Before this year it had been 3 years since my last visit to the UK, this year I managed three visits, and whilst I loved seeing my friends and family, being able to buy new clothes without re-mortgaging anything and doing exciting things like travel by train and be able to read a newspaper without having a dictionary to hand, my visits also had me furrowing my brow and shaking my head a lot, feeling like an outsider, a foreigner in some ways.
Not in the land, the landmarks were all familiar, the accent comfortingly the same and apart from a few new ‘in’ words the language was the same as ever. It was the way in which people care so much about how they are perceived by others that caught me by surprise. How much money, time and effort is spent on creating their image, on looking a certain way, on making sure that people see the ‘you’ they wanted to project and not the real ‘you’. Something I hadn’t noticed when I lived there
Hair bleached, coloured, styled and teased. Make-up plastered on, thick, fake and often unattractive. Lashes clogged with goo, skin an unnatural shade, cheeks more so, and clothes that often looked like suits of armour rather than things people felt comfortable wearing. I found myself staring at peoples faces wondering why they needed to paint them, didn’t they realise that everyone could see it was painted, that they knew it wasn’t what they really looked like? And then I realised that to them this was normal, that they probably didn’t see the makeup on others, that they probably thought I was odd for not wearing much.
People looked as though they were trying to cocoon themselves inside their layers of make up, hair spray and on trend clothes and hide from the world. As though they were wearing camouflage to make them look like everyone else, trying to fit in. It was rare to see someone that wasn’t tugging at a hem or adjusting and fiddling with clothing they clearly didn’t feel comfortable in, touching at hair they were worried was about to fall out or checking up makeup lest we see some of their actual skin through the barrier they had applied.
It was visible on peoples faces just how self conscious and uncomfortable they felt; tight pinched faces, tight pinched walks, either hurrying head down ‘don’t look at me’ body postures or struty ‘look how great I look’ walks of people wanting to be seen. Neither natural or relaxed, very few people looking comfortable in their own skin.
You can call it taking pride in your appearance if you like, but to me it seemed more than that, more than just wanting to look like you hadn’t been dragged through a bush backwards, more than wanting to look nice. It was an animalistic need to look the same, to fit in, to be a part of the herd. All different, no two outfits the same, and yet all the same somehow, all complying with some code. The same code that says you mustn’t look old or fat but most of all you mustn’t look different.
Despite sitting on the sidelines mystified and amused by it all it was only 1 week before I found myself joining in. Just a week after arriving for my 4 week holiday and I caught myself putting on make up and agonising over which jacket to wear to take my kids for a walk around around the lake.
My god, this stuff was contagious!
I’d been in the country 1 week and was already caring about what I look like to go for a fun walk with my kids. What would happen after 4 weeks, 2 months, a year? It wouldn’t be long before I was buying hairspray with bamboo in it for special Asian forest stickiness particles or actually browsing the long line of anti wrinkle creams which not only defy gravity but also bring you eternal happiness and able to eat 3 helpings of desert without gaining a pound. It was quite frightening to realise how quickly and easily I’d fallen back into this need to look ‘right’ without even realising.
Are we simply herd animals that don’t like to stand out or are we so well caught in the marketing man’s web that we don’t even realise it anymore and blindly buy what we are supposed to without question? Could it be a city thing, that when you get to a certain amount of people in one place the herd mentality takes over? Because you really don’t see it much, out here in the sticks, but then we have a lot less marketing, no skinny models staring at us from billboards and bus stops, and the adverts don’t really have the same punch to them when they are dubbed over into Finnish, they seem to be more telling about how things are in a foreign land than how things are in this one.
Why is looking a certain way so important to us? Is it a herd/tribe thing, marketing or something else? And what is it with the bamboo in hairspray? It’s something that puzzles me every time I see that advert.