Keeping up appearances

We all flipped the pages of our calendars a few days ago. When that happened, hundreds of people who work in the environmental field in my state suddenly saw this image.

Miss August shows that foreign tourists visit the National Park to enjoy "extreme sports"

Miss August shows that foreign tourists visit the National Park to enjoy “extreme sports”

Miss August: cool shot, right? Well it’s ME in the photo! I mentioned this promotional calendar for the state’s Ministry of the Environment & Natural Resources back in January. You really never know what will happen in life. I certainly never pictured myself appearing in a calendar, but here we are.

It reminds me of a story from two weeks ago. Please allow me to set the scene.

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I carefully scanned the sidewalk for holes or metal projections, even more so than usual; this time I was high-heeled. A skirt and a fancy braid were added, and, to top off the look, I was rocking eyeliner in the style taught to me by a rugby player who used the stuff to hide her sports-induced black eyes.

Spider-leg-style eyelashes and enough eyeliner to look normal on city streets

Spider-leg-style eyelashes and enough eyeliner to look normal on city streets

My destination: the immigration office. My arms carried a plentiful stack of forms and copies of personal documents associated with one of four Peace Corps Volunteers; it was all of the paperwork needed to update addresses for our work visas. Or so I was lead to believe.

Bureaucracy in Mexico is legendary, although it certainly is not the worst in the world. Still, in my mind, any level of professionalism and respect brought to the Oficina de Migración would be rewarded by a slight minimization of the bureaucratic process. Since any effort that I could make to smooth the process could potentially pay off, I donned what I referred to as my “woman’s costume.”

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Obviously I do not dress like this often. I work in a National Park for goodness sake! Can you imagine a girl showing up in stilettos and non-waterproof mascara to do field work on mountain trails during the rainy season?!

Typical office wear. Missing from the shot: my field backpack and a raincoat

Typical office wear. Missing from the shot: my field backpack and a raincoat

But here’s the thing: appearance is a big deal here. Peace Corps Mexico staff members drilled this in our heads since before day one. However, since most people wear jeans and US American brand t-shirts around my city, I did not notice it at first. I chalked the difference up to my city being a whole lot more blue-collar than where the PC office is located. People are definitely not as image-conscious as those in Querétaro, right?

What I had been overlooking was that these casual clothes are typically paired with nice shoes, shiny belt buckles, heavy make-up, styled hair, and painted/buffed finger nails. I had not been living up to this part of the style.

Mexican casual: button-down, nice boots, belt-buckle, and a hat

Mexican-casual: button-down, nice boots, belt-buckle, and a hat

Braids, ribbons, make-up, floral patterns, and color

Braids, ribbons, make-up, floral patterns, and color

These two look nice, even when they've been shoveling in the dirt. Check out the boots and the button-downs!

These two look nice, even when they’ve been shoveling in the dirt. Check out the boots and the button-downs!

This became apparent to me when I left my bedroom to go out on the town with some friends one night. I passed my roommate in the hall wearing a t-shirt with a few extra feminine touches, my new heeled leather boots, and a light American-style amount of make-up. My roommate’s jaw dropped at these small changes. Who is that? She is definitely not the girl that I live with who is always wearing pajamas and running clothes. She is guapa!

Hmm. Maybe I should step-up the look a bit? After all, I am supposed to be representing US Americans and I am not exactly inconspicuous around town. People notice me. I do not want to look like a slob.

Even still, after that night I continued to hold back, appearance-wise. There were the practical reasons: heeled shoes on these streets are scary, particularly since they started deconstructing and remodeling all streets around my house; I am athletic; I work in a National Park; I get dirty regularly; my office is as warm as a refrigerator on a good day and is like Siberia during the cold season. There were plenty of excuses.

Would you wear high heels if the sidewalks looked like this?

Would you wear high heels if the sidewalks looked like this?

Typical office winter-wear

Typical office winter-wear: a shirt, sweater, down vest, scarf, wool headband, long-john pants, regular pants, wool socks, and hiking boots. Sufficiently puffed and still cold!

But beyond the excuses, the real reason was because I did not want to stand out any more than I already inherently do. I get plenty of attention from men; most of it is unwanted and unsolicited and I do not want to encourage that. I would rather be seen as a friend, a co-worker or a stranger than as a sexy woman. Why would I willingly draw that kind of attention to myself?

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A couple months back, I grew tired of the sloppy pony tails and the unflattering t-shirts, of looking frumpy all the time. I used to work at a financial consulting company before coming to Mexico and am no stranger to showing my feminine side. I longed for an opportunity to dust off the make-up bag, pull out my jewelry collection, and put on a nice outfit.

My trip to the immigration office seemed like a great excuse to test out a different look: a combination of my former office-wear and Mexican-style femininity. I dug to the bottom of my suitcase where the Peace Corps-recommended office-wear has sat unused for months, and I hit the streets timidly sporting my “woman’s costume.”

It worked! The level of respect granted to me by strangers markedly increased. People were friendlier, I was getting “usted-ed” at a much higher frequency, and men acted as caballeros with more enthusiasm. On the flip-side, I got plenty of unsolicited attention from men on the streets. It was a healthy mix of cat-calls and polite reverence from strangers.

I am not sure if it actually improved my interaction with the “important” bureaucrat behind the “important” desk at immigration. While I was requested to return the following day with more paperwork, I am certain that it did not hurt.

Lessons learned: keep your wits about you when wearing heels in Mexico, do not bury your femininity too deeply in the closet, and never ignore the small details in Mexico; they are noticed instantly.

A typical town square at dusk. Everyone in town is out noticing how each other look.

A typical town square at dusk. Everyone in town is out noticing how each other look.

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Funny story: I remembered that last lesson a bit too late. When sitting in the waiting room at immigration, I was busy mentally patting myself on the back. I had taken Peace Corps advice about how successful volunteers adapt their appearance to blend in better. But then I looked down and finally remembered that I had not fixed my dirty biologist/rock climber finger nails. Oops!

Sincerely,

Your ever-more feminine, Miss August

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Making me smile:

  • Receiving a cross-Peace Corps blog shout-out from Ecuador! Thanks Mari!
  • Inventing and then impressing with a new cookie recipe
  • Teaching my friends the term “sugar mama” when they forgot their wallets and I had to pay for lunch. In thanks, one patted me on the back and taught me the Mexican saying “may God bless you with many children,” as an alternative for gracias. An excellent linguistic exchange, in my opinion
  • Finally getting back to the beach for the second time in a year. It was totally worth hours upon hours in a bus to hold a baby sea turtle in one of its first moments of life, to release it to the waves on the count of three with a few hundred others, and to wish it luck in surviving its upcoming trails. This was the same species that I had worked to conserve five years ago, and it is the most endangered of all sea turtle species. The cool news is that it continues to make a come-back due to Mexican and US American conservation efforts. When we work together, amazing things happen. Check out which are the only two countries where this species nests!
  • Hearing the repetitive and satisfying clunk of machetes hitting coconuts along the beach
Good luck little Kemp's ridley friend!

Good luck little Kemp’s ridley friend!

2 responses to “Keeping up appearances

  1. You’re so welcome! Love the calendar pic! You have some exceptional images in this post – the ribbons in the hair, the man walking down the street, and this little turtle. Awesome job! Hope all is well up north. Take care, Mari

  2. I always get so excited when I see I have your next entry in my inbox. They always make my day (or night, since I work night-shift)! XO, Nicole

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