Beauty, the beast

“Beauty is self confidence applied directly to the face.” source not known

A few bits of rubbish blow from the street into my small yard daily, and as I collect it for the bin I discover products I would not necessarily go searching for. These range from different varieties of potato chips and sweets, to cleaning products. A recent blow-in was a small cardboard packet with graphics in delicate pink, and two faces of a woman, one with skin darker and one lighter. Branded Fair & Lovely, it claims to be a Total Fairness Cream. This Unilever concoction appears to be “multivitamin” capsules, and the content is to be massaged twice daily into skin of face and neck. The instructions claim it will produce:

Sunprotected bright look
Soft & smooth glowing skin
Even toned radiance
The Final Result: Total Fairness

The package also says it contains no harmful ingredients or bleach, but being familiar with the nasty chemicals used in most cosmetics, which I refuse to use (I carted a stash of Perfect Potion natural products all the way to Egypt), I can see some unhealthy content in the list of ingredients. At the chemist I subsequently saw the same product among a choice of several claiming a similar effect, so it is obviously not just something discarded by a city visitor, but something the Siwan women buy.

In Egypt it is a compliment to have a face “like the moon”, glowing, pale and rounded; as the majority of people have darker skin colours, light skin is valued. T. refers to me as milk and himself as tea, and to mixed race babies as “tea with milk baby” or “Nescafe baby”.

As a teenager I would spend up to 8 hours a day on school holidays sunbaking (and reading or listening to radio – it was in some ways constructive lazing) to get as dark as I could, because that was considered attractive. Both my parents had pale angloceltic skins, Dad is a redhead so has a very pale skin base, though it is now covered with freckles. My sister is also pale and freckles. But I seemed to have inherited some odd genes, and along with different coloured eyes than my parents and sister, while my skin is milky I do tan easily if I take it slowly. However, I stopped baking in my late 20s, having seen the damage my mother always warned about; I initially had freckles only on my nose and knees, but after one overly zealous effort at browning, all the skin on my back skin peeled, revealing a mass of freckles for the first time. I was also seeing my dad have skin cancers removed every year, and more recently my sister has had this done.

Now I am older, visible sun damage in the form of wrinkles has increased, especially since I have lost weight and there is less flesh to pad out the skin. Of course in Siwa I am mostly covered, but my feet, face and hands have lightly browned simply though walking around. Sunscreen would just drip off in this heat, and though I carry a parasol for longer walks, it is inevitable I get some exposure. There is no way though that I would bake in the sun now to achieve a skin colour other than my own, so it saddens me that women here are falling for the same old “a different colour is better” line from their society and that the cosmetic companies are feeding on this, as they do on all our vanities, insecurities and obsessions with appearance.

One of the neighbours has a baby girl who looks to be under a year old, who is very pale, what would be called “white” by people who insist on labeling others by colour. I saw her for the first time a few weeks ago, and as is traditional here her eyes were rimmed in khol, making the eyes stand out and her skin appear even paler. Among her darker skinned sisters I am sure she will be treasured for her skin colour, and this is sad because her sisters are themselves some of the most beautiful girls I have seen, and I suspect will grown into stunning women, with skin the colour of honey.

I hope to discuss this some time with women here, but it won’t be until I have more language obviously. They probably think I am crazy for going out of the house with my face uncovered, not only for modesty reasons, but because I am making the pale skin they see as so desirable, even a few shades darker.

While I brought my own favoured, natural perfume with me, that will run out before I return to Australia. A friend had shown me a little bottle of perfume from one of the stores here, a good size for carrying around. When you greet people here that you know well, you kiss them on either check several times (the number of side kisses increases for those closer to you), so you want to smell good when you are going to be getting close to people. I found the store has a choice of a dozen perfumes in two sizes of bottle, and a woody oriental scent like those I have always preferred (I have never been a floral girl and don’t like anything with a lavender base, even though that is a preferred ingredient in much aromatherapy). The little bottles cost about $1 Australian, and so far daily use for two months has taken about half the bottle, a bargain. The bottles are cute, and the scents as good as anything I’ve ever used, so friends in Australia can expect to see these in their gifts when I eventually make a return visit.

Another thing I want to find out about is sugaring, which is the method many in Egypt use to remove hair, using a sort of caramel paste instead of wax. I am not a waxer, more an occasional shaver, but I have been suffering heat rash which is aggravated by the high mineral content in the water which is trapped between hairs and dries after swimming and showering, so I need to consider waxing to be more comfortable. Also so that if any of my lower leg is visible, I won’t look like a walking forest; Melbourne winters and opaque stockings did have something in their favour…

The Siwan women I have seen have smooth legs, and even smooth forearms so I wonder if they also sugar their arms. I knew Egyptian women traditionally removed absolutely all body hair for their wedding night, though I am not sure if this is still usual, and I have heard but can’t confirm that a Brazilian is also the norm for Siwan women. Not keen to remove all hair, but smooth legs would be good. I tried asking M., the neighbour’s wife, but our conversation got muddled and after a negative look I realized I should not continue until I have more language.

Maybe sharing women’s personal habits is a no go here, unlike in the West where girlfriends frequently discuss and entire magazines are devoted to these issues. The chemist again offers several alternatives, familiar hair removers like Nair and a local product that appears to be prepackaged form of sugaring, so I may try that.

Henna is used on hands and feet here for celebrations, just as in India, and invariably when you see the young girls dressed in their party dresses, they happily show you the latest henna patterns on their hands. Even the little ones, two years old or so, have their hands done so they are part of the tradition.

Kohl around the eyes is used by the women again mostly for special events, but also worn by a few of the men. It is a surprise to see men wearing it the first few times, but as with the women it brings out the colour of their eyes. Many Siwans do not have the variations of brown iris that most Egyptians have. While some Egyptians do have other irises that are not brown or hazel, a greater percentage of Siwans show iris variation, especially different shades of beautiful greens or greys that are vividly noticeable against darker skins.

photos above are not taken by me, but fit the theme – what some consider beautiful, others do not. Some would think these little foxes look strange because of their large ears, but I find them beautiful. These are Fennec foxes, which we see sometimes in Siwa. I haven’t managed to photograph one yet as they move fast and we usually only see them when driving at night out to the hot spring.

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