What is Beauty?


Tomorrow I will celebrate my fifty-third spin around this planet, and as each year passes, my ideas about beauty seem to shift in tandem.  I learned so much about real beauty watching my mother in the last years of her life.  She approached aging with humor and dignity, and I truly think she became even more beautiful in her nineties. Her blue eyes twinkled with mischief, her silvery hair shone, her sense of humor crackled, and- perhaps more importantly- her confidence seemed to soar. I want to follow in her footsteps, looking deeper into the mirror, past the wrinkles and gray, to the spirit of the woman inside.

Reaching that more meaningful view of beauty is not easy, though. The phrase, “Youth is wasted on the young” holds some truth as I think back to the innocence of my twenties, when wrinkles and gray, along with a lot of life’s trials, were mere specs in the distance. I was so insecure, so worried about what others thought of me. I battled anorexia and bulimia for several years, trying to force my body into what I thought it should be and win the approval of my partner- and myself. Everything that I ate brought stress and anxiety, everytime I looked in the mirror I only saw flaws, excessively exercising in a misguided effort to perfect them. And that’s another big part of the equation, isn’t it? That negative self-talk that we as women are trained from birth to use as our mantra. Some of it for me is being a Southern woman- we seem to corner the market on self-deprecation.  Some of it is the barage of images we see in the media, a perfection that the vast majority of us can never hope to achieve…though we try and try. I think of what I put my body through with all of the weight fluctuations, drastic diets, and harsh exercise programs I tried. I hope it will forgive me. 

I wasted years worrying about my high forehead, a gift from both my father and mother. I agonized about my big feet and broad backside. Obsessed that I was too fat when I wasn’t, and berated myself terribly when I was. When the faint wrinkles began to appear in my early thirties (sun worship and a lifetime of smiling) I felt less than. I worried about cellulite at the beach instead of enjoying the ocean, I worried about calories instead of savoring the flavors. On and on, wasting energy on things that aren’t real, don’t really matter in the big scheme of things. 

Talking with my mother about all of this changed my thinking. She told me she thought she was ugly when she was was young, and I was astounded- I look back at her photos and see a gorgeous and stylish woman. She said that with the vantage of age, she looked at the photos and realized that she was not ugly, that she looked “pretty darn good” and wished that she had known it then. That realization gave her a new power; she held her head higher, took great pains with her appearance- even at ninety-two. It wasn’t about her physical beauty, though- it was something much more special. Physical beauty is fleeting; what Mom uncovered was her spark, her essence- her true beauty. 

As always, Mom was my greatest teacher. For my birthday gift to myself, I am going the look in the mirror and see my sparking blue eyes, my resilient smile that has stayed through good times and bad, my accomplishments, my strength, my heart. I am going to see a woman who is determined to find happiness and beauty in life, rather than obsessing about a physical reflection that is only a very small part of who I am. And, next to love, that realization may be one of the best gifts of all. What shines within shines without. Thank you, Mom. 


6 thoughts on “What is Beauty?

  1. “Happy Birthday, Denise!”
    All that you are, and all that you hope to be, is already there, in your heart, and shines
    through, in every photo of you, and your beautiful smiles.
    Thank you for sharing your “light”.

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