Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Beauty and the Beast

People often say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But, I say that the most liberating thing about beauty is realizing that you *are* the beholder. This empowers us to find beauty in places where others have dared not to look, including inside ourselves. ~ Salma Hayek

In college, I was assigned an essay to write, expounding upon the dangers that fairy tales play to young girls, and the development of their self-esteem. I began this paper with trepidation. The fact was, and is, that I truly enjoyed fairy tales growing up. When I daydreamed about having children of my own someday, I looked forward to sharing fairy tales with them, reading aloud in a cozy chair in front of a roaring fire. I stared at my typewriter (as these were the days before computers) and the words simply didn't come to me, as they had so effortlessly in every previous assignment. I reread the tale of Grimm's Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White and Rapunzel. I picked up Hans Christian Anderssen's The Little Mermaid, The Princess & the Pea, The Ugly Duckling and the Little Match Girl for another reading. I translated "La Belle et la BĂȘte" by Mme. Gabrielle-Suzanee Barbot de Villeneuve, the original French tale of Beauty and the Beast. In the end, I learned several important points, despite my inherent love for fairy tales:
  1. Youth is considered the only beauty, and older willing are willing to kill for it.
  2. Women should be willing to trade everything they possess for a man to solve their problems.
  3. Youthful beauty is the only tool in which to ensnare these men.

Thankfully, my professor was incredibly creative, and she allowed me to rewrite several famous fairy tales, bringing about a more realistic and empowering story to young girls, rather than simply drafting yet another 'rage against the machine'. In her own way, my professor was able to empower me to do just what she had hoped the heroines in the stories would do: find their own solutions to the problems facing them, in a creative and alternative manner.

Needless to say, I did not ban fairy tales from my home, when I became a mother. But, this course, taken years earlier, did teach me the inherent dangers that do lie in exposing our daughters to too much of an onslaught to their self-esteem. As I began to grow older myself, I began to wonder "Am I still attractive?", "Do I still feel beautiful? and "What does beauty really mean?". Feeling lovely, inside and out, is very important to most women. A healthy dose of self-esteem in one's appearance can boost morale, which can boost confidence in work and in life. A women who feels beautiful can also feel that she has the chutzpah to ask her boss for a raise, to feel confident in taking that vacation she's always dreamed of, or even to start her own business. Feeling beautiful doesn't mean looking like a Super model. How many of us are 6' tall and weigh 115 pounds? Not many. And, yet, feeling beautiful in how you appear to others, and most important, what you see when you look in the mirror, can be extremely important. How we feel on the outside can reflect how we feel on the inside....and the converse is also true. How many times have you met a woman, who may not look like Christie Brinkley, but who exudes such loveliness, she radiates?

Two of the women who, I believe, most exemplify this idea are Dame Judi Dench and Queen Latifah. It is my humble opinion that they are two of the most beautiful women I can imagine. Dame Judi Dench has the most wonderful style. She is not afraid of her age. She embraces it and uses her wisdom, her wit, her courage and her vast intelligence to her advantage. No "Wicked Aging Queen" for her! She is the epitome of a stylish, savvy and exceptional one. And, a very beautiful one at that. Dame Judi Dench has made over 40 extremely chic. She has helped to redefine youth not being the measuring stick of beauty.

Additionally, Queen Latifah has broken down so many barriers. She is not the first African American Cover Girl, but she certainly is the first plus size one. Do her curves detract from her undeniable allure? Absolutely not! They enhance her aura of glamour. Queen Latifah's talent is evident in every syllable she utters, on every red carpet she walks, and in her beautiful laugh. In her performance in "Chicago', she was appearing with two stunning female co-stars, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Renee Zellwegger. All three women had very different styles and all three gave amazing performances. Yet, Queen Latifah's curves, and comfort within those curves, gave me a sense of such dynamic beauty that defied the conventional definition.

As I've grown older and wiser, the story of "Beauty and the Beast" has become clearer to me, in my own understanding. I can take the fairy tale at face value. Or, I can dig deeper to see that, for many of us, the Beast is not a monster that will turn into a Handsome Prince, if we only kiss him. The Beast can also be what lies within us....our own foibles, our own fears, the blockages we put in to sabotage our own self-esteem. The Beast, in my case, can be looking in the mirror and only seeing my thighs. The Beast, for others, could be seeing a different face than the one we viewed twenty years ago. The Beast can be everything we don't like about ourselves, inside and out.

And, yet, we can tame the Beast that lies within. We can find the beauty that only comes from experience, from the giving of ourselves to others and to finding the wisdom that lies within us. We can exercise, eat healthfully, and dress our bodies in ways that best suit our lifestyle. We can smile more, and frown less. We look for the beauty in the world around us, in our families and friends, in inspiring books and organizations and in nature and art. As we look for beauty, we can find that we reflect it, as we are at this very moment, no matter what our age, color, size, shape or physical attributes.

