It seems obvious that self-image (how we perceive our personality, worth, and attractiveness to the outside world) is eternally tied to our literal self-image (how we appear in photos, mirrors, etc.). I was pondering self-image during our 14-day trek through the Annapurna region of the Himalayas. On day six, we passed through a small village nestled among rice paddies and overlooking rolling mountains that locals call hills, and Himalayas that we can’t find words for. It was on this day that we happened upon a mirror and realized it was our first time seeing ourselves in a week. I noticed this lack of mirrors was common throughout Nepal. At home in the U.S., we see ourselves in our bedroom mirror when we wake up, in our bathroom mirror while we brush our teeth, and in our phone cameras throughout the day. We are bombarded with images that shape our sense of self. Trekking along a small river with the roar of insects in my ears, I posed a question to one of my groupmates: do Westerners have so many ways to view ourselves because we are so self-centered, or are we so self-centered because we have so many ways to view ourselves? While both are true in part, we decided that obsessively looking into mirrors and pointing cameras at ourselves is a manifestation of a larger problem: an individualistic society too focused on physical beauty for personal happiness. This in no way describes all of Western culture but it’s important to recognize that our surroundings and daily practices mean more than we often realize. When we spend so much time focusing on our outward appearance, we forget to reflect inward.
During the ten days in our rural homestay and 14 days on trek, I saw myself in a mirror at most once a week, and I was absolutely the better for it. For almost three glorious weeks my self-worth and confidence were almost completely uncoupled from my physical appearance. I saw less of a boundary between myself and others. I focused my energy on emotional and mental goals rather than circular questions of self-worth. When I returned to the city and regularly saw myself in the mirror, the physical delineation between self and surroundings came crashing down. I felt more alone and with more of a spotlight on myself. But my mirror is not the same mirror as those used by the people of Nepal.
I use literal mirrors to see myself mostly as I am. For many Nepali people, Western television, music, and ads now function as a mirror to reflect who they should be. This reflection of Western “perfection” is impossible to replicate. And yet hundreds of millions of people worldwide stand in front of this distorted mirror and cut, scrub, and rub away their traditions, forever working on an impossible task: making themselves look like the figure in the mirror that is Western culture. And these alterations translate to the slow but consistent degradation of culture. Handmade creams are eclipsed by caustic creams. Delicious tough bread rolls are exchanged for weightless airy white bread. The lilt of a Nepali conversation is substituted for the consonants of a foreign tongue. And the fierce pride of a people is replaced by the frustrated longing for another.
The realization we must all come to see is that the well-being of a country is tied to millions and millions of self-images.
There are myriad factors that play into this destructive process and one of them is writing this yak. Each wealthy western traveler leaves a small imprint on the minds of those around them as their expensive shoes wear the narrow streets of Kathmandu, Nepal, or any of the places they travel. The onus should not only be on the many industries, mindsets, and forms of media that play into this Western cultural imperialism shaping the world around us, but also in some small part, on each individual traveler. We should find the real reasons to travel: to learn from and shine a spotlight on the beauty of another culture; to give and spread compassion and appreciation; and to share the best parts of the places we come from. And with any luck we might end up exploring ourselves and realize that differences between cultures add texture and life to the world.
And with this we come to realize that the more mirrors one faces, the harder it is to truly reflect.