Holiday Identities: time to experiment!

It’s guest post time on Mrs Bossa Does the Do, as part of the Feminist Fashion Bloggers network. This excellent post is written by Millie of Interrobangs Anonymous – head over there to read my post. And remember to visit the FFB blog to read the posts by my fellow fashionable feministas!

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So Mrs. Bossa and I are both writing about holiday identities, using this paper called “It’s like Planet Holiday: Women’s Dressed Self-presentation on Holiday” as a starting point.  There’s a lot of ground covered in the paper, and there’s a lot of directions I could take a discussion of it.  But one of the most persistent sentiments underpinning the interviewed women’s experiences was the erasure or absolution of guilt associated with constructing a holiday identity.

I could definitely go for some beach time right about now.

It’s not surprising to me that the various interviewed women all described constructing a modified, often bolder and less restrained, identity for use while they’re on holiday; I often find myself doing the same thing when I’m, say, in an unusual city where I don’t expect to meet anyone I pass on the street again.  I’m less concerned about how I appear, because I am confident that anyone’s judgment or opinion of me is fleeting and won’t follow me home.  Holidaying offers this same anonymity:  the vacationer will not see the vast majority of the people she (here, all the interviewees were women) again, and so any impression they have for her will not impact her significantly beyond her holiday.  I am surprised at how freeing women found building this identity (and the wardrobe used to communicate it), and how unencumbered they felt doing all the prep work for it.

These women recount putting a lot of effort into their holiday images:  they carefully build a day and night wardrobe by shopping and borrowing, they go tanning, they try to lose weight, they shave or wax, get their hair and sometimes nails done… and throughout the article there’s no indication that they feel resentful about this work.  It’s framed as a luxury or a treat much moreso than it is an obligation, even though many of the women say this work is to a large degree necessary for them to fully enjoy their holiday.  Contrast that with the everyday up-keep work that many women do:  much of that same work that in the context of a holiday is freeing and enjoyable becomes tiresome and irritating in an everyday context.  There’s no guilt attached to any of it either — no guilt about taking time to do this prep work, or spending money on it.  As someone who feels vaguely embarrassed about spending time fiddling with her hair, or applying makeup, or much of any feminine-coded bodily upkeep, having a context to justify my work helps me feel less embarrassed about doing it.

At the same time, though, the emphasis on prep work is foreign to me.  I’ve never gone on a formal beach-y holiday, but I can’t envision myself spending much money on creating a new, temporary identity.  I understand wanting to use the opportunity of being away from your usual social environment to explore and experiment away from judgment or social memory, but things like spending time go tanning in preparation for going to a beach and getting your hair coloured (when it’ll get bleached by the sun and salt) seem like futile endeavours — the end result will be eroded by the fact that you’re out in the sun all day.  Buying clothes for a trip, with no lasting intention to wear them afterwards, seems wasteful;  I’m more likely to work what I’ve got in different ways, or borrow, or maybe buy one or two things cheaply to test the waters.  I understand better the women interviewed who went on holiday in preparation for a revamping of their wardrobes/identities — the holiday served as a testing ground in a very tangible sense, and the constructed identity was extended almost completely into their everyday lives.  Maybe the other women took pieces of their constructed identity back into their everyday lives afterward too, but I didn’t see anything in the paper about that so I can’t say one way or another.

Now why can I never find something along this line in a brick-and-mortar store? Bathing suits are not something you can reliably judge how it'll fit and look on you just by a picture.


I was surprised that the article didn’t talk more about bathing suit shopping, since that’s socially constructed to be a Big Deal.  Bathing suits are a pivotal piece of clothing around which beach attire (and thus identity) is centred, and yet these women mention it in passing but don’t dwell on it or talk about any extra stresses they had finding a bathing suit that fit and made them feel good.  As someone who struggles to find a bathing suit that fits, let along one that makes me feel good, I’m pleasantly surprised at this.  This complete lack of self-deprecating talk and internal body-shame was heartening, because that’s not what we as a society tend to see in either popular culture or our own lives (or at least my life).  We get bombarded with the message that we’re inadequate, that our bodies are insufficiently sexy to be scantily clothed in public, and that we should be ashamed that we don’t live up to this unattainable ideal.  The twenty or so women in this study didn’t buy into that, or if they did, they didn’t talk about it to the researchers, or the researchers didn’t talk about it in the paper.

And that’s really the point I took from this — these women took a potential minefield of body negativity and talked about it in very positive ways.  They saw their holidays as transformative, and the work they put into their holidays as relaxing and fun rather than compulsory (even though they often said that the holiday wasn’t worth having without having done all that work).

