Monday, March 2, 2015

A Beautiful Woman

Beautiful never mattered to me.  It just wasn't on my radar.  Useful, kind, strong, faithful, disciplined, imaginative, bold, funny- these things were.  They were the things I wanted to be.  Of course, true beauty is comprised of these things, but when I was a child, "beauty" was a term that described pageant queens, girls who couldn't run, and a mole on Ginger's face.  It wasn't a word I felt comfortable with until adulthood.


When Libby, of TrulyMyrtle, tagged me in 20 beautiful women on instagram, I began to consider where my ideas of true feminine beauty came from.  Then, I had the craziest week ever, so I'm just now getting back to it.  It reminded me how blessed I am to have a mother who looked further into people and who taught me I was "made" by Someone.

I thought everyone thought the way we did.  I was in my twenties when I began to realize that the women fixated on beauty as appearance, a number on a scale, or a hair color were not an anomaly.   They were my peers- the norm.  As I worked with children in my church and spent time with my daughter's friends,  I cannot say how many little girls I've heard talk about beauty as only a surface feature.  Almost every single time, they spoke in quiet reverence of a form of beauty, in some other girl, that they didn't feel they had, personally.  As a girl, it never occurred to me to classify women as pretty, not pretty, thin, fat, smart, dumb, etc.  I tended to see genuine personalities and vibrance as attractive.  I rolled my eyes at the thought of someone wanting to be beautiful.

I remember the first time I heard a grown woman call another woman ugly.  I was in shock.  I remember the first time I saw a grown woman consumed with jealousy over another woman's weight.  Then there was the first times I heard a Christian woman call another woman bland and another say something like, "She's really beautiful ... for a black woman."

In the Christian church we hear that "beauty is vain, but a woman that fears the Lord- she shall be praised."   We read that true charm is an inward beauty, where a woman wears the "ornament of a meek and quiet spirit, which in the sight of the Lord is of great price."  It is supposed to be enough to save a family.  Seriously. ( 1 Peter 3:3-5).  As Christians we are told that God looks on the heart (1 Samuel 16:7), then we go home fretting about this stuff?

We teach our little kids that Jesus loves us just as we are in Sunday School,  but then they see us walk out the doors of the church and still strive for something more.  We may seem irritable because we aren't what we want to be, we may whisper about women who are, we carry a cloud of inadequacy over our heads, that is surely felt by our children.  Some of us punish our bodies into submission, fretting over every change, or the lack of it.  There's often some bitterness there.  Are we confused?  Are we listening to what we say that we believe?  I think the question is, do we really, truly believe it?

I just wasn't aware of what anyone thought of my appearance as a girl.  I mean, I was clean, what else was there to think about?  Maybe I lived in a little, idyllic bubble.  My mother may have curled my hair and tried to get me to sit up straight, but she didn't seem hung up on appearance.  She said things like, " Pretty is as pretty does."  And I never heard her berate herself.  Just as she shielded me from ugly thoughts about skin color, as I grew up in the deep south, she also protected me from the self-destructive comparisons women make about bodies.   I looked around me and just saw people, like she did.

Then, I had the unique experience of seeing my mother's ideals tested.  I watched her lose her hair, more than once, during chemo.  I watched her seem to lose height and her back develop  Cushing's hump, due to prednisone, when she was just 40.  I never once felt a tinge of bitterness coming from her.  She went to one of my volleyball games so swollen with fluid that she was barely recognizable.  Some of the other girls were staring and wondering.  She came home after a mastectomy surgery with her head held high.  She was so very much a beautiful woman.  Never once did we see her confidence in that waver.  Never once did ours.

One time, a girl in school tried to shame me by telling the other children my mom was bald.  I was a very stoic child, friends, but that... that hurt.  She was being mean to my mother.  When I got home, off the bus, my mom asked how my day had been.  No matter how sick she was, even when dragging an IV tower around behind her, she was as involved as possible with my life.  I tried to act fine, but melted into tears.  Eventually, my desire to be comforted by her outweighed my desire to protect her from the hurtful comments, so I told her what that girl had said.  Her reaction surprised me.  She laughed.  Then, she said I should try to sell tickets.  That the kids could get off the bus and line up at the door.  For a dollar, she could pull of her wig for a moment.  We ended up laughing and I felt so much better to know that she was unmoved by someone's opinion of her.  The differences between her appearance and other moms' just didn't matter to her.

Her attitudes just seeped into me during those years.  I am the Queen of Awkwardness.  You may have noticed this, but this is mostly due to things I can control.  If ever I feel less pretty than another woman, it is usually from something like their gentle character convicting me of my own brashness.

