Wednesday, May 9, 2012

What is Beauty to You? (Part II)

Chickadee in my yard
 
Last summer I wrote an article about what beauty means to me. Its emphasis was on slowing down enough to enjoy the beauty around me, which meant simplifying my routines and, yes, my blogging reading, writing, and spending habits. I felt like life was passing me by in a blur, and that was not beautiful.

My attention has recently been drawn back to what beauty means to me, maybe to you, too, after a brief article I wrote elicited negative reactions based on a word I chose, which some interpreted as derogatory, when I intended no insult. The article started from a place of delight at posting and discussing what a real, unretouched female face looks like at 64, which I found beautiful with all its character, charm, and flaws—its realness—a rarity these days.

We just don't see what real looks like, hardly ever. Given the way advertising, film, and the print media can fill our heads with mental pollution, is it unethical for a beauty blogger to focus on looks? Aren't those of us who are showing the first signs of age interested in our bodies' changing landscape and the no longer-smooth canvas we had once assumed would always be there? No one can appreciate Shaw's famous quote, "Youth is wasted on the young," until you are old enough to get it.

Based on comments in a different article, I empathize with those of you who have had to wade through that pollution, slogging through feelings of shame or unworthiness—all because of what we see in the media, which we know isn't real, but which can still be hard to shed after years of internalizing it. I struggled with feelings of self doubt in my 20s and 30s, comparing myself to the models in the magazines and falling short.

In the late 90s, a new magazine called Mode helped reshape my vision of beauty. Within the pages were models like Kate Dillon and Barbara Brickner, who made me realize that size 12, 14, 16 wasn't just OK, it was glorious.



I am sure the world heard my shrieks of disappointment the day I received notice that Mode was being canceled. Thankfully, I had already begun to reframe my inner world and challenge the negative thoughts than ran through my head on a continuous loop. You don't deserve it. You'll always be fat. You have pores. They're laughing at you. You failure. And so on. It had become a form of self hypnosis that kept feeding off itself, and the more I listened to that inner chatter, the more I did what my head was telling me. Thoughts lead to action, don't they? In one moment, I realized that crap was not only damaging, it wasn't even true!  So I made a choice to focus only on the good. I also began to treat myself well in that moment not wait until after I had worked out for n months or lost n pounds or whatever I told myself I needed to do before I allowed myself to feel happy.

It's not easy to smash through years of limiting beliefs, but I keep at it. Mode had already helped me stop comparing myself to the impossible "ideal," by giving me a more realistic image of myself. Rejecting the impossible helped me begin to live a more rewarding and authentic life. The irony is that getting older helps; each year I care less what other people think and more about the thoughts, activities, and people that enhance my life. The happier I am, the more joy radiates out to touch other people and bounce back onto me. It's a completely different kind of cycle than the one I'd experienced before.

I still make mistakes and I have setbacks when I put myself last. As for Hillary and Linda and all the rest of the famous women who are either reviled or tuned into replicas of themselves through photo editing, I believe that since we women are the primary target of these do-little products and completely-fake ads, we can influence the decision makers behind them, and the ads we see will become more real over time ... so that when we see a picture of a 64 year-old woman in print, we'll say to ourselves, "Yes, that's what 64 looks like" and have a much more realistic frame of reference.

Given all the current mental pollution, what do you do to center yourself and feel good about you?

20 comments:

  1. Very interesting post Zuzu. It made me stop and think. For me, beauty has become very much about how comfortable I am in my own skin. I will never reclaim the physical attributes of my youth; none of us will. I've made peace with the fact that this is how I look at my age. When I do my hair, makeup, clothes, etc, I have only one goal in my mind. Am I comfortable with the finished product? If the answer to that is yes, then my beauty ideal for the day has been realized. And that is actually secondary to the love and appreciation I see in my husband's eyes when he looks at me and the tone of his voice when he tells me how beautiful I am. What more could I want?

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    1. Nothing more than that, Deb! I agree completely that feeling comfortable in one's skin is a blessing. I had it all my life until I got sucked into magazine hell, lost it for a decade, and then regained my sense of self, which might have had less to do with eschewing fashion magazines than just becoming more sure of myself.

      I occasionally feel a little saddened by the loss of some things I once took for granted, but they are fleeting and minimal compared to all the good in my life, including the happy fact that both my parents are still alive and as well as can be expected at their age.

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    2. You are not alone by any stretch of the imagination. I've gone through exactly the same thing and fallen prey to the same doubts and insecurities. I beat myself up for years. It's a really hard thing for a woman when you start realizing that you're not being "checked out" anymore. Especially when it used to happen all of the time :) But then one day you wake up and realize, in the immortal words of Dolly Parton, "time is marching on, honey, and it's marching all over my face". And there's not a damn thing you can do about it but be the most beautiful version of yourself.

