Sunday, July 28, 2013

Finally, much ado about clothes

It is 71 degrees here.  I am cold. 

I saw a status on Facebook a couple of days ago from someone I know who just got back to the States from living in Jerusalem.  It said something to the effect of "people in the US look naked and the produce is huge."

Yesterday I went to the mall with my two lovely little sisters to buy myself some clothes.  Shopping was painful for a variety of reasons.  One of these reasons was, of course, ongoing cultural shock.  One facet of which I am about to write about.

I, dear reader, have been thinking about this post for a couple of years.  I have been hesitant to post it, but now feels like a good time.   On a base level, this post is about boobs.  On a more intellectual level, it is about clothing, standards of dress, and how these are different here than in Togo.

I remember the first time I saw a topless woman in Togo.  It was, I think, September 2010.  We were returning to Gbatope from a training session in Tsevie.  There was a middle-aged woman standing on a streak corner dressed in a skirt and streaks of white voodoo paint.  Her boobs reached to her belly button. For one surreal moment I thought I was in one of those issues of National Geographic from the 1970s that introduces Americans to "exotic" or "tribal" peoples from around the world by showing pictures of their women in various stages of undress. "Boobs! look how different these people are! their women are topless!" Ugh.  Women in southern Togo, or in bigger towns, usually don't go topless.  Then I went to village.

I might have blogged about Togolese dress before, I can't remember. So my apologies if you have read some of this before.  In Nampoch, which is by no means indicative of the rest of Togo since clothing customs tend to change between ethnic groups/regions, peoples' approach to clothes seems to be somewhat lackadaisical, at least at first.  Kids of both sexes are mostly naked, normally, until they are about 3 or 4. Then they gradually graduate to pants, or underwear to us.  Then about age 10 or so they start wearing shirts.  Of course they all have "nice" clothes that they wear when they go to the marche, or when there is a funeral or something.  But, on a daily basis, pre-teen kids dont wear a whole lot.  Once the girls hit puberty, sometimes later depending on the village, they start wearing shirts pretty much constantly.  Adha, for example, always wears shirts during the day.  At night, she may or may not.  When women give birth, however, they are free to do whatever they want.  Ntido was fairly careful about wearing shirts around me until she had Alix, then she didnt care anymore.  I could not count, in a given day, how many times I saw a well-dressed woman breast feeding a baby in a car, in the marche, along the road, where ever. Just "boom" boob and happy, usually, kid.  This, I think, is a much healthier, not to mention smarter, more natural, and less puritanical, approach to breast feeding than here.  But I digress.

Anyway, thus, I grew accustom to seeing my host mom's  boobs all day. Every day.  If she was going out, she would dress up.  If she was hanging out at home, topless.  The same with most of my neighbors.  I would be sitting on my porch reading a book, without a shirt, and some woman would come over in a skirt.  No problem. I would go visit Kodjo and his wife would be hanging out in a skirt.  This is not to say that people in Nampoch are somehow immodest.  Quit the opposite.  Women, and men, may spend most of their leisure time topless, but they always wear pants/skirts. And they Always dress well when they go out.

Compared to this, Americans, in public at least, generally look like they are naked. 

If my host mom goes to the marche, or anywhere, she dresses up.  She puts on her best clothes.  She gets her purse and wears her shoes.  She might pull out a boob to feed her child, but that is natural and not immodest. Togolese certainly see it that way.  Here, I still do a double-take when my sister goes to work wearing short shorts.  Or when I am in the mall and I see some guy with his shirt ripped down the sides to his waist.  Petit would wear a shirt like that to the field, never in public.  Togolese women wear shorts like that as underwear. 

I think the discontinuity, for me at least, rests in the fact Togolese care a lot more about their appearance in public than Americans do, yet are more relaxed about the human body in general.  It is the opposite here.  "Casual" dress has become a point of pride bordering on a quasi- "right" in which "comfort" equals strategically placed "less."  It is, at least to me, a lot simpler to take the Togolese approach- to dress well, to have pride in what you are wearing, and, by doing so, respecting both yourself and people around you.  But that is just me.   

In the same vein, shopping sucks.  I have not had to worry about matching.  Or styles. Or fashion.  Or what guys my age wear now for 3 years.  Styles have passed me by.  And what the hell is with all the tshirts having some kind of advertising on them now?  I want to wear a shirt, not be some bullshit billboard for some cooperation.  I miss being in Togo where I can throw clothes on and be "well dressed" as long as what I am wearing is clean and in good repair.  The really funny thing is that all these fashions now will be there in a couple of years.  Tommy jeans look really good after a season in the fields. 

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