The Language of Beauty
My mother was widely acknowledged to be both extremely intelligent and very beautiful. It was generally agreed but always unspoken that I trailed behind her in the first category, and failed completely in the second.
My mother was a strict parent who focused on doing things the right way - the type of person who never attempted anything unless they were certain of the outcome. Perfection was the only goal. and she had little patience with people who made mistakes or didn’t meet her own exacting standards. This included me.
Under her rules, the use of make up was forbidden until I was the ‘right’ age. By the time that came around and she wanted me to ‘pretty up,’ I was well-practiced in the skills of resistance. I refused to dress in a feminine manner and met any attempts to dress me in all and any shades of pink with arguments that sometimes reached screaming level. I went in for the full color spectrum of black and aggressively pursued intellectual activities, relying on my naturally good skin and lush hair to get by in the looks department. Consequently, I never learned much about make up. A trip to a beauty salon or to the hairdresser inspired the same feelings of dread as going to the dentist.
Not learning the language of beauty was fine by me, because I never knew what I wanted or how to enhance what I had. Coming to live in Turkey and not speaking the native language very well seemed enough to justify my continued ignorance and avoidance of this area of life. But to my dismay, I quickly noticed that Turkish women seemed to spend a lot of time on their appearance. Whether they went to for a blow dry or to have their nail polish redone, many of them visited the salon at least once a week, if not more.
They always looked so relaxed and at home sitting in the big squashy chairs under the bright lights, drinking tea and chatting to the other women. Instead, I felt like an imposter. They looked poised and polished, complete in a way I was not. When I looked at myself in the mirror, the reflection burnt into the glass by the unforgiving lights was of a person who always looked disheveled and unfinished. At first, I squashed my discontent by comforting myself with the fact that my difference was acceptable in Turkey. Being a foreigner, I assured myself, I didn’t need to conform to local standards.
Over time, however, my initial tentative forays into hairdressing salons for fast, long overdue haircuts became extended visits. When I was there I could practice both my burgeoning Turkish language skills and the art of beauty. After a number of false starts I finally found a salon with both a good hairdresser, and more importantly for me, a wonderful beautician. Sakine was kind and,more importantly, patient - and despite the fact she had a speech impediment which sometimes made it hard to understand individual words, I always grasped her meaning.
When I first went to her for a manicure or a pedicure, I could do little more than say "I want." If something was uncomfortable or hurt me, I couldn’t even let her know. I knew the sound to express pain wasn’t "ouch" in Turkish, but I was worried I’d say the wrong thing so I said nothing.
I didn’t know the words for beauty in English or Turkish, and I wasn’t prepared to risk looking ignorant. Yet Sakine never made me feel inadequate.
She told me she knew it must be hard for me because everything was new and strange. Under her tutelage, I slowly gained in confidence - and began to reach for my dictionary more often, chancing making mistakes in the place of choosing silence. When I got a word wrong or pronounced it incorrectly, Sakine merely smiled and carefully repeated it until I had it right. Without even realizing the progress I was making, I went from general requests to specific details. When it was time in the pedicure to sand my feet, I learnt the word for tickle as we laughed hysterically after I almost wriggled out of my seat from the ecstatic agony of the sensation. Eventually, I plucked up the courage to ask her to remove the hairs from my toes - something I’d been too ashamed to request even in Australia. I didn’t even cringe when she laughed in delight and told me I’d just instructed her to remove my feathers. Instead, I smiled at the intricacies of Turkish and joked that I might fly home.
I now know I prefer having my eyebrows tidied and shaped by the string method rather than with wax, but having them done is still quite a challenge. It’s not the pain that bothers me as much as understanding the directions. I know I have to drape my arm over my head and pull up my brow on one command, and then firmly pull my eyelid down on the other, but I’m not sure which is which. Regardless of the country I’m in and the language I’m speaking, when I sit in front of a mirror at the hairdressers, I have to actually touch the side of my head to indicate where I normally wear my part. I can’t just say left or right because I don’t know from whose perspective I’m meant to decide: Is it mine, the hairdressers, or is there some universal ‘looking in the mirror’ rule I don’t know about?
Luckily Sakine understands and laughs in sympathy at my confusion, despite the piece of cotton held securely between her teeth forming the apex of the triangle of string she uses to remove my hairs. When I don’t know what’s expected of me, she knows and gently pats at my forehead or eye socket with the pad of her finger to indicate where I should take hold. Once the skin is firmly anchored, she continues with the scissoring motion of her hands. The freed hairs float onto my nose making it itch and run - but I’m careful not to sneeze. It’s frowned upon to noisily blow your nose in public in Turkey, so I stifle the desire until Sakine is out of sight.
Sitting in front of a mirror at my busy hair salon, aware of all the Turkish women straining to hear the real life foreigner speak their language, it’s not unusual for me to confuse words out of nervous embarrassment. Recently, I told my hairdresser that I wanted a color that was “both excited and of a certain nature." Luckily he knew I meant I wanted a color that looked "lively and natural."
A few years ago, just the thought of saying the wrong thing and making a fool of myself would have been enough for me to not try. Now I know there’s more to life than being perfect and that it isn’t necessary to always be in control. I’ve been able to overcome my fear of doing or saying the wrong thing. I no longer equate making a mistake with being a failure. I feel confident about myself and my sense of style.
I might never rise to the standards set by my mother, but I know now I no longer need to. I'm happy. And I think I look pretty good, too.
Lisa Morrow is a sociologist, blogger and the author of three books about Turkey, most recently Waiting for the Tulips to Bloom: Adrift in Istanbul. Her website www.insideoutinistanbul.com came about from her determination to scratch away the seemingly mundane surface of ordinary Turkish life to reveal the complexities below. She has a monthly spot on San Francisco Turkish Radio, has been interviewed on several national radio programs in her native Australia, and more recently has begun to write on a range of topics including refugees, technology and writing, feminism, and her family.