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    3. I am slowly coming around to accepting my almost-70 age after years of agonizing over every gained pound, each new sag or line that I try to cover up. Today my hairdresser got into a most satisfying conversation: we agreed that we intensely dislike popular American TV series wherein the women are invariably movie-star beautiful, with long flowing hair, tight cleavage-baring clothes that show off boob jobs, and impossibly high heels that they wear on their "serious" crime-solving jobs. We love British TV series where the actors, male and female, stars or supporting characters, look like real people. Plus, the audience is not invited to fixate on when, or if, the lead actors will hop into bed together for the inevitable sex scene. Just give us a good story, folks, with people we can relate to!

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    4. I agree and avoid those kinds of novels like the plague. I don't need a gratuitous love scene to entertain me—just give me a good mystery.

      I don't know why Hollywood feels it must be so youth obsessed, and the more years that go by, the more plastic and Barbielike many actresses appear. I remember watching a scene in the House of Cards political thriller where two of the PM's cabinet members were in bed. These were people in their 40s/50s, and it showed! I was both shocked and delighted. You'd never see that over here, where the media smirked over Michael Douglas' saggy butt in the movie Basic Instinct. Please.

      Speaking of detectives, I recently started streaming season 1 of The Killing. It stars Mireille Enos (who played a polygamous wife in HBO's Big Love) and if she's wearing a spot of makeup I can't see it. She is absolutely lovely.

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  2. I've been thinking about this a lot recently as well. Who knew that sometimes acne doesn't start until your 24? Taking a trip to Yosemite and leaving everything behind, even my phone and makeup, really put things back in perspective. Thinking about my mom also helps; she's 54 and gorgeous - not perfect, but Genuinely Beautiful. Great Post :)

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    1. Thanks, EmmyJean. Sometimes acne doesn't start until you're 40! Stupid hormones.

      As for makeup, not even 3 months after I started dating Mr. Petals, we went on a long weekend through hike in the White Mountains. We hiked 8 miles in to a desolate campground deep in the Pemigewasset Wilderness and then spent the rest of the weekend climbing mountains from that base camp that required a bear box (a place to store your food). Combine 4 days of sweat, dirt, bug spray, no showers, no makeup, no deodorant (hikers need to minimize any scented products that will attract a bear) and probably stinking to high heaven, and that will really put things into perspective, too! He still married me. :)

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    2. That sounds like an awesome vacation!! I love the peace and seclusion that only wilderness can provide. Haha, I was yearning for a shower by the end of my trip! (Packing 12 stinky hikers into a van for a 10 hour drive back home was interesting to say the least hehe) We also had bear bins, but someone left one unlatched and a curious 2 year old (250lb!) bear took advantage of it! Luckily the rangers scared it off without any harm to the people or bear. :)

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  3. Wow, I just read the Hilary comments. I hope all those anonymous types stand by their words and NEVER EVER say anything remotely disparaging about anyone's outer appearance, even in half jest. I think your point was quite clear.

    I wish Mode had stuck around. Maybe we should start up something similar to it, for this day and age! The only thing remotely similar I can think of is the Dove campaign.

    What centers me has been 34 years of experience. I was such a painfully awkward adolescent that it massacred my self-esteem by the time I hit the teens. It took most of my 20s to figure out that I wasn't ugly. And now I waver between feeling awesome and feeling downright narcissistic, LOL. I'm not a model and I'm so glad!

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    1. Liz, thanks so much. I decided to edit my article to be sensitive to anyone my word choice might have offended, unintentional though it was. I also decided to delete all hateful comments. Life is too short to propagate meanness, extreme judgment, and lack of manners. I acknowledge that I used a word that was innocuous to me but potentially loaded for others. The rest of the article stands.

      I would love to start a new magazine like Mode. What I loved most about it was that it was high fashion. It made no apologies, didn't put overweight models in shapeless tents with giant patterns, and really seemed like the plus-sized version of Vogue with designer clothes made for women over size 12. After Mode died, there was a brief period where a second magazine called Grace was available, but that did not last, either. Obviously these magazines failed because they had no readership. Given the average size of an American woman used to be size 14 (probably larger now), that really surprised me. Do we really want to look only at skinny models instead of a representation of what the average woman looks like, so we can realistically translate that look onto ourselves?

