So, I was settling in for some delicious space-out time on a recent car ride, when I saw her. She was a vision of style and beauty perched, improbably, on the back of a motorbike, her shiny turquoise pumps resting on the pedals. She had on body-hugging blue jeans, "statement" earnings and form flattering top that perfectly paired with her shoes. She held her back straight and regal, an unlikely feat given the large leopard print handbag balanced precariously between herself and the motorbike driver.
We drove close enough to see that remarkably, almost magically, her weave was unaffected by the wind, her considerable make-up unaffected by the dust. I couldn't look away. Her style was a bit too Samatha Jones for my taste, but she was killing it.
|Since I'm not in the habit of taking pictures of beautiful strangers, I'm relying on this stock photo. But it's not far off...|
His non-response said it all.
And it's true. I have. Maybe it's the weather or being a mom to small children or working from home, but I no longer take much pride in my appearance. And not in a anti-establishment, neo-hippy, down-with-the-fashion-industrial-complex kind of way. In an apathetic, my husband will want to have sex with me anyway and I no longer care what anyone else thinks kind of way. It's exactly what millions of boyfriends have feared marriage will do to their coiffed and toned girlfriends.
I've been wearing flip flops nearly every day for going on 2 years now, shower maybe every other day and have completely given up on make-up. For the rare evening out, I'll step it up with the jeans that make my butt look good and a pair of dangly earings. Done and done. (No... I did not forget to mention the shower.... Why?)
No Kenyan has ever called me out on my lackluster appearance - they're too polite. But I see the way they dress and wonder what they must be thinking of my get up.
You see, that vision on a motorbike was not an anomaly. I constantly find myself staring at people here wondering how they manage to look like they stepped out of a catalog when they likely just stepped off a motorbike, walked down a dusty path and emerged from a sweltering matatu.
When I worked in Busia (a small border town) I led a team of Kenyan field officers, who would cover miles each day in rural villages to conduct household surveys. In the rainy season it was hard to avoid mud, and the dry season blew dust everywhere. Yet these field officers would come to work in suits and heals and return from the field at the end of the day as spotless as they started it. It baffled me to no end.
|Field officer (from another project) looking like a city professional while measuring school kids in a rural area.|
|The two on the left are two senior field officers meeting with village chiefs.|
And I never had the chutzpah to ask anyone how this happens. There's something somehow impolite about a "how do you stay so clean?" inquiry. But I recently read a fantastic essay* from a woman who faced a similar mystery living in Nicaragua. She found a delicate way to ask her Spanish tutor, and he replied:
"When being clean is the way you can show your dignity … when being clean is how you show that you are worth something, you pay attention to be clean."
This sentiment seems to ring true here, where people with next to nothing show up to church looking like African royalty.
When we lived in Busia, I once offered to take one of Caleb's playmates to the doctor. His mother was happy for the help, but then asked me to wait while she brought her son back inside. Fifteen minutes later, he emerged in his Sunday's best, button-down shirt, fancy black shoes and all. The doctor's office was only a stone's throw away down a dirt path, but it was a public place with more educated people liable to judge you.
All of this has gotten me thinking a lot about why we make an effort at our appearance at all. I suppose it's a signal of how others should treat you. It's a statement that you value yourself even if the world you live in doesn't always. And it's also a cover for insecurity that if you don't look a certain way others might condescend to you.
So, it's really from a place of privilege and comfort, a place of security that I can let all of that go. That I can "let myself go."
And all of that is what I should have said to my husband in response to his loaded silence.
He would then have conceded my point, told me he loves me no matter what, and gently asked me to go brush my teeth and find a clean shirt.
* This was an essay by Margot Page in Brain Child magazine, which you must start reading. I think of it as the Mom Yorker. It's the only magazine geared toward mothers that is not sappy, polemical of full of product placement. Instead it's full of thought-provoking essays on motherhood and childhood by fantastic writers.