Friday, February 14, 2014

Lessons from Ethiopia: the low maintenance version of me

There was a time in my life where I wore more dresses and heels and in general cared more about my physical appearance.  That was before I moved to Ethiopia.  One aspect of different cultures, that is hard to ignore, is the influence of fashion or lack there of and how it changes the way you view yourself and package yourself within that culture.

In the Philippines I had no problem assimilating to the always dressed to impressed culture.  For much of my three years in Manila, I was either mothering a toddler, pregnant, mothering a newborn and nursing a child.  That stage of my life definitely dictated some of my physical appearance.  But leaving the house at any time meant that I put something "nicer" on.  I shopped a lot at the boutiques, had dresses and other apparel made, upgraded my makeup routine and regularly had hair cuts and highlights done.  It wasn't unusual for me to get a mani/pedi and I had regular facials and diamond peel treatments.

I felt pampered in Manila.  It was so easy to do.  Everywhere you turned there were cute locally made clothing for sale and salons. Fashion and pampering is part of the culture.

Ethiopia is a different sort of place for appearances*. Western fashion comes to Ethiopia by way of Chinese-made rejects. Pampering is a luxury average Ethiopians find foreign.  As my time has gone on, I have become less and less focused on how I look.  Almost to the point of not thinking about it at all.  It's extremely liberating!  Working in the kitchen all day from home requires comfortable shoes and work clothes which is usually jeans and a t-shirt.  If I am leaving the house, I put on a different pair of tennis shoes, a scarf, hat and sunglasses.  No makeup required.  Sometimes I comb my hair for a pony tail.

Because, here's the deal.  There is no where to go in Addis where you would be dressing to impress.  No one will see you and if you run into your expat friends you will notice they have the exact same outfit on.  No physical pampering going on.  I call it the Expat in Addis Uniform.  Heels are out of the question because they will get dirty and there are little or no sidewalks where you can walk anyhow.  The weather is cool enough for jeans and a t-shirt almost year round. It's almost as if you are dressing for a rugged outdoor camping adventure every day.

Some of my other routines have become low maintenance as well.  I wash my hair only twice a week now.  I use dry shampoo on  the other days.  Occasionally, I will skip a shower all together and it's not the strange incident that it used to be.  I shave my legs only when I know I will be wearing a dress (I've not gone completely hippie though-I shave under my arms every other day).  I wear sunscreen on my face and waxelene on my lips every day and that's it.  I have had two pedicures in two and a half years.  I only trim my hair every 3 months and get highlights every six months at the salon.  Which is why my hair is almost a foot longer than when we arrived in Addis.

Truly, the biggest change with becoming more low maintenance with my physical appearance is the time that it gives me to use my brain on other things.  I'm not kidding.  I used to spend a significant amount of time self assessing my appearance.  Adjusting myself, fussing with how this or that looked. Worrying about what others thought! Wow, that was probably the biggest time waster of all.  It's a wonderful feeling to just be myself and look more natural and be OK with it.  Let's be frank, age could have something to do with it.  As I get older I find I am more comfortable in my skin and like my body and my face more and more the way they are.  It's also because I am a busy person and I'd rather spend my time more efficiently.  But I know Ethiopia is influential in this transformation.  I love packing for family trips here.  My bag is full of just the bare essentials.  A bar of soap, toothpaste, sunscreen, hiking boots, pullovers, scarves and clean undies.  It's like packing as a man!

I do enjoy going the extra mile with my beauty routine for special events, dinners, balls or parties.  The extra special me looks so pretty for these things.  It's almost a shock!  But the daily me is someone I have come to love too.  I've come to love and embrace the lines at the corners of my eyes.  I like how it makes me look extra happy when I smile.  I like the feel of my worn jeans and the way my apron drapes over anything I wear.   I like the paleness of my skin after being diligent about sunscreen for years.

Ethiopia is not a place to show off your amazing Brazilian shoe collection.  It's not a place where you are trying to out-dress your friend to show off your wealth.  In a country where most people own just a few, often second hand garments, it's just not appropriate to make the gap between you and them any larger!

When we return to America this summer, I am sure that I will adjust my appearance accordingly.  America's fashion and personal maintenance culture is different from Ethiopia and the Philippines.  I am sure I will get back in the habit of shaving more frequently and wearing nicer clothing.  I am honestly, excited to shop in the States.  I do love shopping and look forward to upgrading some of my wardrobe.  But hopefully this more dressed down version of me mentally and physically won't entirely disappear.  I'm hoping to hold on to some of my low maintenance routines.  As long as I can keep the physical appearance part of me in perspective I'll be happy.

I'm thankful that Ethiopia has given me this new found freedom and insight into who I am deep down.  It's been nice focusing on the inner me instead of the outer me.  I like the low maintenance me and I'm going to embrace a few more months of it.

*It's worth noting that Ethiopian women are naturally very beautiful.  Their skin, eyes, hair.  It's all enviously gorgeous.  My loose observations as an outsider have been that it depends on an Ethiopians class, and whether they are from the countryside or grew up in Addis Ababa as to the style of beauty they are influenced by.  The traditional Ethiopian dress, hair styles, makeup, jewelry and even facial tatoos are amazing.  Women's beauty is a source of pride and many Ethiopian women take great pains to display and maintain their beauty.  My experience as an expat woman is very different.  The more relaxed style here seems to be reserved for expats.  Lucky me, I fit that category.  But seriously?  How do Ethiopians manage Addis in those insanely high heels?  It's a mystery!


eleanor said...

What a very different perspective than my experience living/working in Ethiopia. I am the only ex-pat in my office in Ethiopia and find myself putting much more care into my appearance when I am in Addis than when I am working in our office in the States (in NYC, no less). Despite certain resource limitations (financial, reliable running water/electricity, etc.), my female colleagues come to work immaculately dressed, hair blown out, manicured fingers and toes, sky-high heels. For both women and men shoes are polished regularly, often just before stepping into the office. The times I’ve tried to wear flip flops on the streets of Addis I’ve been stopped by women questioning my sanity (“my sister, why do you wear those slippers?” “do you need to borrow my shoes?”) My male and female colleagues regularly comment on my outfits ( “your body looks so much better in skirts and dresses”, “I like it when you dress up”) as well as any fluctuations of two or three pounds or more in my weight and it is noticed and commented on when I show up to work with hair that is still air drying or need a manicure. I’ve found the salons and spas in Addis to be far more affordable and approachable than those elsewhere- so I do indulge much more regularly than I otherwise would. I have a hard time explaining to folks back home how my Addis life is much more high-maintenance and that so much more is expected of my appearance when I’m in Africa.

Sara said...

Eleanor, I think this is a very interesting observation and definitely speaks to the working class of wealthier Ethiopians v. the average poor Ethiopians in the country. You experience working in an office situation is completely different than my experience as a stay-at-home-mom. Most of my work out of the home has been for photography and the people I am working with are not dressed up. It would be very uncomfortable for me to show up to these jobs wearing something "nice". Thanks for your perspective!