On our family’s trip around the world a few years ago, I remember pausing one afternoon as I repacked my backpack for the billionth time. We were checking out of our Venice, Italy guesthouse, and I suddenly realized that I’d worn one of my shirts only once, way back in China (the first country we visited). I’d been lugging it around for six months by then.

Not a huge deal to not have worn a shirt once out of six months when I’m at home with a closet, but when every square inch in my pack mattered? And when every article of clothing should be a powerhouse staple (because I’ve only got 3-4 shirts to begin with)? It was categorically ridiculous I was still lugging this shirt around the world.

I realized I wasn’t wearing it because: one, the color wasn’t right for me, and two, it was way too big. It made me feel frumpy and sloppy. And all things being equal, I’d choose the other three shirts every time.

So, I left it at the guesthouse, fingers crossed the owner would either want it for herself, could leave it in the guesthouse for a future renter to claim, or would know where to donate it in Venice. And I never looked back in regret, wishing I’d kept that shirt.

before our trip, me trying to narrow down what to pack…

I was already fairly decent at decluttering and not having too much stuff in general. But that shirt was a reminder that I still hadn’t yet embraced who I was, what I really liked, and what sort of style made me feel most like myself.

This was almost four years ago. I’m still a work in progress in this department, of course (this is lifelong, not an I’ve-arrived thing), but I’ve gotten much, much better at knowing what works on me, and, more important — what style I actually like.

Most of my life, I’ve been fairly low-maintenance when it comes to beauty, style, and fashion. I care about those things, just not enough to invest a lot of time and money, you know?

But a few years ago, I finally admitted to myself that not only do I care about this type of self-care, but it also doesn’t make me shallow or silly that I do. And in fact, caring about things like wearing stuff that actually fits, knowing what colors work on me, and enjoying something as otherwise benign like shoes? They can actually contribute to my betterment as a human.

Here are a few things I’ve embraced since then (and especially since I turned 40 a little over a year ago):

1. No one thinks about me as much as I think about me.

Really and truly. And this is true for you, too. I can wonder and fret whether these jeans make my butt look weird, or if everyone’s wondering why my hair is doing that thing, but the truth is, most everyone is obsessing over the same things about themselves.

Sure, it’s good to care about what colors and shapes work well on my body type, but do it because it makes me feel good and comfortable, not because I think everyone around me will have to shield themselves from blindness if I don’t do it right.

No one cares that much how you look — in a good way, of course. If they like you as a human, they probably already think you look lovely.

2. Study myself (without critiquing, if I can help it).

A few years ago I went through Stasia’s Style School as a 40th birthday present to myself, and the most important thing I learned was how to understand my body type. By then, I already had a grasp on what style I liked, but it was still a challenge to know how to apply it to my short, somewhat-curvy body.

It was such a good experience to learn the cuts, curves, and silhouette of my body without judgement or shame. Stasia’s well-known for saying, “Your body is not the problem — it’s the clothes.” When I learned that I’m a slightly-inverted triangle, and that meant certain things about what shapes work well on me — well, it became so much easier to pick clothes that worked for me. (It actually helped explain the why behind certain clothes I already knew looked weird on my body.)

My point is that it’s helpful to understand your body and its nuances without assigning a moral equivalent to things as arbitrary as waistline, the shape of your jaw, or skin tone. Heck, you might even start to embrace these things as gifts, even if they’re not classically “ideal” in our very specific time and place in world history.

3. Just try things. It’s not the end of the world if they don’t work out.

On a date with Kyle last week, I asked him if he still liked my short hair (as a reminder, I also got a pixie cut as part of my turning-forty celebration; before then I had fairly long hair).

He smiled and said, “Yes, mostly because I love how it makes you feel. …But if I’m honest, I feel like this last cut wasn’t the best, and I feel horrible for even thinking that.” He then hid his face in mock-shame.

I laughed and said, “Oh my gosh, I’ve felt the same way. This last haircut was just off, and I’ve been messing with my hair constantly, trying to figure out what’s wrong with it.” I was so glad he felt the same way. (I officially plan to head to my stylist this week to get it trimmed and straightened out.)

I’d wanted to try a pixie cut for years before finally going to the salon and asking for one. It was mildly terrifying because I had no idea how it would look on me. Would my ears stick out funny? Would I discover my head was oddly-shaped? Basically, would I regret the cut as soon as the stylist spun the chair around to face the mirror?

Turns out, all was fine. Even better than fine, actually — I felt like I found a side of myself that had wanted to come out and play for decades. I loved the cut, and still do.

I have no idea if I’ll keep a pixie long-term (lately I’ve been daydreaming about a fun bob a la F. Scott Fitzgerald era), but that’s not the point here. My point is that I’d never know if I could even pull off a pixie until I tried one.

The same is true, of course, about wearing lemon yellow, or high-waist pants, or strappy clogs, or buttoning that top button of your shirt. Or dying your hair pink.

Yes, don’t be reckless with your budget, or needlessly buy fast fashion or unhealthy beauty products. But in all this — it’s just fashion. It’s just beauty. It’s meant to be experimented with, played around with.

Why not try something new? At worst, you’ll learn you don’t like the thing you tried. At best, you’ll discover a new side of yourself that might have been wanting to come out and play.

This Friday, I’m chatting on the podcast with my friend, Christine, who’s also sharing wisdom she’s gleaned from recently turning 40. I’m talking about hair and skincare routines I’ve recently embraced that make me feel more like myself.

Because that’s my ultimate goal in all of this …I care more about feeling good in my body than impressing people that are wondering simultaneously if I’m impressed with them.

Your turn: What style for yourself have you come to embrace lately?

p.s. Here’s our Ethical Shopping Guide — you might find it useful.

• Listen to the podcast episode about this post

top photo: Katherine Hepburn wearing jeans on set, like the fashion-forward icon she was