Time for a beauty alignment

by Kristin on March 2, 2011

in Culture, ideas & paradigms

Photo by House of Sims

A year ago today I turned 40. Crazy, eh? (And yes, that means today is my birthday.)

Turning 41 is nothing special, for sure. You’ve gotten over the shock of 40 and are still nowhere near the tipping point toward 50. But it still seems like a good day to ponder aging. It’s also Women’s History Month, so it’s a particularly good time to think about what it means to age, as a woman.

Physical beauty has actually been on my mind ever since I read Rachel Held Evan’s post “Thou Shalt Not Let Thyself Go?” last month. The post is about the responsibility women have (or don’t have) to remain beautiful and sexually available to their husbands. The cultural message, Rachel says, is this: “Stay beautiful or your husband might leave you. And if he does, it’s partially your fault.” Many have even suggested, over the years, that it’s a biblical directive—an incredibly damaging idea that Rachel’s post demonstrates is false.

But the idea is prevalent in our culture, whether spoken aloud or kept to ourselves: Women feel a responsibility to be beautiful in a way that men don’t feel a responsibility to be handsome.

Acknowledging the complexity of beauty

It’s hard for me to pick through the complex web of self-image and media image, of what makes me feel happy with me and what makes me wish I was somehow different. Because I appreciate beauty, and I don’t think that’s just the world telling me I should. I don’t browse fashion magazines, I don’t watch TV, but I do believe I was created to enjoy beauty.

I feel better when I exercise and like how my body looks. I enjoy finding the perfect pair of eyeglasses that fit my face and personality. I love clothes and shoes—when I stumbled upon a pair of purple boots at a secondhand shop on Sunday, I was giddy. And I have to admit, when Jason looks appreciatively at me and makes his funny, complimentary comments, I am pleased. I’m not going to toss the idea of beauty or pretend that it doesn’t matter, on some level, to me.

Broadening our definitions of beauty

The problem creeps in and takes up residence, I think, when our understanding of beauty is too narrowly-defined, and doesn’t leave room for the progression of life. Can we broaden how we see beauty, and be beautiful with grey hair? Can we see beauty in the stretch marks that formed when we carried our babies in utero? Can laugh lines (often known as “wrinkles”) around our mouth and eyes make us more beautiful, not less, because they tell a story about who we are and where we’ve been?

My answer to those questions, not surprisingly, is yes! And I thank God every day that I’m married to a man who wholeheartedly believes the answer to those questions is yes.

But if I really examine my heart, I realize saying “yes” (and even hearing “yes” from Jason) is not the same thing as fully embracing “yes.” I have some work to do in that area; as I age, that work will become increasingly important. There are a lot of lies to overcome, some blatant, some subtle. The lies can be hard to identify and trace, because some of them are in our heads, some are being spoken by people in our lives, some are told in magazines and movies.

It’s hard to tease apart the difference between cultural ideas of beauty and the kind of physical beauty that lines up perfectly with who we are in the depths of our minds and hearts, and where we are in our lives. But I think, at 41, I’m ready to give that full body-mind-spirit beauty alignment a try.

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  • http://thealchemistblog.wordpress.com Genevieve

    You go, girl!

    When I was little, one of my friend’s moms had the most beautiful silvery-gray hair. She looked like a superhero or sorceress or something. We little girls all thought she was the most beautiful person we’d ever seen.

  • http://katieleigh.wordpress.com Katie

    I think you’re spot-on here. And yes – even when you and your husband espouse a broader definition of beauty (which is great), there’s still a long way to go before you fully embrace it.

    Beauty matters to me too – and I also have a husband who doesn’t mind that I don’t look magazine-worthy. But I still have to be careful not to kick myself for my “imperfections,” and to accept the beauty in myself and others.

    Do you know about Karen Walrond and her book/project The Beauty of Different? She firmly believes everyone is beautifully different, and she’s taken some astounding photos of “ordinary” folks, laugh lines and all. (Her site is http://www.chookooloonks.com.)

  • http://hollyhousestudio.blogspot.com Jennifer

    Such a complex issue. We are more than we appear. But we want to take pride in our appearance, on some level. We don’t want to be vain, but we want to be confident and strong. For me, I didn’t realize or even want to accept my own beauty until I started running. Since I wasn’t believing in mine, I sure wasn’t buying anyone else’s. I found fault with people’s looks everywhere, in everything. As I’ve begun to run, I’ve let go of so many old and bad ideas. What’s funny is that everyone suddenly appears gorgeous to me. Everyone! I hope my daughters don’t have to turn 40 or run a half marathon what took me so long to figure out.

  • http://pmerrill.com/ Paul Merrill

    Happy birthday!

    And thanks for pushing us towards real beauty.

    It’s sad that the lies that creep in are so damaging to us all. But I’m thankful for when truth wins out.

  • http://www.ejly.net ejly

    HB2U!

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Genevieve, I love that magical take on some silvery-grey hair. It seems to me that’s the result of being a kid, and not yet being marred (much) by the influences of popular culture. It’s sad that we can’t all get back to that magical lens that lets us appreciate what is unique rather than what conforms.

    Katie, the gap between what we know in our heads and what we live in our lives is always wider than we’d like to admit, isn’t it? I’m really excited to check out The Beauty of Different—sounds like a very Halfway to Normal sort of perspective. :) Thanks for letting me know about it!

