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Russian Beauty in the Eyes of an American Beholder

Katrina in Russia. Katrina Keegan

Does adapting to Russia mean choosing to be "beautiful"?

As far as stereotypes about Russia goes, "beautiful women" is up there with "vodka" and "cold." When I planned to come to Russia, people with experience in the country told me that American girls can almost never get dates. This matched my own experience in Moldova and Azerbaijan, where my feeling of relative attractiveness plummeted in comparison to the women around me.

Of course, there are far more important things about study abroad than feeling attractive. For starters, anything I lose in attractiveness I gain in being interesting as a foreigner. However, in a culture where your host grandmother will unabashedly comment on how your jeans make your legs look and the first thing a classmate says to you is that you have pretty eyes, beauty is not a topic easily avoided.

Beauty is in the imagination of the culture. In different places and times, standards of female beauty have differed wildly. Still, in modern Western culture, there exists an ideal of a white European, tall woman with an hourglass figure, long glossy hair, and high cheekbones. You can indeed find her in Russia.

She is using her graceful hands with carefully manicured nails to emphasize a point in class. She is waiting at a bus stop in a long wool coat and high-heeled boots. She is in the arms of her lover on the five-minute long escalator ride down to the metro. However, I was surprised to find that she is not the only type of young woman in Russia. I frequently see women with short pink hair, big glasses, sneakers, oversized sweaters or overalls.

There is still something specific about all Russian women, whether they conform to the stereotype or not: Their appearance is intentional. If a woman is wearing teal and lime-coloured running shoes, she has a teal and lime-patterned scarf to match. Lipstick is the exact shade of earrings. A girl who has committed to short pink hair has also committed to a sparkly coat, and when a girl wears fishnet tights, you can bet she has heavy eye makeup.

There is still something specific about all Russian women, whether they conform to the stereotype or not: Their appearance is intentional.

Russian women are not just inherently beautiful. They are in the habit of being beautiful, of actively choosing and caring about their appearance. It is no accident that there are beauty salons on every other block. My 70-year-old host grandmother became very concerned when she noticed a few of my hairs were falling out in the shower, and bought an anti-hair loss shampoo to show me. The concept of candid photos does not exist. The entire city of St. Petersburg has been enjoying the beautiful fall leaves in suburban parks, and of course, taking a lot of photographs. While I am thrilled with a mid-laugh photo with my hair in my face, they gather the brightest leaves into bundles and pose.

In many ways, I have also gotten into the habit of being beautiful in an attempt to fit in. For the first time in my life I started using oils in my hair, and now I understand that the mass of glossy hair around me is not a genetic gift—I can have it, too. I wear makeup nearly daily, sometimes as heavy as you would normally only see at parties in my American college. I found a long wool coat in a second-hand shop, and when my previous boots fell apart I bought new ones with heels.

I still do not look Russian. My large, practical backpack conflicts with my elegant wool coat. On days I am running late and don’t have time for makeup, my bare face feels wrong paired with a sweater-dress and heeled boots. I wear those boots daily, because they are comfortable, but they look out of place with jeans and a t-shirt. My appearance is frequently a contradiction, and contradiction does not look Russian. Russian beauty is not about tall blondness or any other particular ideal; it is about the existence of ideals themselves toward which people strive every day, completely.

I am not Russian, and will not ever look, or become, Russian completely, no matter how well I speak the language, know the culture, or match my lipstick to my dress. I am an American who, by living abroad, has acquired some Russian habits and things. This might make me look like a contradiction, but it makes me feel like the complete version of myself. I think that is beautiful.

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Katrina Keegan

Katrina Keegan is a University of Chicago student studying in St. Petersburg, Russia for the 2018-2019 academic year through the Bard-Smolny Program. She is living with a host family and taking classes with local students.

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