, how to rediscover the boldness I had felt abroad.

I went through a period of feeling a deep loss, for my time in Florence and the person I was there and the way I had felt. I cried frequently and felt lethargic. It was heartbreaking to think that all that I had gained in Italy, I had lost so quickly. However, things started looking better towards the end of the summer. I had a conversation with a close friend who had also been abroad and was also feeling down and missing study abroad. I told her about my feelings of loss of confidence and her response was so thoughtful and comforting. She said that I might not be feeling as confident now, but I knew I had it in me because I did have it in Italy. I can be that person again, I just needed to work on redeveloping it, but it would probably be easier this time since I’ve done it before. I frequently reminded myself of her words when I needed reassurance. And the exciting thing was, I did feel myself regaining the confidence. By the end of my summer job, I trained a new employee, who was much older than me and I found myself able to talk to her comfortably. I was also talking to customers and other people in my life with more self assurance. I was excited to go back to my college and take on my senior year.

However, when I arrived back at school, I struggled to express that confidence because people there only knew me as I was before going abroad. I found myself falling into my old habits of insecurity because I knew that was what they expected of me. It was only around my close friends that I could be as uninhibited and confident as I was abroad. I rebelled as much as I could against reverting back to how I was before studying abroad, because I could now see how much that former version of me had limited myself. It felt like I had so many more friends in my study abroad program than at my home campus, where my social anxiety had held me back from connecting with more than a handful of people and had limited me from maintaining some of the connections I had formed. However, my close friends reassured me that I seemed more confident than I had been before study abroad. This was very comforting to hear because it was hard for me to tell how I seemed from the outside. After hearing this from my friends and continually reminding myself that if I can be myself candidly and openly, people tend to like me, I was quickly able to begin feeling like I was connecting with more people, even reconnecting with people I had known freshman year, but hadn’t stayed friends with. I began sharing my experiences and personal thoughts with my friends and sometimes even with people I didn’t know that well, something I never would have done before my semester abroad. I felt myself being more open with others, something I had learned to do in Italy, and like in my study abroad program, people seemed to respond well to my openness, candidness, and honesty. In the past, I had always been so shy, scared to let my personality out for fear of what it might reveal and what others might think, but in Florence, I had discovered that people tend to like me for the person I am. When I let myself relax around people and be myself, people respond much better to that than when I hide who I am. In the past, I had struggled with even knowing who I was, but in becoming more social, I learned so much about who I was at the same time as I was becoming that person. I guess the personality was always in me, but I never allowed others to see it, and in doing that, I prevented myself from really understanding who I was either.

Because humans are social beings, I think our identity is determined partly in how we interact with others and how they perceive us. I learned a lot about myself from how my friends in my study abroad program thought of me, and they seemed to tend think much more highly of me than I did. This new self understanding brought me so much more confidence than I had ever had before. I found that even people at my school seemed to respond well to my openness and seemed to fairly quickly accept my more friendly nature, despite the fact that it might not be what they expected from me based on how they had thought of me before I went abroad. Once I felt freed in this way, I began to feel happier because I felt better about myself. Every little interaction I had with someone, that may have been a tiny bit scary for me, brought me so much joy. I would walk away from these interactions feeling much more buoyant because I felt like I did in Italy, assured that the socially confident part of me was still there and filled with the happiness that connection with others brings.

I’m so fortunate that something as simple as believing in myself, which I have control over is really all it takes to completely transform the way I am for the better, and to relieve myself of the handicap I’ve placed on myself all my life. The experience of coming back after a semester abroad and learning how to readjust may have been just as valuable to my personal development and self understanding as the experience of studying abroad itself.

Women and Consumerist Culture

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cardboard mascara I made in a workshop with artist Bill Barminski to comment on consumerist culture

As I transitioned from girlhood into womanhood, society barraged me with messages that shopping (read: consumerism) should become a major aspect of my life. This phenomenon is grounded in America’s history and capitalist economy. At the start of the 20th century in the U.S., consumerism was booming and department stores were developing. Department stores were sometimes referred to as ‘Adamless Edens,’ [1] suggesting that they were spaces for women to spend money that their husbands had made and the idea of shopping as a pastime was emerging. This ideology of man as doer and maker and women as spender and consumer unfortunately persists to some degree today. Shopping is a stereotypical favorite activity of teenage girls and women and it becomes an important aspect of many women’s lives, but I think it is important that we continue to push back against this notion and continue to prove that women can make and do just as well as men and we will not be tricked by the notion that our talents lie in shopping and consuming.