      Meanwhile, I have a hard time believing you were once so awkward. Your kindness and confidence shine through every article you write. ♥

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  4. Hi Zuzu, another great article! I was an exceptionally self conscious person for much of my life. For example, I was so pretty in my teens and had perfect skin-- but had so little confidence. Now I have problem skin and recognize how lucky I was. I think that recognition helps me realize that despite whatever I think now, I'll probably look back on later and be thankful for what I had. In terms of centering ones self, I think kindness is the key to true beauty. No matter what your physical appearance, I think that kindness allows anyone to shine and look truly beautiful.

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    1. I agree completely about kindness. Sometimes the biggest test when you can maintain civility despite desperately wanting to let off some major steam. I am generally quite calm and centered and consider myself to be kind, but if my last button gets pushed, watch out! That, my dear, is definitely not a thing of beauty! :O

      When I feel that steam rising, I try to think of something I am grateful for. It almost always calms me down. Especially if I think of something innocent that loves me unconditionally.

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  5. I never thought that I was influenced by the images in the media, until I stopped reading fashion magazines. (It's been a couple of years, probably.)

    I was naturally thin for most of my life. In recent years, I'd put on about 40 extra pounds. Last year, I decided I wanted to lose it and return to my former "skinny" body. But after losing the first ten pounds (still a good 20 pounds "overweight"), I realized that I felt more attractive than I ever had at my thinnest weight. "Skinny" was no longer the ideal for me.

    And I think this change in attitude is due to the fact that I've been looking at images other than fashion magazines and runway models. I read fashion blogs, look at art, and different types of photography, and I see so many beautiful images of women who are not always thin. I see a lot more possibilities for beauty.

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    1. Yes, indeed. I know I will never get back to 115 pounds, and I don't really want to. When I see tiny, slender women I sometimes think they look so fragile. It is especially noticeable to me if the woman has just lost an enormous amount of weight. I like to feel substantial, but above all, I like to feel strong and have a ton of endurance. When I have that, I feel beautiful inside and out.

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  6. Fantastic post, Zuzu! BRAVO! A refreshing take on all of the mental clutter that we accumulate from years of exposure to toxic anti-aging propaganda perpetuated by the media. Aging is inevitable-- the media should be using its considerable influence to show us images of women aging with grace- rather than clinging to unrealistic images of glorified airbrushed images that engender a kind of poreless youth that does not age. This is what I like to think of as a kind of Dorian Gray advertising!

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    1. lola, you always cheer me up! I hope to face the continued march of time with dignity and a big jar of my favorite face cream! I have little interest in doing much else besides taking care of my body as best I can. My best anti-aging tools will be vigorous confidence, exercise, lots of fresh air, and family and good friends who make me laugh.

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  7. As much of a cliché as it is, I find that focusing on my kids helps immensely. I grew up with a beauty queen mother and cheerleader sister. I was the "smart" one...which is great when you grow up, but not so much when you're 16 and want to be "hot." I was always incredibly insecure about my looks, largely due to comments from my mother that I'd "be so pretty if you (meaning me)just lost some weight" and the fact that my sister, following in Mom's footsteps, won the school beauty pageant and became head cheerleader and had boys falling all over themselves to be in her presence.

    These insecurities followed me into my 20's and early 30's. I was prepared for this, because somehow I always knew I'd hit my stride in my 40's. And I have. Just a few years ago, I FINALLY learned how to accept a compliment with a happy "thank you!" rather than a self-conscious "well, you should see my sister" or some such drivel. I've accomplished far more in my life than she has, and while her looks have faded, mine have stayed relatively the same (which sort of evens us out, I guess, lol). More importantly, I find that I love myself far more now than I ever did when I was young. I have far more hope for my future than I did when I was younger and focused on my flaws.

    I work in a high school now and see it every day...beautiful young girls who are too self-conscious (or possibly self-absorbed) to enjoy their own youth. It saddens me. I devote a great deal of time and energy to making sure my three girls know they are beautiful inside and out, for how they look and more importantly who they are. I stress their individuality and focus on their particular strengths so they'll appreciate what makes them different instead of focusing on how they aren't just like everyone else. I currently have one of the most well-adjusted 14-yo girls on the planet, who loves herself and the things that make her different (like the purple hair we gave her last week). For me, at this point in my life, making sure that they understand the different facets of beauty and, more importantly, individuality, is my focus. Not what the media tells them beauty is.

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    1. I could barely get past your first paragraph, Shan. What your mother used to say to you is exactly what my mother said to me, starting in the 5th grade. She has no memory of it now, and I know she meant well, but an active, outdoorsy little girl does not forget the trauma of sitting on the front porch on her summer vacation, eating a bowl of cottage cheese with tomato and cucumber wedges. That ain't kid food!

