Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Beauty: Post One

People are like stained - glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light from within.
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.

Standards of beauty are arbitrary. Body shame exists only to the extent that our physiques don't match our own beliefs about how we should look.
Martha Beck

I have one friend in particular who is absolutely beautiful (she’s an utterly beautiful person on the inside, too, but for the purposes of this post, I’m referring to her physical beauty). She had her first baby recently, a little girl, and sent me a photo of the new arrival. It was taken right after the birth, and Mama had been in brutal labour for something like forty hours. I opened the attachment expecting her to look happy, of course, but also suitably pale and exhausted – you know, like she had just been through something traumatic. Like childbirth. Instead, she looked radiant. Clear-eyed, glowing, beautiful. Ridiculously so.

This same friend struggles with her weight. She was a chubby child (her words, not mine) and an overweight teenager (ditto). As an adult, she is very vigilant about what she eats and how much she exercises. She puts on weight easily and will never be naturally skinny.  And yet I’d LOVE to look like her. It never fails to astonish me when she bewails her height (or lack thereof) and tells me that she’s jealous of my long legs. Or when she wishes aloud that she could swap her short, dark hair for my long, red braid. Or when she says that she would love to have pale, clear skin like mine.

Physical beauty is arbitrary. Our concept of physical beauty is also entirely unique and personal. Beauty is in deed in the eye of the beholder. My friend Steven, for example, thinks Angelina Jolie is ‘actually quite plain, when you really look at her.’ I suspect that most of the world’s population would disagree with him there, but that is his honest opinion.  Previously I’ve said things like, ‘He has such a beautiful face’ and people have looked at me as if I were bonkers, because it wasn’t someone who would typically be considered ‘beautiful’. Not Brad-Pitt beautiful or George-Clooney-beautiful. And yet…I think they’re beautiful anyway.   

I read something online where the writer called Tilda Swinton a ‘handsome woman’. I hate that as a compliment; it’s so backhanded. It always seems to me like what the writer is actually saying is, ‘Well, we can’t get away with calling her pretty, she’s not girly enough for that…let’s call her handsome, so that we’re implying she’s not unattractive, she’s just not attractive in a womanly way’. I happen to think Tilda Swinton is spookily beautiful.

I also think Cate Blanchett is stunning (that bone structure!) but hardly any of my male friends agree. (‘Yeah, she’s ok looking’, one of my male friends said recently in response to a comment I’d made, ‘but she’s not the kind of actress men want to sleep with, is she?’).

I think certain men look beautiful wearing eyeliner. I think certain women look beautiful with buzzcuts (Natalie Portman, anyone?). My sister thinks both of those things look ‘weird’.
I think the ridiculously elaborate photo shoots in Vogue are beautiful, with the models dressed in complicated lace and gold and feather eyelashes, their lips covered with diamonds. I also like looking at the ‘beauty shots’ (which interestingly enough, are the freshfaced ones, where people are scrubbed clean and plain, free of make up or accoutrements) which are about as simple as it gets.

There is beauty everywhere, in everyone, if we only look for it.

A million magazines might say that Angelina Jolie is the most beautiful woman in the world. It doesn’t matter, because there will always be people who disagree, like my friend Steven. People who think she’s plain. Or unattractive. And that’s a personal preference - each of us will find different people beautiful and be attracted to different things. Our differences are part of what make us interesting. If we were all attracted to the same kind of person, the majority of the world would be a very lonely place.

Imagine that there are twenty six kinds of people in the world. A people, B people, C people and so on. Everyone is attracted to A people, but A people are only attracted to B people. This is great for all the A people and B people out there who can happily pair up and have lots of l little lower-case babies together, but it leaves a lot of lovesick and lonely C’s, D’s, E’s, F’s, G’s, H’s, I’s, J’s, K’s…

We might initially be attracted to someone because of how they look, but that’s not how we decide that we want to build a relationship with them. It’s not why we want to see them again, or spend time with them. We love the people we love because of who they are, not because they’re super-pretty or take a great photograph.

I’ve met some people who I’ve thought were absolutely beautiful to begin with. But sometimes, as you get to know a person, that beauty dims and fades. Maybe they have a mean streak, or a brash sense of humour.  Maybe I think they’re rude or unpleasant. Maybe we just don’t connect as people.

On the flip side of that are the people you meet whose looks don’t really register at all at first, but the more you get to know them, the lovelier they become. Their personality, the way they make you laugh, their ability to always say just the right thing at just the right time, their kindness, their sense of humour, their open mindedness. When I see a photo of a friend, I will smile because I love that face. It doesn’t matter what the face looks like. It’s not the slightest bit relevant.

I think we’d all change things about ourselves if we could - and don’t get me wrong, if a fairy godmother offered to wave her magic wand and make me fairytale beautiful, I wouldn’t say no. But physical beauty isn’t important in any real sense. Not the way health is important, or the way love is. Not the way self-development is important, or freedom, or family, or friends.

I think of beauty as a sort of added bonus: it’s nice for those who have it, but for the vast majority of us who aren’t picture-perfect, it doesn’t actually matter one bit. We are all beautiful in our own special ways. And physical beauty, anyway, is temporary and fleeting. It’s the person we are that counts. That’s where our real beauty is. Everything else is just surface-stuff.

Monday, 20 August 2012

Notes on Change

I took a Reiki course on Friday. I’m still not sure how it all works, or even whether it does work. I was totally enthused in the actual class, and then afterwards, that little nagging voice entered my head. You know it’s just the power of suggestion, don’t you? You know that it’s a placebo, that it can’t really work.

The funny thing is, when I started questioning why I always do that, why I choose to discard things that could actually be helpful, I realised that it’s because I believe there is nothing inherently talented or special about me. Reiki? Of course, other people could learn to practice it, of course other people could benefit from it…but me? Nope. Not special enough. Not open enough. Who did I think I was kidding?

