These days at the beach have given me lots of time to think through things that have been rattling around in my brain for a while now, especially since my hysterectomy surgery. Perhaps it is also the ever-daunting prospect of having to wear a bathing suit in public. I wrote a bit about this in my last post, but wanted to delve deeper, as writing always helps me to sort through things and -hopefully- come out on the other side with a bit more clarity. As a woman who has just lost her feminine ‘plumbing’, and who is also perhaps not so comfortably nestled into the realm of middle age, I am struggling with what being ‘beautiful’ means for me at this stage in my life.
I saw a group of teenaged girls walking together down the beach, happily chatting and totally at ease with themselves in their bikinis. I felt a surge of joy for them, saying a little prayer to the gods of confidence that they would never let the world take away that gift. I realized that I never felt that same confidence to walk down a beach- or in front of a group of people- until I passed the fifty milestone. And, if I’m honest, I still to this day suck in my stomach if I think anyone is looking at me. How ridiculously vain (and futile)….but nevertheless a ritual practiced by most women I know. Okay, all of the women I know. I’m going for truth and some sort of mystical breakthrough here, after all.
I think of my mother, who- even when she didn’t have two nickels to rub together (which was the vast majority of her life), would always find a way to dress nicely, do her face and- God love her- use enough hairspray on her gorgeous silvery locks to hold down Fort Knox. She would coordinate her jewelry, and always, always- her shoes would match her pocketbook- a true Southern lady through and through. My older sister, Linda (the true beauty of our family) is very like our mother in that regard- she is always dressed nicely, make-up done, hair done, jewelry in place- even if she is just going out to work in the yard. I admire that ‘gene’ or whatever it is, that compulsion to put their best face forward. I didn’t think that I had that in my own genetic make-up, but as I age, I find that maybe I do. I take more care with my appearance as the years pass, I’m wearing a bit more jewelry, get the occasional pedicure…but I still often gleefully go without makeup. Baby steps, I guess.
I had some really eye-opening conversations about all of this with my mom before she passed away at ninety-two. Mom was truly a beauty when she was young, and even though her family was dirt poor, the young woman I see in the old black and white photos is fashionably dressed and coiffed. However, she said she always thought she was ugly, not seeing her beauty until the end of her life. I thought that was terribly sad, and vowed to myself that I would not let that happen to me…but maybe I already have. I loved seeing Mom become even more beautiful the older she got, the twinkle in her blue eyes even more bright and mischievous. She owned her beauty in those final years, and I wonder- how do we women, how do I, find our way to own our beauty from the beginning?
I suppose that I should start by defining what beauty means to me, a definition that will be impervious to meaningless salvos like weight, wrinkles, age, cellulite, and that wicked inner voice that taunts us with comparisons to others. Beauty…beauty…The world often sees beauty in only its physical manifestation, but there is so much more to it than that. To me, the most beautiful women are those with confidence, kindness, and that have the ability to laugh at themselves. Beautiful women are survivors, warriors for those they love. They are black and white, fat and thin, short and tall, handsome and homely. They are resourceful, generous, loving. That loving part is important, as they not only love others, but also themselves. The wrapping that holds all of this together may be perceived differently by different people, but no matter- beautiful women know they are beautiful. It shines from them like a beacon, just as it shown from my mother’s eyes at ninety-two.
I donned all of the trappings of mainstream beauty for our beach trip; mani/pedi, cute new beach clothes, and explained to Dan that I wanted to look beautiful for him. His reply?
“What about looking beautiful for yourself? You are always beautiful to me.”
It was like the lights came on for me. These things were fun and maybe gave me the illusion of confidence, but they didn’t make me beautiful. My beauty comes from the love I have for my husband, my family and friends, my students, my animals. It comes from the tears I have shed over lost love and lost loved ones. It comes from my dedication to succeed no matter how hard I have to work, and it comes from the failures that have humbled me. It comes from deep belly laughter from the silliest of things, and from a heart so soft that I can cry at commercials on tv. It comes from the love that others have for me. It is so much more than the one-dimensional image of a magazine cover.
I stood in the waves of the ocean, taking in the view, feeling the chill of the water splash over my legs, feeling awe at the beauty of nature. I turned around to see Dan taking photos of me, and I instantly froze.
Oh, God- my backside is huge! I still have weight to lose…I wasn’t sucking in my tummy!
Blah, blah, freakin’ blah. I despise those soul-sucking demons.
I dreaded seeing those photos, dreaded knowing how they would make me feel less than. Dan smiled broadly and handed the camera to me, his eyes shining with love. Could I see the woman he saw in those images? The woman who came from nothing and earned a doctoral degree with straight A’s? Who performs in front of audiences all over the world? Who cared for her mother until the end? Who writes and writes and writes, telling her story, even when it it painful to do so? Whose face is lined more from the joy she chose to find in her life over sorrow?
I took the camera from him gingerly and sat down on my beach chair. He had just given me the camera as a gift to further my hobby of photography, and had to show me how to view the photos. I took a deep breath and pushed the button to advance each photo. Click. Click. Click. At first I cringed, but then I began to see the woman that my husband saw, saw my joy at being at the edge of the ocean on a perfect day with the love of my life. And I smiled.
**’Nifty’ is the term my friend Nancy uses instead of ‘fifty’. I like it, having found that my fifties – I mean nifties- have been some of the best years of my life…so far.