Scrolling through tribal photos, I discovered the Mentawai culture, people indigenous to the islands of West Sumatra. Isolated from Sumatra’s mainland, their culture endures, largely unaltered, a culture of deep spirituality and earth friendly customs.
The first thing that struck me was the fitness of the older tribespeople, not the disproportionate physiques of gym-goers, but the taut muscles and spare frames of people aligned with nature from birth to death. Their principal food is the sago palm; each tree cut down is immediately replaced. Men hunt wild pigs, primates and deer, while women fish and harvest fruits and vegetables. Clothing is simple: loincloths for the men, banana leaf skirts for the women. Both sexes sharpen their front teeth, for aesthetic reasons, and both are heavily decorated with line tattoos. Tattoo artists are respected for their work, and those who undergo the painful process (a sharpened animal bone is dipped into charcoal and repeatedly hammered into the skin) do so gladly and stoically. Looping necklaces of colorful beads are worn by most of the tribespeople, along with bracelets and armbands. The windowless communal houses are constructed of bamboo and grass, with wood floors on stilts to protect from floods and predators.
The second thing that caught my eye in these photos was the look contentment among the elderly. The men appeared cheerful; the women exuded a general satisfaction, a composure, a sureness, not common in our culture. Few people in the United States would trade their cars, homes and grocery stores for life in the jungle, but the photos of the gently smiling Mentawai women make me wonder: What constitutes personal freedom and how much of it do we really have?
Sometimes while shopping, I experience a flush of satisfaction as I cruise past the items that don’t pertain to me: baby food, condoms, curling irons, hair coloring kits. Ignoring all that energy and advertising confers what feels like power. I also snub the cosmetics, aisle after aisle of them (though I do brush a little color on my cheeks each day to appear more alive). I did use makeup when I was a young woman—mascara, eye liner, eye shadow, lipstick—the whole mob; even streaked my hair. Ironic that now, with my shrinking eyebrows and gray hair, I have turned my back on the props.
In a culture that values youth and beauty, aging is not easy, particularly for women. As toddlers we begin to perceive the sovereignty of Barbie and Cinderella, and woe to little girls who are not conventionally pretty, who will be molded by this knowledge in ways they will not understand. I like to think that compensation awaits these girls, that having less to lose, getting older will be a bit easier.
Stopped in traffic one time, I looked to my left, at a woman behind the wheel of a Mercedes coupe. For a moment our eyes met and she tried to smile—perhaps she thought she managed it; what I saw was a grimace, the skin so taut it appeared to be covered with cellophane. Her eyelids were drooping under the weight of false lashes, her mouth was a fire red gash and her hair—the color of cantaloupes—was elaborately rigged on top of her head. She was fierce, this woman. She had time in a stranglehold and she was not giving up an inch. She was losing, she knew it, but she was not giving up.
I don’t have that kind of fight in me, don’t want to battle the years I have left. As far as I’m concerned, the only practical response to aging is forgiveness, excusing each new erosion as it appears. What can we do with our body but love it, love it all the more for its diminishing street value.
I think about the old Mentawai women, what they would think of makeup and hair dye and plastic surgery. These things would have to be explained to them, and even then they would not understand the motivation, in the same way that the Dalai Lama did not understand the term “low self-esteem” when he was first learning about western culture.
For the Mentawai people aging is a matter of fact. In the most important sense of the word, they are free, as they were all along, without knowing it. As Americans, we cannot fathom these lives of self-acceptance; we may as well try to think our way into the mind of a grasshopper. Shackled, we cannot imagine life any other way.