There are 15 women in my office and no one wears make up. In fact, no one puts much effort into their physical appearance at all. This is normal for Europe and I started noticing this phenomenon when I lived in London. The Brits blended into their surroundings because they looked grey and drab, just like the weather. Like most average, middle-class, working Joes in Switzerland or the UK, I also don’t put that much effort into looking good. Most days, I dress for work in under 60 seconds.
My cupboard is bursting with clothes I never use and I cycle through five or so of my most comfortable work outfits. I generally look as if I have been dragged through a bush backwards and I don’t appear out of place. Last Friday, Alastair and I were walking to the car in the morning and I realized I forgot to brush my hair. I asked Al if I should run back inside the house. He said, ‘Forget it. Who cares what you look like?’ I spent the day looking as if I had stuck my wet fingers in an electric socket and I didn’t care and no one else seemed to notice.
South Africans that still live in South Africa are generally much more attractive than Europeans. When I went home in March, it hit me like a ton of bricks. I was wowed by how attractive, bright and upbeat people looked in ordinary places such as restaurants and shopping malls. It is obvious that South Africans (especially women) are better groomed and take more pride in their appearance than people in Europe.
If I lived in South Africa and worked in an office with 15 women, it would be unusual for no one to wear makeup. I don’t mean that they would cake on base and lipstick to look like tarts. I am saying that at least a few people would brush their hair and dab on a little lipstick, blusher and mascara to enhance their natural features. Most of my friends in South Africa regularly go for facials, manicures or pedicures. That’s not common practice here.
To be fair to the Europeans, the way of life here is different to South Africa and it does not lend itself to starting the day attractive and ending the day attractive. Over here we use public transport and walk from place to place so function takes priority over aesthetics. I recall once wearing my dainty, pretty South African work shoes in London and, after two days, my feet were ribbons of bleeding flesh. I learned my lesson and now I wear shoes that are built to pound the pavements and withstand dirty puddles.
When you have to wait for a bus in horizontal rain and wind that turns an umbrella inside out, there is no point in brushing your hair. In London, I often travelled for 45 minutes in a steaming bus with my nose up against someone’s armpit so dollying myself up in the mornings lost its allure.
I have never forgotten a story my school teacher told our class. She had a friend who put off filing his tax return. It was dry, dull admin and he always found better things to do. Every weekend, he put ‘do tax’ on his list of things to accomplish but other more interesting activities kept sweeping tax off the list and every Sunday night, it was not done. Days became weeks which became months and the tax return was still not touched. The final filing deadline loomed.
Then, one Saturday morning, his wife woke up and padded down the stairs in her pyjamas. She walked past the dining room, stopped, blinked a couple of times and then reversed. She peered back into the room. Her husband sat at the dining room table, power dressed in a full suit – starched white shirt, tie and jacket. He was sitting upright, like he was in some sort of straightjacket and he tapped at his calculator. He didn’t notice her because he was absorbed in the piles of papers around him.
‘Bob!’ His wife cried. (Let’s call him Bob) ‘What on earth are you doing in a suit? It’s Saturday!’
‘I’m doing the tax’.
‘In a suit?’ she said.
‘Yes, it’s the only way I can concentrate. Tax is work and if I am going to get it done at home, I must force my body to think it is at the office. If I look the part, I will feel the part and I can focus and get these damn taxes done.’
And he did.
When I was in South Africa, hanging around all those gorgeous people, I started to feel happier. At first I felt like a scruff in comparison so, when I went to the shops, I put on a dash of lipstick and brushed my hair. I looked at myself in the mirror and thought, ‘Not bad. Not bad at all’. I went out and about with a spring in my step. Just like the tax man in his suit, the way I looked affected the way I felt and then behaved.
If you put effort into your appearance and look good, you can’t help but feel good. Maybe that’s why South Africans are generally perkier and more gung-ho compared to the British and the Swiss.