      The saddest thing is I wasn't heavy--not then and not in my teens. Or maybe I was technically heavy but I wasn't fat; I was muscular. Unfortunately, pediatricians went by that near-useless insurance weight chart and pronounced me obese when I was not! I was a brick sh!thou$e. I think I posted elsewhere that by age 15 I'd taken 11 years of dance, was on the swim team, soccer team, rode my bike or walked everywhere ...

      What I wasn't was slender and willowy, and I am guessing that was the prized shape at the time. I'd have lost the roundness eventually and grown into that shape, but instead I fought against it and dieted my way up to a terrible top weight, all by losing a quick 20 pounds and slowly gaining back 30 over many months. Which really comes down to a gradual weight gain in 10-pound increments over time, until one day you look at yourself and say, "How the hell did I get here?" A lot of my limiting beliefs grew around "good" and "bad" food or that that just looking at X would make me gain weight.

      I am so glad you find peace and beauty in your children; that isn't cliche at all. Not one tiny bit. Having a loving family is one of the most beautiful things on earth. AWESOME that you get along with your 14 yo. My mother had a hysterectomy the same year I got my first p, and let me tell you, hormones collided in a very ugly way for quite a few years. I wish I could have that time back ... I really needed her in my early teen angst, but we fought all the time. I don't blame her, though. There was no real option for HRT then. It was just a sad and unfortunate event with colossally bad timing. She was only 32 and I was 11--I sometimes think my change was brought on by hers.

      Sad that you see young girls struggling every day, though. That was us many years ago, you know? Except girls now have access to so much more, which means so many more opportunities to compare themselves and feel less than.

      Thanks for your comment; it really resonated with me.

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  8. It's so odd how different our experiences can be. My mother aspired to be a beauty queen, and she was attractive, but she had to work at it. She had me when she was 19 and I was a pretty little girl that she went to great pains to "doll up" for special occasions. I had thick long blonde hair and was made to sleep in pin curls sometimes (oh, the itchy agony!). But the result was extraordinary. So I grew prettier and prettier into girlhood, healthy, and happy, sort of Jan Brady-like. One day my dad complimented how lovely my hair was and something in my mother just snapped. She dragged me to the barber the next day. Not the hairdresser, the barber! He terrorized me with his blow dryer, told me it could get hot enough to boil coffee. He chopped off all my hair into the most hideous short shag. My mom said it was because she was tired of dealing with my "tangles", even though by that age (10) I was brushing my hair myself.

    Shorn, and soon to wear glasses, I was mistaken for a little boy for a year, until puberty hit, then I just wanted to hide in books. My mom, who obviously wanted no competition, sabotaged my looks for years to come, perhaps unconsciously. I don't know. Was it good for me? Who can say? I learned not to rely on looks, I suppose. I also learned not to trust my mother.

    How sad to feel in competition with one's own pre-pubescent daughter. I'm now 45. Still capable of having children, as far as I know. I have two sons, but I think if I had a daughter now, I would be the guardian of her healthy, youthful beauty. She could wear her hair long or short, she could be heavy or thin, but she would neither suffer from neglect or jealousy--or sharp tongued critiques.

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    1. L, my heart breaks for little you. How confusing that must have been, and what an awful experience at the barber! Boil coffee! Adults often do not realize how impressionable some children can be. I remember falling down on the macadam at recess in 5th grade, and I guess things were so bloody the principal came out to investigate. I remember him pulling me by my arm, as I half hobbled/half limped to his office. On the way, perhaps he tried to take my mind off the pain in my knee (still have the scar!) when he said, "We'll have to bash that wound off your knee with a baseball bat." I was terrified! Why would he want to hurt me even more? Maybe he was just pissed off that a screaming 10 year old ruined his lunch and he wanted to shut me up.

      Of course, you know now why your mother did what she did, but you must have felt so rejected. and it's not easy to bounce back from that. How sad that she felt threatened by a 10 year old girl. Maybe it was good that you learned to rely on the things that truly matter in the great scheme of things, but I can't see what good could come from having your mother be the one to take that away from you. She was just a child herself, and women got married younger then. My mother married at 20, and her father would not allow her to take a sip of champagne at her own wedding toast because she was not of age. She had me within a year, and then my father's business took him away for 13 months when I was an infant. I am sure a lot of my future personality developed in that year when it was just me and a stressed-out, exhausted, very young mother.

      My mother always tried to elevate her children (I have one brother) and tell us we could do anything, but the message was mixed for me. On the one hand, she told me I was beautiful (I never believed her) and on the other hand, there was always that caveat, "If only ..." I grew up a people pleaser, no surprise there.

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