Friday, June 5, 2009

Beauty school

I just returned from Giulio’s graduation and in the midst of teary parents, moving faculty speeches, and thoughts about life transition markers, my mind kept returning to one thing: judgement.

I was reminded of how important school prestige is in the U.S. And the fact that since I moved to Caracas, the question, “So where did you go to school?” has only come up amongst gringos, not locals.

Which school you attend is also important here, and people certainly judge you by it, but not nearly as ruthlessly as people in the U.S. do. It is so important in the U.S.that colleges have essentially turned into businesses—you pay (a lot) for the name—and which college you’ll attend is in some areas a serious topic of conversation as early as age 11.

Lots of people in the U.S. think they know everything about you once they learn your alma mater, or what you do for a living. So that is our superficial standard for judging strangers.

As I sat in the audience watching heads of luxuriously shiny hair proceed down the degree line, I realized that the only near-equivalent here is beauty. I’ve met many Caraqueños raised to understand that a good-looking person, especially a woman, is successful in ways that supersede her appearance alone. You can (irrationally) extrapolate information about a beautiful person in the same way people in the U.S. (irrationally) extrapolate information about a Harvard graduate.

In Caracas, people think they will get everything they want in life if they are beautiful, and it is a perfectly logical goal to do whatever you can to become more beautiful, even if that quest involves painful surgery and spending hours at a salon on a more than frequent basis.

In the U.S. the reaction to such decisions would be you must have nothing between your ears if you spend so much time on that, and therefore I don't want to talk to you, but the common response here is: good for you—you have direction in life and you must know something about how to get ahead that I don't know, so please, let's meet for a coffee. And if you don’t take care of your appearance, then you are not quite as worthy of adoration and respect; most likely poor at handling life in general.

That's not to say that you'll fail at life if you are ugly here, but Caracas is arguably the
worst place in the world to be ugly, in the same way Concord, Massachusetts is the worst place in the world to not be accepted at a Top Ten college.