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Our Culture of Looking Good

My Unlikable Friend

My friend is not your conventional beauty.  Her shoulders slouch and half our co-workers refer to her as a dude.  I’m sure there was a time when that used to bother her but now, she makes fun of it.

When she decided to lock her hair, her mother was horrified.  Her mother embodies femininity like nobody’s business and the fact that her daughter was growing up to be something different than her did not sit well.  Something happened to their relationship.

I knew my friend when she had long, naturally red hair.  She was thin and fair-skinned, headed to what people would call an average success.  If you stood beside her five years ago and looked into her future, you could see her becoming something good enough but nothing extra ordinary.

When we were selecting fields of study in the second semester of our freshman year, she chose Mechanical Engineering.  They said it was a field that required a lot of workshop time and therefore was traditionally male-dominated.  They said it would ruin the way she looked.

She didn’t really finish mechanical engineering but at the time, the idea that they would try and keep her out of the field because there were more men in it really annoyed her.  She’s a camera assistant today; still a male-dominated field.  She spends much of her days hauling large camera equipment and competing with her fellow cameramen for the operator position.

My friend is an incredibly foul-mouthed person.  Her life motto is something in the lines of, “I don’t wake up in the morning to please you.”  She smokes and personal hygiene is not a priority in her day-to-day.

I have thought about the way she lives her life for a very long time.  She’s difficult to employ and she’s a hard person to like.  Sometimes I ask her if she is happier now and she says she is. Now, she is unapologetically herself.

Where We Fail

I do not encourage anyone to let go of personal hygiene to claim to be themselves.  It’ll be a health issue as well.  But I think we have a damaging culture that drives us into this obsession with being liked.  Standards are set by what the majority believes is acceptable and we are often encourag ed to conform to that belief.  Those who fall for the culture also come short of challenging norms.  That leads to stagnation.  If norms are not challenged nothing ever changes and nothing ever grows.

A large percentage of our young go into certain fields of study because it looks attractive on paper and not because they believe they are good at it or are interested in the material itself.  So, we end up with large numbers of uninterested and incapable professionals.  It is culturally taboo to “air one’s dirty laundry” so we are discouraged from discussing things like trauma and bad behavior.  Therefore, we leave so much of our mental challenges unresolved.

Our culture can sometimes be so superficial that we fall short of looking past the cover into what actually makes something to be called good.

What Can be Called Good

My aforementioned friend’s mother cared so much about what people thought of her daughter as all mothers do.  But my friend says there was so much hassle in trying to be acceptable and often she found the people she worked so hard to please just weren’t worth it.  She says her energy is much more useful spent elsewhere, like her career.

I had to sit down and think long and hard about this.  Yes, looking good should be important. First impressions affect the way people think about anything but then again there is great damage in being shallow.

Someone said to me, “Yeah, it’s not enough to look good.  One should be good too.”  This person was complaining about a notebook they had bought that had failed short of their expectations.  This person was cursing all of Ethiopian-made products because of this.  “Marketing these days dresses everything into something it is not.”  I was a little taken aback because I used the same notebook they did and mine worked perfectly well for me.  It in fact encouraged me to appreciate more homegrown products.

I figured that perhaps the idea of good is a subjective matter.  What works for one person may not work for another.  If we all believed in the same definitions of good, there would never be any diversity in the world.  How would we explain opposing yet plausible ideas?  I believe assuming there are only certain ways to look or be good is a very dangerous notion.  Like my friend’s mother we will end up assuming that dreadlocks are the end of the world when dreadlocks were just an easier way of managing time because she worked six days a week, thirteen hours a day.

Good vs Authentic

My thought has been this:  there are some things you do because they are necessary. There is great fulfillment that comes with knowing that your actions have targeted purpose beside captivating the eyes, knowing they provide substance you can stand and defend because what you do really means something to you.

Looking good is good, but being good is better.  But I believe what’s really more important is authenticity—accepting yourself the way you are and working to improve yourself for your own sake.  I think it’s really important to think about how real you are to yourself even more than how pretty you look to others.

by Kalkidan Fessehaye
I also blog at https://circlingqalat.com/