Mind the gap.

When I was 12 years old, my parents paid for me to have a minor surgery that would ‘fix’ the gap between my two front teeth. Scandalous. Why would parents intentionally make their child less attractive? That’s the question that could have been asked by our neighbors when we returned to Côte d’Ivoire, West Africa, the following year.

In the Ivorian culture, a woman with a gap between her front teeth is a real beauty. It’s not only a prized look, but also serves the function of allowing her to spit further.

While I grew up in this culture, I admit that I never grew to appreciate the beauty of a woman with a good spitting gap. I did think that tribal scaring was beautiful – and still do, in fact. Many ethnic groups in West Africa used scarring as a form of tribal identification. Even now, I find scars often add character to a person’s face. I knew an American woman who had a scar on her cheek from a childhood accident. She wanted plastic surgery to ‘fix’ it, but I thought she was gorgeous and the scar only accented her beauty.

It’s not just above the neckline that beauty ideals change from culture to culture. I was living in Senegal when we got engaged and two very well-meaning friends pulled me aside to tell me that if I didn’t gain weight before getting married, my husband would be very disappointed on our wedding night. In a developing country such as Senegal, a full-bodied woman is beautiful. It means her family is rich enough for her to eat well.

I can’t say that I intentionally tried to gain weight for the wedding, but I did start wearing my nails shorter in Senegal. A kind woman once took my hand in hers and told me that a woman with long nails is a woman who doesn’t work hard and therefore isn’t respected. She explained that Senegalese women did not hold toubab (white) women to the same standards and that it was okay for me to have longer nails, but not her. But you’d better believe I went right home and busted out the nail file.

While I carefully apply my self-tanner on Today I’m Wearing a Skirt Days, women in Senegal apply skin-lighteners to their faces. Unfortunately these bleaching products can cause severe damage and scarring. Knowing this, women still do it for the sake of beauty. Not altogether unlike the dangers associated with the tanning bed craze in the US, is it? We want darker, they want lighter – and we both ignore the risks in pursuit of beauty.

And what about the French beauty ideals? I can feel the eggshells under my feet as I bring up this topic, so I’ll simply illustrate with an anecdote. About two years ago I was having a discussion with a French woman about women in the US. She asked if they all looked like in the American movies she’d seen. I asked, “You mean always put together from head to toe?” Nope. What she meant was are they all as large as those on screen. (Gulp.) Keep in mind that she was not being rude at all – just surprised by the differences in our cultural beauty ideals.

Good thing my husband feeds my self-esteem well. Too thin in Senegal, too large in France. I might just begin to feel like Goldilocks in search of the culture that I fit just right!