Tuesday, 8 April 2014

The emptiness of manufactured allure

South beach

Visiting South Beach in Miami a couple of days ago has provided me with one of the saddest experiences of recent times. A few brief moments there stunned me and left me unable to relate freely to the friends I was with. Since this event has had such a strong impact on me, I would like to use this post to try and make sense of it for myself, but also to share this, in itself negative, experience with you, in the spirit of completeness and openness.

Let me start by giving an account of what happened.

Last week I spent five days in North Miami on business, with PM and JMGR - two of my very best friends. One evening, for the sake of a change of environment from the conference hotel, we thought of heading out to do a bit of local sightseeing. The day before, some colleagues recommended a visit to South Beach and, without looking into what the destination had to offer, the three of us set out there.

After a lengthy and costly taxi ride, we were dropped off in front of Versace’s house (a destination that held no appeal to any of us, but one that the taxi driver considered de rigueur for tourists, which we obviously were) and set off down Ocean Drive, towards its southernmost tip. The first offering of local culture was a group of inebriated chaps, whose most extensive member immediately launched into what can politely be labelled as an invitation to a mano-a-mano, urban skirmish (with an unusually high frequency of references to mothers). Having spent years in large cities (thank you, London), this was no big deal, and a smile, shrug and feigned incomprehension dealt with the matter successfully.

What came next unsettled me deeply though. While, at first sight it was just a 15-20 second walk through an on-street restaurant, my experience of it was anything but a simple traversal of that space. Instead, I passed through a gauntlet. At the restaurant’s entrance I was met by a woman of approximately my own age, dressed in thigh-high boots and a skirt and top of microscopic square-inchage, counterbalanced by bucket-fulls of makeup and hair extensions reaching down to the top of her boots. The dagger to my heart then came from the expression in her eyes that met me as I tried to smile at her. It was an ashen look of resignation. An emptiness and absence so deep it made me flinch.

As painful as that welcome was, I tried to shake it off, while feeling deeply sorry for this woman. Instead, the rest of the walk through the establishment just kept dragging me deeper and deeper into its oppressive morass. I met three more employees, all wearing variants of the first one’s outfit - nominally with the intention to entice, allure and excite, but each making me more and more concerned for their wellbeing and worried about their mental health.

Walking out at the other end of this pavement-gripping setup left me unable to carry on the light conversation we have been having with my friends and made me a dour companion for the rest of the night (which we, thankfully, spent in a Cuban restaurant a couple of streets away from Ocean Drive - a place whose down-to-earth-ness would normally not be my kettle of fish, but whose normality was a welcome change from the void of Ocean Drive).

Where am I going with all of this though? First of all, I wanted to share a disturbing experience with you, since disturbing experiences tend to be opportunities. I don’t yet know what consequences to draw from it, but it has been undoubtedly unsettling and therefore important, even if in an as yet unclear way. This was also underlined for me yesterday when I saw Pope Francis tweet the following: “How good it is for us when the Lord unsettles our lukewarm and superficial lives.”

Thinking about these words, I can certainly see that the experience was good for me - in spite of it’s great negativity for all involved, and me wishing that that place didn’t exist - it shook me and gave me a heightened sensitivity to the wellbeing of those around me, who thankfully weren’t in distress like the waitresses of the South Beach restaurant, but who nonetheless each had their expectations and needs.

To conclude, let me just address what might otherwise seem like an implicit prudishness. What disturbed me about the women in the restaurant wasn’t at all what they were wearing. It wouldn’t be what I’d choose, but who am I to tell them how to dress. Neither was it about them exposing extensive parts of their anatomy. The human body is full of beauty, made even to God’s own liking (“God looked at everything he had made, and found it very good.” Genesis 1:31). And neither did I feel any resentment towards these four women. They were very likely in a position of limited choice and in existential need of income - some probably supporting families. Instead, I felt a deep rage against the owners of the establishment, who - to my mind - unquestionably exploited their staff and tried to turn them into cheap merchandise.