I was doing so well keeping my vanity in check. Then I hit the mid-fifties and my self-perception went awry. Those vows of accepting myself as I am? Out the window on the day I first had my brows shaped and tinted… at 56. That habit of never using make-up, because I was afraid I wouldn’t recognize myself without it? Nothing that three lipsticks I mix for my own perfect shade couldn’t help me kick. Most worrying: one morning, as I contemplated the crevasses engraved on my face by my pillow, I accepted that a face lift might indeed exist in my future.
This all got me wondering: is this focus on attractiveness a construct that only Western women care about?
Sometimes it takes really getting out of my world to regain proper perspective. A perfect example of this came when I visited the Omo River tribes in Southern Ethiopia. The women of the Mursi tribe have a beauty ritual which I wanted to see for myself: at age eight or nine, their lower lip is slit and a small round clay disk is inserted. The flesh heals but remains pliable, allowing the woman to stretch it until she can insert a disk that’s four inches in diameter. That’s the size of a teacup saucer! Need I mention that the bigger the disk, the more beautiful a woman is to young warriors seeking a bride?
On the day we visited one Mursi village, every woman had a lower lip that was just a wide loop of flesh, left empty and dangling except for ceremonial occasions. And each was missing her lower front teeth. Why? Because they interfere with that four-inch disk. And besides, not having teeth is, well, more beautiful, so they’re pulled out. Then I saw a young woman lying with her head on another’s lap, having something done to her face.
“Is she sick?” I asked our interpreter.
“She is OK. The other woman is removing her hair.” And there you have it. Not content simply to sport a large coaster in her lower lip, the Mursi woman embellishes herself by having all her eyelashes plucked out… with a wood tweezer.
Another Omo tribe, the Hamar, find the idea of a lip disk barbaric. Their beauty ritual involves coating their hair with animal fat into which they rub the fine red powder of their native soil. Over time the red dust cakes the greased hair, turning it into snake-like red tendrils. In the day’s heat, the fat softens and drips, coating the woman’s neck and shoulders with a glistening umber stain.
I noticed one Hamar woman whose majestic posture and strong face were beautiful by any standards. She was so stunning that I couldn’t understand why her body was disfigured by a mass of lumpy scar tissue. Our interpreter explained, “When she wants a boy to find her attractive, a woman will thrash herself with thorn branches, ripping her flesh. Then she rubs ash in the bloody wounds, to create the bumps. The more a woman bleeds and the more scars she has, the more a boy’s family will find her worthy of their son.”
While hopping riverboats up Burma’s Chindwin River, I discovered the pleasures of village hair salons. One day, I sat next to a woman who was having her hair permed. “She wants some curl,” the hair dresser said, lifting her own straight, heavy black locks to illustrate the point. Her customer’s boyfriend sat nearby, with hair a peroxide-based orangey rust color. “We all want a color other than black, too!”
When she finished drying my hair, she called women in from the next door teashop to marvel at its fine wavy brownness, draping my long tresses over her hand like the finest silk Hermes scarf. I blushed realizing that they all wished their hair was like mine.
India offers another good lesson. Indian women sport impeccable saris, despite the most trying conditions. Even in a simple village, where houses have neither plumbing nor electricity, wearing a ragged or dirty sari is only for the absolutely destitute. if a woman owns two saris, one will be on the line drying, while the other, spotless and repaired, is worn.
Girls walk hours to school, their knee socks blindingly white, shoes (if they have them) polished, hair braided to perfection with not a strand out of place. Even the poorest household will find the means to provide a colored ribbon or barrette to match the child’s blouse. Everyone does whatever they can to look their best. To see this is a lesson in humility and if you don’t think so, I ask you to recall the last time you had to haul 10 gallons of water on your head to your house in order to wash, cook and clean for your whole family.
On days when my sense of self sinks under a flurry of beauty patch-ups, I think of women the world over, each with her own definition of beauty and adornment, with her own rituals for attractiveness. Then I wipe the mist off my bathroom mirror to get a better view of those stray eyebrow hairs. But I leave the eyelashes alone.