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Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Eye of the Beholder

People are very self-conscious of their appearance in the so-called developed countries. Men and women cannot walk by a mirror, it seems, without at least checking their faces and hair – or just to admire themselves. They consider with great care photographs of themselves before deciding which one they will allow others to see. Many choose to alter their natural appearance with props or even surgery, or employ subterfuges to cover up those qualities they consider to be less than fully appealing.

In Panamá, this self-consciousness is increasingly less apparent the farther down one is on the social scale. Gringo women here, as in the Northern Hemisphere, wouldn’t even think of going out into public without being perfectly dressed, coiffed, and made up. Panamanian women (that is those who claim Spanish ancestry) are far less concerned about these matters, though they generally choose outfits that they think make them look more attractive; they at least put on at least lipstick and often pluck their eyebrows. The Ngobe Bugle women, while their bodies are always washed and their hair carefully combed, while they invariably wear immaculately clean traditional dresses, never wear makeup nor in any way do they try to “improve” their appearance – and yet I have never seen a people with women (and men) so frequently beautiful as they.

This lack of self-consciousness is never so obvious as when these Native Americans see a photograph of themselves. They do show surprise, pleasure, and even pride when I present them with pictures of their children. But they are typically nonplussed or even merely uninterested in their own images. I am sure that in part it is because they rarely encounter themselves as an object – their homes don’t include mirrors, and when they wash their clothes in a stream they show about as much interest in their reflection as a cat.

The faces they see are the faces of nature: the ever-changing faces of the mountains that benignly look down on them, the faces of fields and forests in the

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  1. I've been neglecting reading this, but this was a very enjoyable entry. Perhaps I am part Panamanian - sometimes I realise I haven't looked at myself in a mirror for days. I'm frequently staggered at the women taking their children to school who've obviously very carefully done hair and make-up beforehand, and are dressed like they're going out for a night on the town. It sounds like there's a difficult clash of cultures in Panama, though - a new kind of life rubbing up against the old one and fracturing where it touches...

  2. They say that this region is susceptible to volcanic and earthquake activity, but I believe that far more damage is done by the clash of cultures. I can only hope the Guaymi way survives.