So now my own test has come.  My body began changing in my thirties- no, not the usual changes- but a weakening.  My shape changed some, but mostly my hair began to thin and my face began breaking out with bad, cystic acne.  Add to that exhaustion, lots of migraines, and fuzzy thinking and you have a picture of me for ten years.  Though my doctor has a treatment for me now, it was ten years of feeling yuck.  Even when you're not "into appearance," scars, sores, thinning hair, and general malaise can work on your confidence.  Remember, I was the girl who wanted vibrance over beauty, and I felt like it was slipping away.

Should I have stayed at home until I was better?  Should I be ashamed that I looked different from the other moms?  Should I wait to try things until I had more energy?  That would've been a long wait.  I had to really think about the way I looked at other people and apply it to myself.  For me and for my children.

So when I told my teenagers, worried about their own blemishes, "It's just skin."  Did I mean it?  Was I living it?  I put my beliefs to the test every time I went to a soccer game or met my daughter for lunch with 30 cysts on my face that makeup would not cover, feeling exhausted though I had done every, single thing I knew to do to care for my body that day.  I have to admit it was hard sometimes.  Some days the best I could do was just joke about it.  When I felt self-condemnation start up in my head, I'd fight it with what I really believe: we are beautiful for how we behave.  Pretty is as pretty does, right?  I never came home from one of those outings wishing I'd stayed home.  I never regretted living as without shame about my appearance.  I thought I was confident before, but I've seen my self-esteem rise like crazy in the last few years.   And it wasn't from getting to any point of perfection.  It was from living without it.

(on instagram and flickr)

Here is the crux - When He says we were "beautifully and wonderfully made," did He mean it?  When He said His "grace is sufficient for you, His strength is made perfect in weakness." did He mean it?  Do I really believe this stuff?  Would doing everything "right" but not getting the healthy feeling, "the look", the approval change what I believed?

Nah.  I'm 41.  I'm covered in scars that I sometimes edit out of photos and I am in no way ashamed of that.  I may be healing now.  But if I never healed and die tired and weak, like my mother, I would never be ashamed for believing in a God who loves me just as I am and allows me to be frustrated for reasons I'll never understand.  Now, I know.  I won't be embarrassed of the life I lived in this body, or the body, itself.  I really do believe all that feel-good stuff about inner beauty.  I am beautiful because He made me so, particularly when I act like the person He made me to be.

Okay, group hug, everybody.


24 comments:

  1. I have never commented here before, but I have to tell you that this is so meaningful to me today, an aging body, sciatica, weight gain due to that same pain...I needed to be reminded that I am His, and I am wonderfully made. Thank you.

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  2. So wonderfully written, thank you for sharing your story with us. I also have struggled in the last 2 years with my own trials. After a back injury and subsequent surgery, I have been left with chronic back and sciatic pain, and an extra 35lbs. I struggle to love my new body, it is mine and I must own it and not be ashamed. It is easier to accept the 35lbs, than it is to accept the weakness and limitations I now have from my back. I am working on though. I am more than just my physical body. My beauty is more than my belly, it is in my kindness and compassion. It is my love for family and friends. My beauty is in bring beauty into the world. Thank you again for your wonderful post.
    She Knits in Pearls

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  3. I really like reading your blog just for posts like this. You share so much and you sound like such an interesting person who would be a great friend to know for real.

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  4. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. I can relate to those changes and looking back on a body I should have been grateful to inhabit instead of wishing for it to be "better". Amazing what a little perspective can do and a little reminder of the people we are meant to be.

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  5. Thank you for writing this. I needed to be reminded today that I am His no matter how much I think I need to be "better".

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  6. Jennifer TownsendMarch 3, 2015 at 4:31 AM

    I really needed this this week. Thank you. Big bear hugs from me, sweetie.

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  7. What a beautiful post by a clever, kind, and beautiful woman. Yes beautiful, because the beauty inside shines, my friend. :) You always make me want to be better, when you write things like this. *hugs back*

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  8. You are such a beautiful writer. Your words are so powerful and uplifting. I am not a Christian, but I am inspired by your words. I truly hope I convey the same messages to my child and help her to always believe she is beautiful, because she is. Bright, joyful, loud, and full energy... yep she is truly beautiful

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  9. You are an amazing woman. I love your aesthetic - in words, photography and ... knitting. Belief doesn't come naturally to me. I have to analyse and then over analyse everything and I had to face the subject of beauty and perception of beauty more than once in my studies and in my life.... I still don't "get" it and probably I never will. I admire your serenity.

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  10. This post is so inspiring. I'm not religious or believe in God, but I think finding the serenity that you mother knew how to transmit to you should be one of our goals in life.

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  11. Thanks Michelle for such a great, honest, and inspiring post.

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  12. Oh, Ruthanna, I'm so glad you did! I always feel doubtful when posting something this personal. So it encourages me to know I'm not the only person thinking this way. You are absolutely His beautiful creation!

