On Beauty and Perception

I spent a very rainy post-New Year’s Day going through tons of old photos that I found while in the midst of  a major clean-out of my closet. I love the symbolic gesture of clearing out things that no longer serve us at the beginning of a new year. There were photos from all parts of my life, along with many old black and white captures of my mother. The photo above in particular struck me and made me think about her as a woman apart from her role as my mother. It’s amazing the power that photography has to tell stories and to capture moments in time. This photo that I don’t remember ever seeing before shed light on the woman my mother was in a way no other photo has before. 

No matter how little money we had while I was growing up, Mom always found a way to take great care with her personal appearance; she did her hair, dressed carefully- always accessorizing with beautiful pieces of special jewelry, and carefully applying make-up and lipstick before going anywhere…not for her the Sunday morning jaunts to the grocery store with bed hair, no make-up and sweats that her youngest daughter often makes. She told me that she would always be a Colonel’s wife- even though Dad left her when I was a baby- and had to look the part, no matter what her pocketbook said. She talked of pride and the importance of always picking herself up, dusting herself off no matter the circumstances, and looking the part of a lady. I could see in the photos that she had great beauty and a true sense of style long before my father ever rose in the ranks of the Army. 

I see these photos and am shocked to remember that Mom often told me that she thought she was ugly her whole life. Only when looking back at her photos in her nineties did she she finally say the words, “You know, Neese, I wasn’t half bad looking when I was young.” It is difficult to understand that when I see her beauty- a beauty that I think only grew as she aged. Along with her cobalt blue eyes, cheekbones and fashion sense, her spirit and sense of humor emanated from her so clearly. Why did she feel this way?

I want to understand this, as I have struggled with the same internal demons my entire life, even though Mom told me I was beautiful from my earliest memories- possibly trying to help me avoid the trap that so many women fall prey to. I have always focused on my faults- weight fluctuations, big backside, high forehead, big feet, etc. I’ve seen the ideals of beauty that are plastered in every magazine, movie, and television show- completely unrealistic for me and my body. I’ve done foolish things trying to be what I thought society wanted me to be, and I have watched my students doing the same, year after year. I am finally ready to jump off of that train to nowhere. 

I turn fifty-four on Saturday. Fifty-four. I still- hopefully- have many years to live and love, and I don’t want to spend that time at war with myself over things that really don’t matter in the big picture. As my birthday gift to myself, I am going to do my very best to see my beauty- a beauty that has nothing to do with physical appearance. I want to focus on my strength, my courage in difficult times, my dedication to my students and my craft, on my ability to love deeply, my kindness. I hope to focus on seeing the true beauty of being healthy- physically, spiritually, and emotionally. I want to be able to look in the mirror and smile, seeing my mother’s blue eyes shining back at me, learning lessons from her still. Those are the best gifts I could ever hope to receive, especially if I am able to share them with others. 

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