New rule: new friends aren’t allowed to look at pictures of me that are more than two years old. More specifically, new friends aren’t allowed to look at prom pictures. Prom pictures, as it turns out, give a very inaccurate picture of who I actually am. Or at least what I actually look like.
I looked great at my prom. I probably looked better on my prom night than I have during any other point in my 20-year-old life. I don’t claim this out of conceit; I claim it because it’s true. A bittersweet truth, because I never looked that good beforehand, and I certainly haven’t looked that good since. I have neither the motivation nor the know-how to create my prom-self again.
But my Ukrainian suitemate didn’t know that the night she came into my room to talk. I was asking her about her travel experiences and her impressions of American culture, and she mentioned how much she loves “American prom.” We talked about the dresses and the dances, and I decided to pull up an old Facebook album of my own prom to show off a bit (and clarify some descriptions I was shooting for, because while my vocabulary is decent, Dress Terminology isn’t one of my strong suits). The gushing commenced, then a comment was made:
“Your hair—it used to be long? It’s beautiful! Why did you cut it short? Have you grown it back out? You should grow it back out. Seriously.”
“Seriously,” the word used over and over again. It wasn’t a suggestion: she was insistent. There was, apparently, no reason for me to cut my hair short and keep it short when I could have it long.
“Not that you don’t look fine now, but seriously, it’s like a Before and After picture,” she went on, gesturing towards the screen at my 18-year-old self as the after part of the equation.
I tried to explain it only looked nice in that picture because that was the one time I bothered making it nice for a special event; more often than not it looks boring and unkempt when it’s long because I never style it.
“Well then start styling it!” was her response. “You’re a woman, you’re supposed to like doing things with your hair.”
For most of that evening, her comments rolled around in my head. They were good-natured, I have no doubt of that, and also pretty amusing. But they also made me a bit shakey about how I’m “perceived” here—because I’ve recognized I’m way behind the curve when it comes to feminine aesthetics in eastern Europe. The women here take great care in their appearance, even if it’s just to head to class for a few hours. Heels, hairstyles, and make-up are commonplace, five days a week. Even jeans are usually dressed up with a blouse and some jewelry. I’ve been doing my best to dress up my own jeans with the few blouses and pieces of jewelry I’ve packed, but most of the stuff with me (heck, most of the stuff I own) has more to do with convenience, travel and comfort than style.
My hair is no exception. Here’s the problem: I give, and have always given, zero shits about my hair. I’m not even sure where to get shits to give about my hair. A best friend haranguing me in high school didn’t work. Two boyfriends didn’t work. Secretly wishing I looked like Tina Fey (and/or the short-haired version of Rapunzel) didn’t work. The desire is there, but it’s a desire the way wishing I knew how to sword fight is a desire. It would be awesome, but I don’t care enough to put any sort of effort into it.
But here I am in eastern Europe being challenged to break stereotypes, both my own about them and theirs about me. But what if the stereotype I fit—in this case, a chronic case of American informality—is one I don’t really care about breaking? The idea of dressing up just to go out in public isn’t one of my priorities. But my priorities aren’t the point here. I’m supposed to be challenging myself to step back from the reflexes and habits I’ve created and give a new culture a chance, perhaps especially when it seems strange.
My hair is a trivial example, but it’s one that’s gotten to me. What if it isn’t as silly as it seems? Okay, it is, but what if something more important arose, something I care about as little as my hair, but that meant much more to the people around me? Would I be able to let put my own opinions aside and at least act the part? Should I?
I guess I should at least try, as long as I’m trying my hand at this cross-cultural thing. It still seems strange to me, especially growing up with an individualistic, “Just be yourself” attitude preached everywhere from Sesame Street to Community. I do think it’s a valuable mentality, on a grand scale. But I think I’m starting to realize a little respect, a little flexibility, a little compromise towards the locals’ way of doing things can go a long way. With just four months to play around with, at least I’ve got a safe place to start.
And upon some consideration (and finding some pretty dang easy-looking style tips online), I might try growing my hair out a bit. I still don’t personally give any shits about it, but that also means I don’t mind indulging the few people who do.