A pretty blouse, another tear masked

Stories about appearances.

A year ago, in my day-job in Dakar, we were having a horrible time coming to terms with a jumble of various damaged rice bags belonging to different receivers. Imagine thousands upon thousands of bags, some in containers, rotting, others thrown into warehouse corners covered in cobwebs their colourful logos faded with dust and water, containing caked, dirty, wet and dusty rice in various degrees of unfit-for-human-consumption. As insurance surveyor it was my responsibility to try to determine what was what, belonged to who, and to propose depreciation rates at which the damaged goods might be sold. So far we were having limited cooperation from the handling company. Granted, I’m sure the sight of me in their warehouses drawling on about how poorly they had sorted and kept the merchandise to arrive at such a level of mess was enough to make anyone resent the sight of me. But they didn’t…they couldn’t help but like me. As the warehouses coordinator herself exclaimed the first time she met me in person, after many months of email exchanges centered around our unhappiness with mixed-up and damaged merchandise..she could not believe that her mind now had to associate the curt and cold emails my work demands of me with the young, friendly, smiling woman before her. Yet it wasn’t until I arrived in their office on a Friday morning many weeks later, dressed beautifully in a long dress of blue African material that I fully understood the importance of appearances and being well groomed. Everyone who I knew from the field was pleased to see me. Until then we had only interacted in the warehouses where I’d be wearing jeans, t-shirts and sandals, given that I’d often need to climb on top of dirty piles of rice to estimate quantities and check for additional damages. It was my practical attire for the messy field-work. Covered in dust, my hair astray, I would then cheerfully ask for the handling company’s inventory lists and be kindly refused. Of course by “refused” I mean that they would say “Yes” to everything, after which I would in reality receive nothing. That Friday, my office and well-groomed self kindly requested stock lists and received them instantly. I stepped out into the sunlight of Plateau, papers gladly in hand, a moment of business victory mine, and I marveled at the power of appearances.

Humans are such visual creatures, as predators our eyes set firmly forward, like those of a lion or tiger, a biological sign of relying so much, too much perhaps, by what we see before us. We need forward vision to hunt, to achieve, to move through the world. Knowing that we observe and are so observed by others we step out our front door and, whether or not we realize it, we tell a story of who we are today.

I wonder if this may even be more true of women than it is of men.

Six years ago I was teaching French in an elementary school and living in Granada, Spain when my long-time boyfriend and I broke up. Not for the first or the last time I’ll add since our long-distance relationship went through many ups and downs before ultimately collapsing. At the time of course I took it hard. Undying romantic that I am, I was hurt and I felt it was a clear ending to a life chapter. What better way to begin a new chapter, I reasoned, than by showing through my appearance my internal, emotional evolution. So I cut off all my hair. It had been quite long and now it was very short (I was inspired by Emma Watson who had finished filming the Harry Potter series and had cut off all of her hair too). I had left school as myself on a regular Tuesday afternoon and arrived on the Wednesday morning someone new amid shocked looks from my 10 and 11-year old students. The boys gaped and then got back to their activities. The girls just gawked at me.

I’ll add that short-hair styles for women in Spain, at least at that time, were a no-no. I can confidently say that I was one of very few white women in Granada with boy short-hair. My students’ varied reactions were unforgettable. Their beloved teacher had clearly gone mad. Some were shocked while others were impressed. “Why did you do it?” they asked me, “your hair was so beautiful”. “I wanted a change” I said. Some of the girls shook their heads and told me they did not like it. One girl, named Africa, came up to me at the end of our class and told me in whispered confidence, “Madame, je pense que vous êtes très courageuse. Et ça vous va très bien les cheveux courts”. I remember the gleam in her eyes, the look that says : do what is right for you who cares what others think. She thought me strong, courageous. Inside I was quite a mess because I missed my man. But at least the outside world had taken notice that I had turned a new page.

Last week, I chatted with one of our Senegalese secretaries about this very thing. She complemented me on a nice ensemble I was wearing. I smiled, thanked her and remarked that although it was not the case this time, it was often when I was feeling my worst inside that I dressed my best. With my hair and make-up done I could more easily access my courage to face the day. She said, a wide smile spreading across her face, “You know when I wear a simple dress and less make-up and you look at me concerned, and ask if all is well”, she asked. I nodded. I was so used to her beautiful clothes and elaborate make-up (Senegalese women in general dress beautifully and take great pride in their appearance) that I wondered if a more sober look meant that she was feeling ill or unhappy. She laughed saying that oftentimes the days of her more humble attire were the days when she felt her happiest and her best.

We women are emotional creatures. It’s easy to get caught in an internal struggle of wanting to be seen in our truth, in our depth of feeling and so too in our vulnerability…and the strong need to build walls and to protect ourselves from those who would use our openness against us. We play with appearances. We change our outfits, our hair, our colours in order to communicate something to others about our values, about who we are or how we are feeling. The feminine exists to feel. So too it makes sense we want to share some of that feeling with others too. The trick is not to get too caught up by what your eyes alone can see..

Dakar to me, like many women, is a city of appearances. I often need to look at something or someone for a long time, and closely, before starting to see its truth. Beautiful villas hide behind high, grey and rough cement walls. Just like pretty exteriors may open up to messy, uninteresting interiors. In so many ways, things are simply not as they first appear to be.

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