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  13. Those physical limitations get me too, Cherry. I had an athletic mentality my whole life- faster, more, better, etc. Slowing down was so hard for me. Changing my thought life to match where I am now was such a challenge. Probably having a mother who was ill had me extra resistant to slowing down, as if I'd end up sickly too. But, I've never had those thoughts about another person in my life. I'd never expect so much from another woman. I just had to give myself the same treatment. I hope your pain/ back issues are resolved. And even if you don't go back to your old "norm", I hope you continue to feel joy in who you are. I can say you come across as a very beautiful, dynamic, creative woman to me.

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  14. That's such a high compliment, Corinne. You really made my day! I feel the same way about you when I read your blog and see all of your thoughts and interests. Also when I stalk your Ravelry page. :)

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  15. I'm so glad you mentioned perspective on the wasted time. It is such a waste to not enjoy where we are, sometimes for years, because we are wanting to be somewhere else

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  16. You're welcome, Faith! I love knowing we can enjoy belonging to Him the whole time He's changing us on the inside. There has to be (and is) a way to feel a level of contentment while things are still not fixed. It makes me think of Phil 4:11-13. We can have peace no matter what's happening in our bodies or lives. But I'm not gonna pretend I'm a master of it. Far from it.

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  17. What a wonderful thing to say, Heather! That really touched me. It makes me feel relief that I give off that kind of good feeling, at least sometimes. I struggle with a very cynical, smat alec nature :). So hearing this makes me feel so good.

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  18. Thank you, Sasha. I feel I should say I may have a measure of serenity about changes in my body/ health, but I'm far from serene about everything. Every time I feel like I've conquered a personal challenge, a new one is revealed. And so the lessons start over. I didn't always use the Christian Bible as a basis for my beliefs on beauty. I was raised in a Christian home, but the fact that my mother believed, as wonderful as she was, wasn't enough to make me believe the words in that book were those God revealed. I wanted to feel certain for myself. I decided to begin my search for the truth with the Bible, though, since I'd never studied it too much, and because it seemed silly to reject a belief system I'd been raised under without investigating it first. (I didn't have any negative thoughts about that system of belief, I just didn't want to believe something untrue, even if it was easy to believe.) So I set aside all the preconceived notions I'd learned, all the Christian buzz words, and assumptions and began reading in the book of John as if I'd never read it before. I did speak to God, asking if He was the same as I was raised to believe, or if He was totally different, that He'd make Himself known to me. I wasn't afraid to be wrong. I was afraid of believing an easy lie, just because my parents told me to.
    Anyway, I did that and in just a few weeks I felt a change inside me. I kept reading and my feelings of doubt about if He was really this Judeo- Christian God were replaced by questions about how to go about living the way He said to in the Bible. One day I realized I had the answer to my big question about who He was. And the more I read and considered, the more I came to recognize His "voice" and His ways. I was coming to know Him like a friend. When I read about something, I saw Him point out examples in my life and those around me. I had prayers answered, even small ones. It was like when you answer the phone and a friend just starts talking to you. They don't have to announce who they are because you know their voice and behavior, and they know you know. Im absolutely sure about who or what I believe God is. Of course, I have a whole slew of questions going all the time, but that's not one of them.
    So that's made it easier for me to form my beliefs about beauty. I have a template I trust to compare my thoughts too. And I've retrained my thoughts to match it.
    Wow, you got quite a novel, here,didn't you, Sasha? I know you weren't really asking for all of this. I'm just sitting in a waiting room, getting carried away with my thoughts. I do hope you find the sense of confidence in what beauty is and in your inherent beauty, Sasha. I appreciate you sharing your thoughts with me.

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  19. Thank you, Elena. I have to give her credit. If there's any gentleness and beauty in my actions, I know I learned it from her. Also, see my comment to Sasha, below, if you're interested in how I came to find that confidence through my faith. Poor Sasha got the most long-winded comment ever.
    I see you going on with your life thru physical changes that disappoint you, Elena, and I think you are a great example of someone coming to terms with new limitations and still finding joy despite it.

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  20. You are so welcome, Patricia!

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  21. There's a parable we tell, "A woman came to her rabbi in distress over her looks wanting to know what we think is beautiful and does she apply. Well, the rabbi said 'We look to the parsha (portion of the Torah we read each week) to tell us what beauty is and this week is Sukkot. The etrog (citron) is full of lumps and bumps but smells nice. So, beauty is bumpy and lumpy with something ephemeral coming from inside." I guess she was lucky it wasn't the week we read about Ruth and Naomi.

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  22. Praise God! What a beautiful piece. Thank you.

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  23. This is such a beautiful, inspiring post, Michelle!

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  24. Mr&Mrs ScribsMarch 29, 2015 at 7:05 AM

    This post is wonderful, I think everyone should read it. You're mother was clearly a wise woman and an inspiration. I can only hope to instill some this wisdom in my children, not just my daughter.
    Thank you for such a great post!

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