I’ve never had much patience with hair and haircuts. Just cut it, I’ll say. Straight across. I’d leave salons with my hair wet, because, after all, I was only heading home or to the barn or out to walk the dogs. My Connecticut hair person knew not to take it personally. I owned a hair dryer, but rarely used it, and never bothered to dry my hair completely. I’d show up at classes with my hair still damp, and frequently walked the dogs in the winter with my hair frozen solid. Here in Portugal, I didn’t so much as bother buying a hair dryer.

A distinct cultural difference between the U.S. and Portugal, and one that made me feel immediately visibly American, is the way women of all ages here take care to look put together before they leave home. U.S. women do dress beautifully, of course, but mostly for work, or special occasions. Day to day, it’s jeans, sweatshirts (admittedly my first choices), PJ bottoms on my college students, women buying groceries in sweats or yoga pants. Not here.

It’s true that jeans are more ubiquitous with younger women this year than last, but there is something more polished about the young women here than many of the college students I was familiar with, where dressing down was the statement to make. Even more striking, women my age and younger dress. Not like Parisiennes, where women magically turn scarves into sculpture, but neatly, every day, for the simplest errands. Dresses, skirts, matching jackets, nice sweaters, a little jewelry, carefully combed (and dried!) hair, heels – even on these hills and cobble stones! – instead of cross trainers. Even the older women I see leaning out of their windows to chat with neighbors have taken care with how they look, how they present themselves.

What is so very different about our attitudes? Is it how we feel about ourselves? Others?

Enter Alexandra, my new hair cut person.

As was my habit, I told her to cut my hair straight across and not to bother blow drying, but she said, gently, “You’re a lady. We’ll dry your hair.” That gave me pause. (The word ‘lady’ is one of respect here; it’s not a “Hey lady, move your car.”) I sat back and let her. Seeing oneself as a lady? All the time? Is that the difference? Portuguese women are strong individuals, the young women impressively self-assured. Being a lady isn’t a sign of sweet submissiveness. So, is looking nice a statement of strength? As Alexandra was finishing, and had my hair looking unusually nice, I laughed and said, “all dressed up and nowhere to go.” She said, “You do it for yourself.”

Mmmm.

It is said that American women dress for other women (not for men). If true, this might mean we are dressing for show, to be seen, not necessarily to be ourselves, or to feel good about ourselves as we go about our daily lives, but to satisfy a role, to make a public statement which may or may not be true. If so, what does chronic dressing down mean?

American media go to great lengths to convince us to spend time on ourselves, to not completely lose ourselves in our jobs or in the care of others. And it’s true. If we don’t, we do lose our sense of self, and with it some measure of self-respect. But the fact that we need to be told to bother eating well, or to take a moment for makeup, or to change out of sweats. What does that say? Why, for American women, does taking time for oneself equate with selfishness, and bring on guilt?

Portuguese women don’t seem to need to be told. Taking care with their appearance isn’t something to apologize for, and it isn’t only a reason to show off or make a statement. It seems to be a simple statement of self-respect and respect for the society of which they are a part.

I’m all for casual and comfortable, but what does it say when a student shows up for a class in PJ’s? Or a woman shows up at Big Y in sloppy sweats? What does it say about what we think about that campus or that grocery store or that coffee shop when we show up in yoga pants? Wet hair?

When Alexandra said, “We’ll dry your hair, you’re a lady,” I felt it was her way of saying you are welcome here, you belong here. Don’t shy away.

I bought a hair dryer. I’m using it.