So, what’s your take on this?  How do you prepare for a holiday, and do you feel free to play with your wardrobe while you’re there?  If you do, does that translate into your everyday life when you return?


11 thoughts on “Holiday Identities: time to experiment!

  1. What a fascinating concept. I had absolutely no idea that some women created a different identity when they were on holiday but I suppose it would explain the reasoning behind why so many females spend a fortune on a new wardrobe and stress about their bodies. Maybe the same would apply to festivals as so many women’s magazines include a themed fashion supplement in the build up to the great British festival season.
    I wear exactly the same clothes when I’m at home or travelling. My wardrobe reflects my personality and I’ve no reason to change it to suit my environment. xxx

  2. This is really fascinating. I too have never thought of “reinventing myself” for a holiday – though I have never gone on a beach holiday either. I can understand buying trip-specific clothes if you’re going on a hiking or a climbing trip, but buying vacation-specific clothes – especially when we spend so much money while on holiday – does seem wasteful indeed. I also noticed the highly gendered language of the article and wonder what kind of attitude the men have about their upcoming holidays.

    • Yeah, buying some trip specific practical gear/clothes for a hiking trip (or something similar) makes perfect sense to me. The article talked only about women, so anything I’d say about men on holiday would be pure speculation (though I suspect that while they may do something similar to women, there’s an awful lot less prep work and less if any buying of new things).

  3. I don’t actually think its the bathing suit that’s pivotal. I think its everything behind the bathing suit which constructs the identity. E.g. someone without sarong = extrovert/body confident/doesn’t care. Someone in bright kimono = extrovert but not body confident. Someone in shorts = doesn’t like their legs but likes their boobs etc… although these are just my own ideas and might not necessarily be applied to other people, I’m sure there’s a connection between how people choose to, or not to, cover up their bathing suit and their identity. Great post! x

  4. There is something really liberating about being in a place where no one knows me (except the person with who I am traveling). Fewer expectations and fewer closet options mean that I am simultaneously less and more confined, if that makes sense. I don’t have to feel like I am dressing my usual “part” because I won’t see anyone who usually sees me but I have such a smaller range of options because I tend to try to pack lightly.

    One of my favorite things about traveling to Brazil last December was how completely body unconscious people were on the beaches. Granted, my boyshort bottoms had more coverage than most of the men’s trunks, but I found it really refreshing to see women of all ages and shapes and sizes wearing the tiniest of bikini styles without reservation. I wonder on some level if this is merely a product of availability? If swimsuit retailers there only sell tiny suits, then everyone has to wear them by default. But those typical anxieties about how my body looked on the beach (the feelings that I try to fight because they run so contrary to my feminist beliefs) were a little less intense as a result. I felt comfortable because 1. no one knew me and 2. everyone there wore tiny bikinis, making my less tiny but still bikini style seem modest.

    I obviously cannot speak for the women who live in Brazil (a culture where I have read that plastic surgery and plastic surgery tourism are more common and less costly than in the US, and gender roles/expectations for conventional femininity remain relatively rigid in part because of ongoing influences of the Catholic faith and the prevailing standards of beauty tied). But for me it felt really powerful to walk around the beach without a coverup and without the same anxieties about body judgments.

  5. I think that’s what intrigued me most about this article, the freedom from judgement, whether in swimwear or not. It must be the only sphere where society permits us to be less conscious of what we look like…after we’ve invested considerable time and money cultivating that carefree attitude.

  6. I only tend to buy lots for my holiday as I like ’em hot and rural, and live in a cool (weather- actually geeky suburban) city.

    But then again I am always one of those people who pushes the edge of the work dresscode, maybe I’m living my style holiday every day?

    I don’t tan before a holiday…how else will people know the difference after! 😉

  7. This is really interesting… I hadn’t considered before the amount to which pre-holiday consumption could be tied to the freedom to generate a new image while on holiday. I’ve definitely experienced the freedom of being someplace where you are completely unknown, and the ability that gives you to create and play with a new persona. (see: my freshman year of college) I haven’t so much done this on vacation trips, though…perhaps if I were to do more traveling alone?

    I was about to add something about how my packing for trips usually involves taking my standby pieces that I know will be appropriate, look good on me, and fit in small amounts of space…and then I remembered that basically all the traveling I’ve done recently is for work. Totally different set of needs!

  8. This is very interesting – and timely (as I’m about to take a little trip). I’ve never thought to reinvent myself for a trip or create a holiday persona. But razors and a mani-pedi are on my to-do list (literally – I just wrote them down this evening).

    I do find it fun to adopt a few local fashions when I’m in a new place. During my time in New Orleans I wore a costume; when I when horseback riding in Eastern Washington I wore a cowboy hat. I’d never normally be seen in a cowboy hat, but when in Rome…

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