    Jennifer, this is a great way to lay out the tension: “We don’t want to be vain, but we want to be confident and strong.” And a big part of it, for me, is being able to grasp and express my personality through how I look. I don’t know if I should *need* to do that, but I do know I love doing that, and I love watching my girls figure that out in their own quirky fashion choices. I guess the key is honestly asking ourselves if we’re trying to be someone else or trying to be more fully ourselves. When it comes to your whole running experience, that’s such a great transformative story. You have a new lens!

    Paul, you’re right about the lies damaging us all—the lies women hear also impact their husbands and children, and I know men have their own set of issues/lies to deal with around masculinity. Little by little, maybe we can all work to move away from them, toward new understandings.

    ejly, thank you, beautiful friend! (See? I’ve never even met you but I know you’re beautiful.)

  • http://www.sundayschoolrebel.typepad.com Sam

    I truly DO want to embrace my beauty – even when it’s hard, when I weigh more than I like, when I don’t look like my own beautiful self. By that I mean, comparing myself to my own best – which I think is healthier than comparing myself to others. I think wrinkles are beautiful but admittedly, I don’t have many. I hope I will love the grey hairs that show up, and if I’m not ready for them, coloring them is okay, too. I just think it’s so important that we welcome each year, each age – I hate it when women pretend to stay 29 forever. Yet, it feels so weird to know you’re older and yet still feel very much the same!

    And I think it’s great if you feel beautiful, and your husband affirms your beauty – a very good place to start! I love that my husband comments on actresses looking too skinny more than he comments on their perfect bodies.

  • http://www.ordinarymer.com Meredith

    What a beautiful sentiment, and a great lesson for your daughters! One of the things I always find so frustrating is that the goal posts are always moving – our culture often has random people deciding arbitrarily what is “beautiful” and it changes so often I feel like I’m so far beyond, why bother catching up? I like your idea of an “alignment” – of adjusting our position so we stand strong and firm in our own convictions of what it means to be beautiful and let everyone else run around us as the definition changes. The calm in the storm, so to speak.

  • Nicola

    Happy belated Birthday, Kristin! 41 is fantastic!

    One of the benefits of getting older, for me, has been that I feel less pressure to conform to social norms of beauty. After all, the images are predominantly of women in the twenties, so that’s not me anymore! And, the idea of aging “gracefully” is really appealing to me.

    My problem, and one I’m constantly working on these days, is the Voice of Judgement in my own head. The VOJ has a lot to say to me about what I look like, especially what I weigh or how my body looks.

    But, I’ve started to recognize that the VOJ is always critical, no matter what! Since I was a 12-year-old stringbean, or a college freshman with an extra 10, or a thin twenty-something (oh how I wish I appreciated you, past sefl!), a pregnant woman, a post-pregnant woman, a thinnish late-thirty-something, a not-so-ideal-weight early forty something – the VOJ is never satisfied. And, the VOJ has a lot to do with why I’ve yo-yoed all over the place, weight wise. It’s not about my body, it’s about my head!

    Well, this 41 year old is not listening to the VOJ anymore (well, trying not to have the words have any real impact at least). I want to love myself no matter what. The real me doesn’t change if I’m heavier or thinner!

    Will I be healthier and more comfortable if I lose 20 pounds? Yes. Will I be happier? Experience shows that the answer is no.

    This is a hard one to solve, but I just don’t want to be 70 years old and pining about my weight! It’s a waste of energy I can be using to do other, more important things!

  • http://www.inamirrordimly.com ed cyzewski

    I love this post because it puts into words real issues that come up all of the time. Thanks Kristin and happy birthday!

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  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Sam, I think this is a great place to begin, when it comes to redefining our understanding of beauty: “comparing myself to my own best – which I think is healthier than comparing myself to others.” A good thing to ponder—what does my own, best beautiful look like?

    Meredith, I hear what you’re saying about this: “our culture often has random people deciding arbitrarily what is “beautiful” and it changes so often….” I hope I can instill a better perspective in my daughters—I think my mom indirectly instilled in me a really healthy body image, especially when it comes to eating/weight. But I’m also beginning to realize there are certain things that you can only really *get* when you get older—one of the wonderful things about aging!

    Nicola, ah yes, that evil Voice of Judgment! It has a way of creeping up, doesn’t it? And you’re right—it will always be critical. We will never please it, so why waste time trying to? Here’s to loving the very real, very wonderful YOU!

    ed, thanks for stopping by, and for the birthday wishes!

  • http://www.chookooloonks.com Karen Walrond

    Beautiful post, and yes, exactly that. There is so obviously nothing wrong with exercising, putting on makeup or doing the little things that make you feel pretty, but I hold that deep, resonant beauty has very little to do with those things. Beauty stirs on a *soul* level, and every person has it. The trick is just to find it and believe it of yourself, isn’t it?

    (And thanks to @Katie for the kind shout-out!)

    Love your work here,

    Karen Walrond
    author of The Beauty of Different

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Karen, I like this distinction: “deep, resonant beauty.” The kind that’s still there when your makeup isn’t, right? And I agree that every person has that “soul-level” beauty. We not only have to find it, though, we also have to claim it—decide to love it, even if it isn’t the brand of beauty we’ve always thought we wanted. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. I’m looking forward to digging into your site more.