During high school, as much as I hate to admit it, I became a ‘product junkie,’ a horrible phrase likening consumerism to a drug addiction. But there is some truth to the comparison. Like drugs take control of one’s mind and body, our consumerist society can take control of us. In a capitalist economy, the functioning of daily society relies on consumerism. As women have been designated to the main role of consumer, this expectation of consumption falls on women. However, we are encouraged to consume far more than is necessary for our daily lives and for the functioning of our economy. This culture of encouraged consumption primarily preys on the insecurities of the female half of the population, first creating the insecurities (making us think our appearances are of utmost importance and that they’re not good enough as they are) and then offering a remedy to these insecurities. But of course, these products we consume don’t really fix the problems. The insecurities are like a wound that society (largely marketing industries) inflict and the products they offer for our consumption are only a band-aid that temporarily mask the problem rather than healing it.

Teenage girls and young women are especially prone to these inflictions of insecurities as they go through rapid changes both physically, emotionally, and socially as they discover who they are. In high school, I became obsessed with makeup and clothing. I felt that consuming these products (and the right ones) would help make more people like me and would make me happier. I knew that if I could become a more confident person and loved myself more that would be even better, but making myself happier with my appearance was an easier and faster remedy. Of course, these are the messages that society and ad agencies had brainwashed me with. I felt better about how I looked when I started wearing makeup in my freshman year of high school, but I still had insecurities and makeup quickly became more than just a small step in my morning routine. I became seduced by buying new products and growing my makeup collection. I loved going to the store with my friends and picking out new products that I had spent time researching in YouTube reviews and blog posts. I felt like I was spending my money wisely because I had done my research, but I didn’t think about the fact that I was buying far more products than I needed and only because watching these YouTube videos and reading these blogs was telling me I should consume more and more.

Of course, not only can this avid consumerism have detrimental effects to us personally, but the consumption also contributes to problems concerning the environment. To continually consume the earth’s resources puts strains on our environment. Our economy often does not seem concerned with the consequences it has on our environment, but this a very pressing problem.

When I started college, my dad gave me a wise piece of advice. He told me to spend my money on experiences, not things. No matter the cost, experiences will enrich your life so much more than buying products can. This is a philosophy that I fully embraced during my semester of study abroad. I hardly did any shopping except to get a few souvenirs from the places I visited. I spent my money instead on the experiences of traveling around Europe, visiting museums and other sites, and eating delicious meals with friends. Spending on these experiences instead of things helped me get the most out of my time abroad, have more adventures that helped shape who I am, and more stories to share with others. Now that I’m back in the U.S., I try to continue some of these habits I has abroad, of consuming less and doing more.

Our consumerist society assaults us with messages telling us our life will be better if we purchase more products, it can take first the awareness of the manipulative nature of these messages, and then some will power  to turn away from them and instead work to find happiness and self-love from more intangible sources. I can still enjoy buying new things from time to time, but the enjoyment will be much greater and feel like more of a treat than a necessity if I purchase new things less often and don’t purchase things because of an insecurity I want to remedy.

[1] Pohl, Framing America, 331

Navigating the Cosmetic Aisles

P1010548When I shop for beauty products, whether at a drugstore, a speciality store, or a department store, I often find myself feeling like my eyes can’t focus on any one thing. I feel overwhelmed and overstimulated by the sheer number of products lining the shelves and all the flashy packaging designed to catch my attention. There are also so many lofty claims written on products, but it’s no secret that those hold little weight. There’s minimal regulation on what companies can say about their products. One could easily go to a store looking for a moisturizer for dry skin and pick up a product that claims to be that, but there’s a high chance that that product won’t be as hydrating as it claims and might even contain ingredients that could irritate the skin or block pores.

Since I knew I couldn’t trust company claims, I used to rely on looking up online reviews to help me decide on what products to buy, but even customer reviews can only be so useful because everyone’s skin is so different. I once purchased a moisturizer that had a lot of really positive reviews on Sephora’s wesbite, but after I started using it, while it did moisturize my skin, I started breaking out too. After doing some research, I discovered it contained quite a few comedogenic ingredients (meaning they can block pores). I seemed to be more sensitive to those ingredients and their comedogenic nature than many other reviewers.

I eventually discovered Paula’s Choice, a website that offers reviews on many of the cosmetic products on the market that are based on scientific research on a chemical level. So far, it’s is the best resource I’ve come across to find good beauty products that you can trust will work and won’t irritate or harm your skin. Paula’s Choice also makes their own products, but it still offers unbiased reviews of many other brands. While they will recommend their own products, they also recommend so many other brands’ products. I’ve been able to find many products that have worked really well for me, using their beautypedia site. You can search for specific products and see how they’re rated or search for products under categories to find the best one to fit your concerns. Because the cosmetic industry is so unregulated and companies can get by using fictitious claims and even harmful ingredients, it’s important to look to external sources for scientific, unbiased reviews.