I’m actually getting a lot better at challenging my thoughts. I even like myself most of the time these days. So why does this belief persist, deep-down, that I am in fact not worthy, deficient, a cheap imitation of a person?

I used to think terrible things about myself. I would stand in front of the mirror and list my (many, many) flaws, being utterly cutting and cruel about each feature. My hair (too red, too fluffy, too thin). My nose (too big). My hips (too wide). My skin (too pale). And all of those thoughts built up and built up, and under the pressure they solidified into a sort of certainty, the way sediment compacts over millions of years of pressure to produce fossils holding leafprints and snailshells in detailed permanence.

I used to think that I would never be able to think positively about myself. But I’m getting better at it. It takes time and it takes effort, but it does get easier, and I do tend to be able to acknowledge things I’ve done positively or well.  When I realised that, deep-down, I still felt essentially unworthy, I was shaken. I thought, It’s never going to go away. There’s nothing I can do to unbelieve what I believe.

But when I look back through my diaries, or blog entries, when I think of how my mentality and self-perceptions have altered in just these last few months…the proof is there. I can change my thinking; I can change my thoughts. And, by extension, I can change my life.

We all can.

And sometimes it feels like an insurmountable task - like chipping away at a huge old mountain with a bit of flint. But it’s important to remember that even the smallest action counts. Small changes become big changes over time. Big changes become even bigger ones.

Change may be difficult, it may be gradual…but it is possible.

Sometimes we just need a little reminder of that.

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Blogging for Wellbeing: Homage to the Human Body

I’ve been sick the last couple of weeks, as per yesterday’s post explaining my prolonged absence. Nothing serious, in the grand scheme of things, just a nasty virus. But knowing that it was just a temporary thing, and wasn’t serious didn’t make me feel any less sick or wretched.

It’s a humbling experience, sickness. It makes you realise that your body is not a machine. That it has limitations and requirements. That it needs taking care of. That, although we are miraculous and amazing and strong, our bodies also have a fragility which is part and parcel of being human. Our skin can bruise, our bones can break, our bodies can get sick and tired.

Sickness, however fleeting, however slight on the scale of real suffering, casts things in a different light. I know being ill this last fortnight made me realise how precious health is. How we take it for granted until it falters or fails.

When I was eating-disordered, I would get dizzy all the time, have horrible headaches, frequent colds. My nails would break, my hair came out in clumps and my lips were permanently blue. I almost always felt unwell, but in my head, this was different to being genuinely sick, and I didn’t class myself as ill. I pushed it aside, reasoning that my body was simply responding to the care it was getting. Not feeling good was a side effect of being thin. Not the most desirable side effect, but if it meant that my bones showed and I felt suitably calm and in control, then I would accept it as a necessary evil.

Looking back on this from a healthy vantage point makes me so, so sad.

I’d like to say that my idea of the perfect body has changed. That I think the perfect body is a healthy body, regardless of how it looks. And I do believe this to an extent. And certainly when it comes to other people.

But then it comes to my own body. And in truth, I still grapple with the way I look. I’m too tall, my nose is too long, my hips are too wide, I have breasts like a teenaged boy. I’m not pretty. I don’t have perfect skin, perfect hair, perfect teeth.

Intellectually, I know that most women, eating-disordered or not, are dissatisfied with their bodies. I’ve had conversations with my friends that sound like we’re at a pick-and-mix – If I could choose, I’’d have J-Lo’s face, Jennifer Aniston’s arms and Gisele’s body. At the same time, we ignore our own attributes. People have told me that they would love to have my long legs, which I hate because it’s almost impossible to find skirts and trousers long enough. My sister has glorious, glossy red hair that people would stop her in the street to comment on, but she strips it with bleach, colours it blonde.

Even supermodels talk about their insecurities, their real or imagined flaws. If someone who makes a living being photographed for her supposed perfection is insecure about her appearance, what hope do the rest of us have?

Well, we can start by realising that we are NOT our bodies.

Why do you love your friends? Because they have pretty eyes, a wasp-like waist, legs that go on for days? No. You love them because they get you. Because they are funny, intelligent, kind. Because they make you laugh. Because they are there when you cry. Nothing at all to do with how beautifully shaped their eyebrows are, or how toned their tummies might be.

And I know that realising this isn’t the same thing as owning it. I understand the truth of I am more than my body at the same time as I secretly long to look like the models in Vogue or the Hollywood actresses with teeth like pearls and flawless skin. I think the important thing is not letting it define you, or prevent you from doing things. Not getting so caught up in your appearance that you get sick, or compromise your happiness. Because everyone has something beautiful about them. And everyone has flaws.

And, when it comes down to the wire, I’d rather be happy and healthy than beautiful and/or thin.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Apologies for my extended absence...

...I have had a terrible virus I just could not seem to shake. I don't get sick very often, so when I do, it tends to blindside me a little. For the last fortnight, I have been all quakes and quivers, fevers, chills and sandpaper-throat, shivers and dizziness and sickness...but at last, I am feeling (tentatively) human again. And so I say hello, and apologies for my extended absence.

I have been checking in, if a bit listlessly, and will get around to commenting soon on the posts I have missed.

It's actually been quite lovely realising how much I have come to appreciate this blog-community in such a short time. And I missed it (and you all) very much.

I will do a proper catch-up post tomorrow - my Blogging for Wellbeing post is overdue, and I have a BEAUTIFUL god-daughter to introduce (the first of my very close friends had a baby girl last Wednesday, Evangeline Grace....and I am SMITTEN).

Hope you are all well, and I look forward to catching up super-soon xxx