I have never liked going to beauty salons. Haircut, waxing, gift certificate for some fancy treatment—I never feel like I belong there. The appointment seems to emphasize that there is something fundamental to being female that I never learned: like how to make my hair lay flat, or how to apply eyeliner. It’s probably in my head, but I feel like I stick out in these places like a sore thumb.
In the Netherlands this already-fragile situation is compounded by what I think of as The Bluntness. This is the European
filterlessness honesty that frees people to say whatever they are thinking. In most cases, it’s not a bad thing. It’s kind of refreshing. You are completely liberated to give the truth in response to questions like: How was your weekend? or Do you like this sweater? or When you come over for dinner on Friday, would it be OK if I served raw beef?
Some of our European friends who have spent time in the States have picked up on the American phenomenon which is kind of the opposite of this: polite, smile-and-nod answers, as if you don’t want to burden the other person with your actual feelings. When I tell my German friend that I like something, he immediately gets in my face and asks me: “Do you like it, or do you AMERICAN-like it?”
It may sound subtle, but this cultural difference is one I think I’ve absorbed. I don’t feel guilty telling a friend I’d rather stay in if I don’t want to go out for lunch; and I recently caught myself writing a work e-mail to a colleague in the US basically asking: “Is the meeting to which you have invited me going to waste my time?” (Luckily I caught myself and gave this note a nice American smooth-out before I sent it.) In fact, I’ve reflected, I may be well-suited for The Bluntness: at my first performance review at my first full-time job, one of the “instructive points” I received was that my insights were good, but I needed to be more tactful when stating them. (Or, you could move to Europe!)
But The Bluntness can go too far, especially in situations where you feel you are being personally sized up. Since moving to the Netherlands I have had a hard time finding a salon at which I feel comfortable (maybe you’ll see why in a minute), and so I’ve had the opportunity to try a whole bunch. In the course of those experiences, I have been told the following things, generally with no lead-in:
- Your hair looks very bad.
- Did you know you have gray hairs?
- How old are you? …. Oh, for thirty-one, your skin is not very nice. Did you know that?
This last came from a woman on Wednesday who was trying to sell me facial cream. (Guess what? I didn’t buy it.) Following that pleasant encounter, I went for my inaugural visit to the gym I just joined during their free-January promotion (yes, I know, intended to get all the suckers like me to sign up). My rationale for joining a gym is to round out the exercise I get running with some upper-body work, and have someplace to run on crummy weather days. I visited that day at a busy time, when the gym seemed mostly full of weight-lifting guys, and there were hardly any other girls around.
High-school gym failed me, 1. because I still have no idea what to do in a weight room; 2. because it gave me the idea that I was “not athletic.” I’m still working on #1, but not #2. I looked at the bank of treadmills in the gym (all facing the street windows, so pedestrians can watch you), and they were mostly occupied, all by men running. When we lived in Boston I belonged for a while to a very nice gym, but exercise was more of an aspiration for me than a reality then. I was intimidated by people who knew why they were at said gym, and if I had wanted to use a treadmill but seen them all occupied by a bunch of guys, I would have walked away. I would have gone and found something else to do in a quiet corner where it felt like no one could see me.
This was kind of a revelation for me on Wednesday, as I walked right up there with no hesitation. (Sure, I couldn’t remember how to start a treadmill, but that’s because I haven’t run on one in years.) I’m not a super-fast runner or anything, but—let me be blunt—I’m not about to be intimidated by gym junkies after I ran 2 half marathons last year.