Being a Serbian of average looks is no easy task. Sometimes I feel like such an underachiever. A failure, almost. It’s hard to walk down the street here and avoid comparing yourself to hundreds of other women rubbing shoulders with you on the sidewalk. It’s a tall order just going to the supermarket, minding your own business, and then managing to get home without crying in the car because you looked like a frump compared to everyone else in the checkout line. I’ll never forget an American friend once telling me she could never come visit me in Serbia. I was very offended. I told her she was a terrible friend. She nearly cried. “European women terrify me,” she said. “They all look so good. They’re always so well-dressed, so perfectly made-up, so glamorous. I would feel like a giant ugly potato if I ever had to walk down some European street.”
Here in Serbia one can often hear that we have the most beautiful women on the planet. This is a theory we’ve developed over many years, on days when we had nothing better to do and nothing more important to think about. You might think us delusional and unbelievably self-centered, but we truly believe in the truth of this idea. Ask any Serbian to name three best things about Serbia, and the answer will invariably be: food, music, and women.
We are obsessed with our own beauty. We think of female beauty in particular as a never-ending competition with the rest of the world. We have to win it, and we have to win it every day. Open any one of our daily newspapers, and I’ll bet you one of the headlines on the third or fourth page will be that someone, somewhere concluded yet again we have the prettiest and sexiest women in the world. Several years ago when Ana Ivanovic became the #1 tennis player on the planet and won the French Open, we weren’t just proud of her amazing success in a very tough individual sport; we were proud that at the same time as she achieved her many wins on the court that year, she also topped many magazine charts as the most beautiful athlete in the world. Here’s a little experiment for you. Type her name into Google Images right now. See what you come up with. Unless you’re using some kind of super-safe setting for your search results, you’ll find just as many pictures of Ana in a bikini (for no apparent reason other than the fact that she looks good scantily dressed) as those in which she’s holding a racket. Serbian to the bone, she doesn’t just think of herself as a good tennis player; she’s a sexy and beautiful tennis player, and having a smoking hot body is clearly just as important to her as the ability to win points on a great serve. She could spend the rest of her career missing every forehand sent her way across the net, and every Serbian under the sun would still conclude, “Yeah, but she’s fucking gorgeous!” Every failure can be excused here if you’re blessed with God-given good looks.
When I was in the 8th grade (and this story holds true for kids finishing the same level of schooling this very spring) the biggest event of that year for my entire generation was the preparation for our graduation party. I know that children around the world celebrate the end of that stage in their education by throwing a school-sponsored little get-together. Such is not the case here. In Serbia, the 8th grade party is a giant event. It equals the Academy Awards Red Carpet or the famous Vanity Fair After Party. Imagine hundreds of girls aged fourteen shopping for this one glamorous evening, the first of many yet to come in their lives. Dresses, unless they can be bought off the rack at one of the posh domestic department stores, are often ordered from relatives living abroad or custom made by designers charging the equivalent of an entire average yearly salary. In my case, by the time I’d made up my mind to go look for something decent to wear, it was late May and the stores had been cleared out by mothers and daughters smart enough to start planning months in advance. I was left with an uncomfortable choice: having found nothing decent I actually wanted wear, I could simply not go to the party; or, I could compromise with a garment surely inferior to what my friends would be wearing, consoling myself that at least I’d be there to see everyone in my class for that one last time.
In the end, after an agonizing week of indecision and self-doubt, I settled on an outfit actually put together from two separate get-ups. But by that time I’d seen what several of my best friends had lined up to wear. As if being fourteen isn’t hard enough in jeans and tennis shoes! Plagued by a lack of confidence, I spent the last few days of school as if living out a nightmare scripted by none other than Stephen King. It’s truly remarkable how much importance and weight we attach to such things as children. From this perspective, of course it looks ludicrous that I cared so much. But I did, then, and even now thinking about it makes me cringe just little a bit. In the end, having seen the dresses some of the girls would wear (supermodels taken off a New York Fashion Week runway would have looked frumpy next to these young beauties), I opted not to go.
In the years since then, adolescent fashion has taken further leaps forward. There are now designers working in big cities (Belgrade and Novi Sad, for example) who make most of their yearly income during those few spring months when girls prepare for their graduation parties. Parents will take out loans, if they have to, in order to deck their already beautiful daughters in the latest fashions from around the world. There is an incredible amount of pride attached to this moment of seeing your child, looking like a Hollywood superstar, walking out of your house and turning the head of every single passerby within a five kilometer radius. Not even a letter of acceptance from a great university measures up to that level of family satisfaction and joy.
Why is beauty so important to us?
For years, decades really, our country has carried the burden of being Europe’s ultimate loser. We’ve watched as a large part of our territory detached itself slowly, and then (with the help and support of the world’s biggest powers) declared independence. The sense of our exasperation during and after these events cannot be described by me (at least not in this post). We’ve watched as our eastern next-door neighbors Romania and Bulgaria (traditionally inferior to us economically) became members of the European Union. Croatia, our western neighbor, will enter the Union this summer. In the meantime, we’ve been told repeatedly we’re simply not good enough. This club of superior nations wants us to change almost beyond recognition in order to fit into their mold. Everything about us, they say, is wrong. Our sidewalks are too narrow, our street lamps not tall enough, our birds too loud, our grass not the right kind of green, our stairs too steep, our roads too twisty, our trees too leafy, our thoughts too random, and our general way of life just not modern enough for them.
In such a hostile environment of other Europeans who never miss a chance to let us know they’re better than us, we’ve actually developed a serious complex of inferiority. Young people here often react to foreigners as if they’re veritable gods. Jennifer Lopez graced us with her presence last year for a whole afternoon as she passed through on her world tour. Every one of our newspapers put her on the front page, as if Jesus Christ Himself had descended from Heavens. As a nation we feel what I as an individual felt before that 8th grade party. Everyone is better than us, and by nothing more than the simple fact of being “other.”
In order to deal with this foreign-imposed lack of confidence and self-esteem in most areas of life, as a last resort we’ve developed an entire mythology of our own superior beauty. I suppose beauty in an individual can be measured, in a way, if that individual chooses to participate in various beauty contests and/or posts photographs on Facebook likely to draw complimentary comments from friends and relatives. Count the comments, and there’s a kind of measure of beauty. But beauty of an entire nation, all 7 million of us, cannot be calculated and gauged. There’s simply too many variables. And so, we’ve decided to simply believe a statement nobody can accurately check: We are more beautiful than anyone else.
But for a Serbian of regular looks, like me, whether this is true or false doesn’t really matter. In the land of beautiful women, I am still an average frump.