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Of Perfect Appearances

I recently joined an exercise class that looked like it might be fun. Loud club music and Latin dance moves took me back, happily, to my wayward youth and reminded me that two kids later and severely sleep-deprived, I may feel carefree again someday. I could also feel good about getting a workout, a check against one item on my never-ending list of ‘should dos.’

Once comfortable in the flow of the class, I started looking around at my fellow women-in-spandex, all pumping in an effort to keep up with the music, and I thought, with the promise of glamor offered by the loud beats and suave moves. I was touched at how ordinary we all looked. One woman, on the larger side, kept her false-lashes on despite the sweat trickling down her brow while another kept apologizing for messing up the steps, although no one else had noticed. The mirror showed the large snake that has been my belly since giving birth, and a closer look would out the roots of my hair which hasn’t seen the insides of a salon in I don’t know how long. Yet another classmate, obviously with child-care issues on a Saturday morning had her three young daughters with her – they looked at us sullenly and only gave in to their mother’s coaxing to join us at the end of the session. Only the teacher, recently certified to teach and perfectly bronzed and manicured looked really at home. She jumped and curled her body in easy bliss and sang along to every pumped-out song with gusto. Beyoncé, I thought to myself. Not because of the obvious connection to dance-and-music, but because at that moment, my exercise teacher gave off the impression of being perfect.

Now, I know that this particular woman is not perfect. Just the other day, she was complaining to me about something I thought was minor and there are times her insecurity shines through the veneer of her make-up. And for all I know, Beyoncé aka Queen Bee may well have body-image issues. I understand, on an intellectual level, that perfection in appearance is as elusive as one’s shadow. I honestly can’t be bothered but for the many women who are, it can be a full-time job. Over dinner a couple of weeks ago, my friends and I were sharing our common amazement at some of the shiny moms we see dropping off their kids – I always think they must wake up at the crack of dawn to pull off that outfit, that flawless make-up and that perfect hair.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not hating on these beautiful women and my admiration at their effort in so far as it shows discipline and self-value is sincere. Research shows that attractive people get things done better and no interviewer or spouse wants to see raggedy.  In addition, a noted researcher at the University of London has come up with the concept of ‘Erotic Capital’ basically arguing that attractive people, such as the Obamas, get more done. And as any real estate agency in Ethiopia will tell you, in a sexist society like ours, beautiful women successfully lure in more (male) clients. So attractiveness, even the manufactured kind is fine.

What I question is the goal, if you’re driven by a desire to be perfect, will you ever reach it? In the West, there is a billion-dollar industry catering to women’s drive to be perfect, and there is every reason to think that the trend is reflected in our Sheger, dubbed the Spa Capital of Africa for a reason. Yes, Ethiopian women or at least those who can afford it should have the same access to pamper and beauty services as women anywhere, but should that be our collective priority? It would not be right for me to comment on women’s (and increasingly men’s) preoccupation with physical appearances, or to tell individuals they should spend their own hard-earned money elsewhere. However, the trends, in general terms, worry me in so far as they affect society’s mores. We are increasingly flashy and pretty but as a European friend once commented to me, we still have kids with Clubfoot Syndrome, long forgotten in the West. I enjoy my occasional outing to the spa as much as the next woman, despite the accompanying guilt, but should we not address the city’s sanitation problem before investing in any more tools of the perfection trade?

For all I know, the woman who spends thousands of Birr in human hair extensions may give a larger amount to a charitable cause but my sense is that the increased investment in our appearances is the companion of our burgeoning individualism. As some women get prettier and prettier, the figure of the gaunt mother in a dirty netela and often no shoes, dragging her three unkempt toddlers to your car window persists. The obsession with perfecting one’s appearance doesn’t take into the fact that if I have had a decent meal to eat today and that I have warm clothes on my back, I am already looking a lot more attractive than the majority of my city’s inhabitants.

Outward attractiveness has its place for sure as long as our investments into it are within reason. If it an all-encompassing obsession, we risk closing off our senses on two fronts – we might forget to also invest into our inner beauty while also losing sight of the fellow woman begging at our window for spare change.

And you know what’s even prettier than perfect hair and movie-star worthy makeup? The complete abandon of striving for physical perfection. Embracing our beauty as-is, not when we lose those last few kilos or we finally find the magical conditioner that will produce the hair of our dreams. Imagine the relief! And all the time and energy saved can go towards perfecting the beauty that does matter, that of an educated mind, a strong spirit, a deep heart and the courage to connect with that woman at the car window.