A couple of young fish swim along in the vast sea one fine day.
An old fish swims the other way and greets the young fish. “How’s the water?” he asks them. The two young fish look at each other, confused. “What’s water?” they ask.
After a week of being exhorted to watch the Dove sketch-artist video on my Facebook feed, I’m now receiving the link in e-mails from beloved friends. It’s making them cry. It’s bringing peace and joy to many. Women are recognizing the beauty in themselves. They are seeing how their perceptions of themselves have been twisted by idealized (read: impossible) images of women in the media. I am happy for them.
And, I refuse to watch it.
I know this isn’t exactly news at the moment, what with the last surviving Boston bombing suspect captured, newly legless victims on the mend, and mourning for the three who died there and the 15 or more who died in the blast at the Texas fertilizer plant. Last week, before all this happened, I saw a photo in the paper of several very small children in a war-torn country, laid out in a tidy row, all dead because of a drone strike that came from this great country’s military. And the failed gun legislation, and gay marriage, and all of it. So this is small potatoes, and I’ll keep it short.
As a teen just a little older than my daughter is now, I spent many hours poring over fashion magazines. It was 1985 or so—the dawn of the supermodel. They weren’t just mannequins anymore. They were personalities. I gazed at their tawny, sun-kissed skin, looked into their liquid eyes, examined the planes of their faces and bellies and hips, the abundant manes of their hair and the impossible length of their limbs.
This was before Photoshop. They really did look like that. And I was filled with a longing that was almost unbearable.
I want to look like that.
Of course the next question was:
Can I look like that?
Hours in front of the mirror—weeks, months, years. This was what my head was full of for so long. If I felt an inkling of that kind of beauty was in my possession, it was a good day, the best. If I didn’t, it was a terrible day, and I didn’t want anyone to look at me.
Maybe, it was worse for me than for others in my generation, but I know that this internal back-and-forth gobbled up enormous energy, time and emotion. As I grew older, then up, then into a career and a marriage and children, it stayed with me—that longing. It had become the water I swam in. I didn’t know I was in it.
Good day, feeling beautiful.
Bad day, feeling ugly.
Day after day after day. Sometimes I forgot: when absorbed in work, or mothering, or nature, or art, or the many other beautiful things I’ve been fortunate enough to experience.
Finally, now, in the first half of my fifth decade (I’m 43), I’ve surfaced. I see that beauty is a nice ‘icing on the cake’ of life, something to enjoy as one would enjoy art or nature—but it does not define my value in this world, nor does it define anyone else’s value in this world.
Maybe this is no newsflash to you, but this awakening was hard-won for me.
This ongoing conversation about ‘real beauty’ or seeing one’s self as beautiful or not-beautiful keeps us underwater—in that place where an external concept of physical beauty is an essential part of our self-definition.
If I’m beautiful, I’m okay. If I’m not beautiful, I’m not okay.
Certainly, girls and women of a certain age will be in that place. Developmentally, that’s appropriate. They’re supposed to preen and pose and do all they can to be luscious and gorgeous.
But I would love to see these girls also not become so attached to being that way. To not maintain it as such a crucial aspect of their definitions of themselves. To see a much broader spectrum of their own intrinsic greatness.
To be okay whether they are beautiful…or not.
That’s what I am trying to inculcate in my daughter, who is by any standard one of the most gorgeous little creatures the world has ever seen.
I’m happy for her, that she’s gorgeous. And I want her to know now, today and for the rest of her days, that her gorgeousness is only a tiny fragment of who she is. I hope that as she watches me grow older, I’ll be able to set a good example of accepting all of what those transitions bring.
And that as she grows older herself, she will become not afraid of losing her surface beauty, but ever more luminous with wisdom, compassion, love and a life lived with purpose.
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Ed: T. Lemieux/Kate Bartolotta