What I Learned about Myself Abroad

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At Westminster Abbey during a weekend trip to London

One year ago today, I began the most exciting and terrifying experience of my life, flying to Florence, Italy to study abroad. The fear and nerves I experienced were mostly just when I was getting ready to go, because once I was in Florence, my three and a half months there turned out to be the most exhilarating and transformative time in my life thus far. In honor of the one year anniversary of the start of that journey, I’m reflecting on some of the things I learned about myself, which being so far outside of my comfort zone helped me discover. Here’s a list of some of those things, from the trivial to the life changing.

My Italian heritage is more evident in my appearance than I thought. I’m 3/8 Italian from my Dad’s side but even though people tell me I look like him, I never thought I looked Italian. I didn’t think anyone in Italy would mistake me for a local because I have my mom’s blonde hair and fair skin and I’m pretty obviously American. But there were a few times when Italians came up to me to ask for directions around Florence, speaking Italian. I’m pretty bad at giving directions even in English, so I usually wasn’t very helpful but I was so flattered to be mistaken for a local or at least someone who seemed like she knew her way around. Another time, I was speaking with a shop owner who asked me where I was from. I told him I’m American, and he asked “but is your dad Italian?” It was especially surprising that he even correctly guessed which side of my family is Italian.

I use facial expressions to communicate a lot. I never realized this before my friends in my study abroad program told me. When I was younger, people used to tell me I had a poker face or was hard to read (sometimes I still get told that), but I guess I’ve lost most of my subtlety. My friends started commenting on the facial expressions I made when I was completely unaware of making them. It was when I was most relaxed and comfortable around the people I was with that this happened. It makes sense that I use my face to communicate a lot because I often find talking difficult. I found it really helpful to use my facial expressions when speaking Italian since I was never sure if I was saying things in the right way, but my face could help show more of the intricacies of what I was trying to communicate. Sometimes I could rely on facial expressions alone to convey what I couldn’t figure out how to say with words. Gaining self-esteem allowed me to express my inner feelings that I would normally keep hidden.

I enjoy visiting art museums alone (and preferably when there are few people there, although that rarely happened). I like going at my own pace. Sometimes when I felt a bit homesick or lonely, I found comfort in seeing art that was familiar to me from my studies of Art History.

People tend to like me, especially when I allow myself to open myself up more to them. I’ve always had very low self esteem and tend to assume that people won’t like me.  Usually I’m very reserved when I first meet people and I don’t reveal much of my personality until I know them really well. When I did show more of my personality when I first was getting to know people, they tended to respond well to that and some became good friends. I’m not as horrible at conversations with people I’ve just met as I’ve always thought, as long as I trust myself.

Feeling comfortable talking to people I’ve just met is one thing, but it doesn’t mean I’m good at public speaking. I had a lot more oral presentations during my program than I’m used to and I struggled with them. Every time I went to present, I became incredibly nervous and felt like my brain switched off. That’s still a work in progress, but I did discover that when I put less pressure on myself to do well and didn’t spend quite as much time obsessively preparing for the presentation, I usually felt a little less nervous and  did better. I tend to get much more anxious about things than is necessary and it ends up hindering me more than anything else.

-Overall, I came to understand that I’m a much better person than I’ve ever allowed myself to believe. I’ve spent my whole life with a very low self-image and it’s been incredibly damaging to myself and what I’ve been able to accomplish. When I was abroad, I finally began to trust myself and allowed myself to open up to others, and in doing so, I found that other people tend to think I’m a good person. My self-esteem was so low that it took me finally trusting people’s positive opinions of me to finally believe it myself.

 

 

Introduction: sì // see // c

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sì:  The Italian word for yes. When read aloud, the blog name sounds like saying yes, yes, yes in Italian. I studied in Florence for a semester and the experience helped me develop the confidence to be able to say yes to so much more, including deciding to start this blog.

see: This blog is about not just looking, but also seeing. I love reading beauty and lifestyle blogs, and I’m very drawn to visually pleasing things, but I want to also explore deeper issues behind the way things look and seem. As an Art History major I have a lot of practice in looking at artistic mediums not just as beautiful images, but seeking to understand the social and historical significances they contain and insights they raise. I will share thoughts on topics I’m interested in such as art, design, personal style, skincare and makeup, and other forms of visual culture. But I will also seek to delve below the surface of these seemingly superficial topics and approach them with a critical eye. I will attempt to develop a socially conscious understanding of these topics, but while still having fun with them. I believe that if we can think critically about topics we enjoy we can come to a deeper level of appreciation, one that is thoughtful and informed.

C: The first letter of my name. As an extreme introvert, I have struggled to come out of my shell and learn to take pride in myself and believe I have something to offer others. This blog will be a collection of my reflections on my journey to recover from shyness into a more confident and empowered woman, and reveal my inner experiences with shyness.