Tea bags: Preening

I think all tea bags should have quotes. Why? Because quotes are awesome and tea is awesome—so they’re obviously a perfect pair. Okay, seriously, I like pondering a quote as I start my cup of tea. Tea puts the mind in a contemplative state.

Today’s topic is based on the tea bag quote, “Care about what other people think and you will always be their prisoner” brought to me by Lao Tzu. And the topic? Beauty and how that shapes the female experience. Sounds like a sociology thesis, but it’s just some observations.

Warning, I will be talking in generalizations. As with all generalizations, they are an average. They are a way of summarizing data and are not true for all individuals in the data set. Okay, we are going to talk about free time pastimes by gender in Paraguay. But, first I’d just like to say that family, terere, parties, and mate are cross-gender pastimes.

Paraguayan men have a common set of free time pastimes: soccer, volleyball, drinking alcohol, barbecuing, playing cards, and wooing ladies. Of course not all Paraguayan men do all these things and some do other things, but this list is the baseline.

Paraguayan women have a different set of pastimes: praying, watching TV, and looking pretty. There are others, but they are not as common (according to my observation). I want to talk about the umbrella category “looking pretty.” This category includes: selecting clothes and shoes, doing hair, painting nails, putting on makeup, and being in places where one can be seen.

As a general rule, Paraguayan women look impeccable. I’ve often wondered how they do it. I don’t know how they beat the humidity, but I’ve gained a better understanding of how they do it in general. Paraguayan women dedicate a great deal of time and energy to their look. The hours men use playing or watching sports (and cards), women spend on preening. That is a lot of time—maybe 30 and up to 70 percent of all waking free time. Women chat over manicures and pedicures, men chat over cards or on a playing field. Women gossip while straightening each others’ hair, if men gossip (I don’t know) they do it over beer.

I used to wonder why I sometimes felt disconnected from my young, female, Paraguayan friends. But, I finally figured it out, as best as I can at least. I am not a preener. I know how to dress well, contrary to my mother and sister’s beliefs. I know what hairstyles look good on me, how to do makeup, and match my accessories even though my Paraguayan friends might not believe it if you told them. But, I don’t do those things everyday. If fact, I only do those things when I have to—like when I’m going to a wedding, an interview, or that time I had a job where it really mattered.

I feel pressure to step up my game when I’m hanging around my Paraguayan friends. I feel like I’m constantly going to an interview. Well, I felt that way until I stopped caring and started wondering what it implies that a large portion of women’s free time is spent on preening. It was harsh when I realized to keep up with Paraguayan women how much time I’d need to primp. Not happening. I’d rather do…well, almost anything else.

The thing about time is that it passes and once it’s gone there’s no getting it back. We can choose to do whatever we want each moment, but we can’t earn back what we’ve already spent. Many women enjoy pedicures and manicures. Great, awesome for them. But, I’ve come to wonder what it says about us, women, if a lot of our free time is spent doing stuff to impress others.

Some say that women dress to impress other women. Perhaps. But, the point is still that time spent on preening is mostly to influence the thoughts of others, and only partly done out of self-interest or for personal amusement. It starts to become clear why gender lines are so clear in Paraguay, when so much effort is burned (by women) on maintaining the image of beauty generally accepted by society. Girls wear earrings. Girls do their hair. Girls wear pink. Girls wear uncomfortable shoes. Girls do not climb trees…

Free time is free time and individuals should spend it how they wish. But, what about when maintaining an image of beauty starts to get in the way of other aspects of women’s lives? I am specifically thinking about my female, eighth grade students. Should they spend much of their class time applying makeup, peering into mirrors, taking selfies, and doing each others’ hair? I don’t know, but math, language, and history seem a little more pressing.

My claim is straightforward. As long as women spend much of their free time doing activities related to their look, they will remain disempowered. To rise up women must find a way to value themselves by their actions and using their own rubric—not by hoping to fulfil someone else’s definition of beauty.