The Dalai Lama recently got into hot water because he said that if his successor is to be a woman, she ought to be attractive. It helps, he explained. He’s been making quite a few old fart gaffs lately but there is something to the idea that possessing external beauty is a positive, especially for a resistance campaign like the exiled Tibetan government is waging/resigned to.

There is a power in physically attractiveness. People treat you differently if you are fit and your hair is shiny. I have known this since I was a kid (well, early adolescent) but did not appreciate the power since it was not mine then. I developed early and this led to a lot of unwanted attention from some very unsavory types. I scorned “beauty” products and tried to make myself as nondescript as possible, keeping my hair cut as short as the scissors could go without cutting myself. I did not want to be noticed or treated differently. I wanted to be invisible.
Invisible equaled safe.

This continued into my adulthood as I passively reacted to ill-treatment by my partner. I was like a turtle, retreating into a shell that only I could see. As if being plain and chubby could protect me. It was a naive defense strategy hatched by a naive woman. I was like that for a long, long time. I had four kids, three years apart, meaning that I was either pregnant and/or breastfeeding for about twelve years straight. My body was not my own. I kept it clean and serviceable, like I would have a second-hand Corolla.

Things began to change after my youngest was in kindergarten. Many different elements contributed to it but the real kicker was getting a job here in Hiroshima, at a private school where appearances really do matter. My first reaction was to dye my hair purple then cut it extremely short. But then I started to understand that I needed this job, that I needed to blend in a little better. I got tired of my students calling me fat, yes, but the catalyst was realizing that the more I looked like I belonged, the more I was treated like I belonged.

Belonging is a superficial construct and as a foreigner, I will never achieve complete acceptance, and am lucky to get even partial acceptance. As an outsider even in my hometown, being different is something I am accustomed to and even comfortable with but logistically, wanting to keep my job, wanting to help the kids feel more stable, I realized it is best to blend as much as I can manage.

I live in a place where the art of superficiality, of not letting the surface reveal the depths hidden underneath, is highly admired. It is a bit false but I am aware of what I am doing as I grow out my hair, as I eliminate gray hairs, as I diet and exercise. Just as I went to school to improve my job prospects, I am improving my appearances to make my life easier. People trust attractive people and I desire that trust, especially as an outsider.

This is the truth, as I understand it right now: I cannot be invisible but I can be unnoticed. That works well for me, as a writer and artist. No longer am I a shrinking violet because I want to deter the wrong sort of attention. It is my responsibility to pay attention to everything, to study others, and that job is not easy when the subject turns their gaze on you. I have embraced a skill learned in the context of fear and abuse and reclaimed it, not as something reactive but as something proactive.

In America, being bland is a better way of camouflaging but here, where there is a hair salon on every corner, where even the most provincial shopping mall has a Coach and Gucci store, being attractive, or at least decently presentable, is the way to go for those of us wishing to hide in plain sight.

So, if you turn the Dalai Lama’s controversial comments around and include the term “use” (he said there would “not be much use” if she was unattractive) then I am trying, through trial and error, to use my appearance to the advantage of my social acceptance and ultimately, my work.

Maybe the Dalai Lama is a sexist old monk. Or maybe he is simply realistic and knows that in order to survive in this world, sometimes it is necessary to manipulate commonly-held perceptions of beauty in order to do what you are here to do.