Beauty is, as beauty does. Don't allow 17 year old runway models to define your definition of beauty. Create your own definition and run with it.

Monday, April 20, 2009

This Little Light of Mine...

When my teenagers were little, we had Raffi tapes in our car playing every single time we rode anywhere longer than 5 minutes away. For readers unfamiliar with Raffi, he was the ROCK STAR to the under 5 year old set from the late 1980's to the new millennium. When my son was 2, he would pick up his grandfather's ukulele and pretend to be singing "Baby Beluga", and was very serious about putting on concerts. Raffi's songs were always fun, sometimes silly, and surprisingly catchy, especially for sleep deprived parents with two children under the age of 3. We were able to drive from Maine to Boston, Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and New York, melt down free. As long as they could sing, and wiggly dance in their car seats, we considered it a successful trip. To this day, I can sing every word to "Over in the Meadow", "The More We Together" and "Mr. Sun"...with an automatic reflex to turn around and hand out small cups of dry Cheerios and Goldfish crackers.

But, one of the children's favorites on our tape was "This Little Light of Mine". Although not a Raffi original, this has always been one of my favorite spiritual songs. Sweet in its simplicity, "This Little Light of Mine" crosses all boundaries of religion, beliefs and race. Although not written during the time of slavery, "This Little Light of Mine" became an anthem of the Civil Rights Movement in the mid-1900's. The refrain is:

This little light of mine,
I'm gonna let it shine.
This little light of mine,
I'm gonna to let it shine.
This little light of mine,
I'm gonna let it shine,
Let it shine! Let it shine! Let it shine!

"Letting our light shine" is a common theme in many religious and cultural traditions. In Christianity, it can be equated with the Holy Spirit's shining within us in love and peace. In Buddhism, it can signify enlightenment. Judaism denotes light in many ways: from Chanukah's festival of lights to the recent, magnificent Celebration of the Sun. According to Hindu tradition, shining our inner light "is seen to be permeating all of existence, the universal substance of all form, inner and outer, pure consciousness". Light cuts across boundaries, and literally shines upon the pure, the lovely and the truth. In 1st John in the New Testament, the apostle speaks of "walking as children in the light". What a beautiful image that is! Letting our own prejudices and areas of discomfort aside, to simply walk in divine light, allowing it to shine upon us, and within us, wherever we go is an exceptional vision. Imagine if we could live our lives, always allowing that light to shine...both inside and out! Love, joy, peace, compassion, childlike fun, friendliness and every positive attribute can shine over us, and from us, at all times!

The next stanza of "This Little Light of Mine" contains the repeating phrase, "Don't let anyone blow it out! I'm gonna let it shine!". While the tune is still bouncy and catchy, the words are far more serious. How often in life do we allow our circumstances to "blow our light out"? When we are tired, overworked, stressed, anxious, heartbroken, betrayed, burdened or grief-stricken, it's awfully hard to keep that light shining. When another person snaps at us, criticizes us or speaks ill of us to others, our light can dim to the point of being blown out. We find ourselves depleted. Our spark may be extinguished out in one massive blow, or it could take many little 'puffs' of disappointment, hurt and negativity. But, somehow, that light shining within us is just as gone.

So, what can be do when our light has blown out? We can light it ourselves. We don't have to wait for another person's affirmation to light it. We don't need the approval of those who broke our hearts in the first place. We can find ways that feed our spirits on our own. Everyone has different ways to keep their light shining. For me, my wonderful Episcopal church helps kindle my light every week, as well as my Yoga practice, reading good books and playing with my animals. My friends are exceptional too...even though I only have a few friends living in my local area now, keeping in touch with those precious to me, always adds a spark of love to my day. I have one friend who has told me that her long runs and gardening are her 'medicine' to keeping her "light" going. Another finds that taking classes in the evening on completely random subjects that interest her (from sewing to book groups to Thai cooking classes) keeps her spark kindled by learning new things.

As a wife and a mother to teenagers, I'm often the light provider. I need my own ways of recharging my emotional and spiritual "batteries" to be there for my family. It's a bit like that old commercial in which the mother is sick, lying in bed with a horrible cold, and the family is all standing around, staring at her, perplexed, and saying "What do we do? Mommy always takes care of us?" All too often, we put ourselves last on the list for 'building up'. We support our partners, our co-workers, our children, our parents, our extended families and our friends. We shine our light by smiling, helping, loving, listening, laughing, praying and genuinely 'being there' for others. This is a wonderful piece of who we are, and we shouldn't stop ourselves from expressing this light. Yet, unless we remember to put "oil in the lamp", we will be without the light for everyone.

Find the light that works best for you and bask in it. Allow it to fill you up, and shine from your heart. Don't let anyone blow it're going to let it shine. Let it shine. Let it shine. Let it shine.