Sunday, October 14, 2012

Letting myself go.

One of my favorite things to do is stare out the window of a moving car.  It's one of the only socially sanctioned spacing-out times we have left. You can't do it from your couch, what with children and dishes and Facebook beckoning.  Spacing out in bed quickly descends into sleep.  So, the passenger seat of our car is my zone out temple.  And I especially love gazing out the window here in Kenya where there's always something interesting to look at mid-reverie.

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...
To set the record straight, I've personally looked that put together maybe... arguably... on my wedding day and zero other times.  But I looked from that vision on a motorbike and then back down at what I was wearing - the shirt I slept in and yoga pants with bits of flour from the morning's pancakes - and spoke my thoughts aloud to my husband: "I've really let myself go, haven't I?"

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.  


  1. I'm enamoured with your life. It's truly amazing to read, as I sit here in a hoodie and capri pants. I should go brush my teeth before my husband gets home.

  2. hahaha! I can understand why you are enamored. I paint quite the glamorous picture here. ; ) Today I did manage to shower, so I'm feeling both accomplished and a bit fancy.

  3. Kim, this reminded me of a blog post I wrote during my first year in Kenya: High heels in Kenya present some unique challenges.

    1. Jess, that post was HILARIOUS! Great juxtaposition. It ain't easy being fabulous all the time. And I can totally see you rocking those heals!

  4. I don't know how anyone can get through a day without taking a shower or brushing ones teeth. It has little to do with personal perception or external judgement and everything to do with basic hygiene and respect for everyone you will meet that day. Anyone's belief that those who clean up do so due to insecurity and fear or being demeaned simply seek an excuse to carry on in their shabby routine. I was a lackluster dresser for a years. Between now and then, the only thing that changed is that I look in the mirror and smile at myself from my heart; I have joy. Not how I think people will look at me. Hope my comments are constructive.

    1. HI Wambui, I'm glad you said this. I agree that maintaining basic hygiene is a kindness to yourself and others. When I "let myself go" it's mainly because I don't often leave the house anymore. And you're right, I do feel better when I clean up my act a bit. But I don't think most people make themselves presentable out of insecurity (I actually wrote that part thinking of my high school self) but that many might do so out of a demand for dignity, which was a new realization for me.

      But in addition to all of this, I wouldn't assume anyone who has a more shabby or slovenly routine somehow didn't respect themselves or others. Even people with poor hygiene might have issues like poverty or mental illness or newborns!! or who knows what interfering with their efforts.

      This very exchange might be an interesting culture clash. The American momblog world is literally FULL of women writing about letting themselves go and skipping showers and wearing the same clothes day after day. It's all very tongue-in-cheek and a way to laugh at ourselves together. But I can see how it might seem strange.

      Anyway, thank you for your comments. I figured when I wrote this that I might get some dissenting opinions here, and I'm glad you felt comfortable enough to share them!

  5. I love your posts soooo much... Totally relate! and have seen the same in various developing countries....

    1. Thanks so much! I'm glad this resonates - makes me feel less crazy...

  6. I loved this post. Loved it. Thank you for posting it. I too have marveled at exactly what you described. Also, I love your honesty and I love that your husband loves you for just who you are, flip flops and all. Real love sees past the Dove soap! (-: And...a shower every other day isn't so bad!

    1. Thanks Ado. And agreed! I think a shower every other day is acceptable, unless your engaged in a particularly sweaty activity on a daily basis - and my domestic endeavors do not qualify. So, I've let myself go, but am still not a smelly sweat mess. And thanks to that link to the NPR piece in your other message - I like it when smarter people agree with me. ; )

  7. I agree with everyone else, I wasn't quite sure what it was when i first saw it. But after reading this I'm willing to try it! It sounds interesting....
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