I said I wanted to talk about beauty and body image awhile ago, and then somehow got distracted. Let's see if I can do better today.
I have a difficult time judging how beauty is percieved here. What I mean by that is, I'm not convinced that features I find attractive are considered attractive by Liberians. The “fat” thing in particular really throws me off – although people don't hesitate to tell me how fat I am, fatness, here as in the US, does not seem to be considered a good thing. On the other hand, in general, people attire themselves very attractively here, by Western standards, so that suggests that the way attractiveness is percieved is not hugely different in the two cultures. So I'm confused – if the same things are considered attractive in Liberian and American society, then why is it OK to call people fat here, and a deadly insult in the US?
I suppose it's possible that the “fat” issue has less to do with how attractiveness is actually percieved and more to do with cultural norms for rudeness – in general, making extremely personal comments about someone's appearance is not that uncommon here. In addition, although there are certainly fat people in Liberia, the kind of excessive obesity that one sees in the US is not present. Furthermore, people are generally very physically active, so fatness does not have the same negative health connotations that it does in the US, which perhaps makes it less of a bad thing in terms of attractiveness as well.
In terms of how people view me personally – it's a strange kind of a situation. I have a difficult time judging whether or not I am seen as attractive at all, or am viewed as more of a novelty than a genuinely attractive or unattractive person. I feel like I am constantly having to rebuff romantic advances, but as far as I can tell, the motivation behind them has less to do with any kind of actual attraction and more to do with a desire to be associated with someone who is percieved as rich. There is definitely an element of curiosity in there as well – I've had more than one kid ask to “see the white woman titties” (I can only hope that someday they can realize that dream, with some other white woman's titties).
In any case, one would think that dealing with constant advances would make one feel extremely attractive, but for me at least, it has the opposite effect. I feel as though I am being objectified in a way that has less to do with the body as a sexual object and more to do with it as a representation of Western prosperity. Somehow, being seen as a symbol rather than a girl or even a mere object of sexual desire makes me feel completely asexual, despte the (assumed) sexual nature of the advances.
Anyway, the situation is definitely not helped by how unattractive in general I feel here. I know I've mentioned this before, but it is difficult, if not impossible, to do the things that one must do to be considered attractive in the US. I wasn't a fan of the short (though extremely practical) haircut I got before leaving, and after four months of uncontrolled growth (unless I want to shave my head or braid my hair, I'm pretty much out of luck in terms of professional haircutting), it's looking pretty wild. I'm dirty, and there is only so clean that a a person can get by means of a bucket bath (or even several bucket baths in a day). It's hot and I have to wear sunscreen all the time, so I'm constantly sweaty and sticky and greasy. My skin is aggravated by the dust and the grease and the oil in the food, and I'm always having to deal with breakouts. Wearing any kind of skin-evening makeup is next to useless, as it sweats off within an hour, and somehow I feel kind of ridiculous wearing other makeup, given how gross the rest of me is. I wear my glasses most of the time. And to top it all off, somehow, despite the fact that I'm not a big fan of the food and walk several miles a day, I'm not losing any weight, and if anything may even be gaining it.
So overall, I feel like I've given up on the idea of being attractive here. “Who am I trying to attract anyway?” I keep asking myself. I'm only here for ten months, and my goal in coming here was . . . um . . . OK, sometimes I can't remember exactly what it was, but I'm pretty sure it didn't involve romance. On the other hand, it's only natural to want to be attractive, and, as a girl, there's a part of me that can't help but feel that my worth as a human being is fundamentally connected to my level of attractiveness to the opposite sex. So when the meagre assets I have are depleted by sun and dirt, I can't help but feel somewhat lousy.
On the bright side – I don't own a full-length mirror, and rarely use the electric lights in my house, so most of the time I am trying to judge my appearance in a tiny mirror in either candlelight or the sunlight that filters in from outside. Thus, most of the time, the full scope of my unattractiveness is not apparent to me.
EDIT, 17th December 2009, 3:46 PM: Two marriage proposals thus far today. I must be looking very wealthy.