Monday, May 6, 2013


1: a combination of qualities, such as shape, color, or form, that pleases the aesthetic senses, esp. the sight

At our final mother/daughter book club of the year, we discussed Uglies by Scott Westerfeld.  The book was good, but the conversation was great.  As I had hoped, the book prompted discussion of not only its content and characters, but our own thoughts and feelings on beauty.  The girls were honest.  They shared that they feel it is important it is to be pretty (almost as important as getting good grades), how it makes them feel if someone look at them strangely ("I must not look good today") and whether it's good to ask others' their opinions (sometimes don't ask, don't tell is the best policy when it comes to fashion and beauty).

If you aren't familiar with Uglies, it's set in a post-apocalyptic world where everyone has an operation at the age of 16 to make them pretty - symmetrical faces, large eyes, not too thin, not too heavy, not too short, not too tall.  When the main character, Tally, meets someone who didn't grow up in a city with this framework for beauty, she can hardly process the differences.  In one key conversation, the outsider, David, tells Tally that she's beautiful.  Her immediate response is that she can't be beautiful: you're either ugly (pre-surgery) or pretty (post-surgery).  There is no room for beauty in a world where everyone looks - and even thinks - the same way.

Our group talked about our own cultural pressures to look or dress a certain way - to wear makeup or not wear makeup, to dress up or dress down.  And we talked about the words we use to describe ourselves.  In Uglies, the pre-surgery children give each other cruel nicknames that emphasize their physical appearance - Squint, Stick, etc.  When David tells Tally this is one of the worst things about the way she grew up, I nodded along.  The words we use to describe ourselves are meaningful - we can see our hair as lank or straight and shiny, our bodies as curvaceous or heavy-set.  To further explore this point, we watched the Dove real beauty video and we discussed that while sometimes it's good to listen to ourselves and follow our heart, we need to be wary of our inner critic.

At the end of book club, I passed around post-it notes for the mothers and daughters to write down what they think beauty is.  We then stuck the post-its to a table and took a few moments to read our thoughts alongside those of others.

It was just one conversation and I fear it won't change these girls' experiences of our culture and its definitions of beauty.  But it's never too early to start this conversation.  In fact, I needed this conversation myself.  I was surprised to think back later on the words that came to my mind when I closed my eyes and pictured what beauty is:

Straight, shiny hair
Gentle curves
Smiles with her whole face

While there is nothing wrong with any one of these definitions, what struck me most is that there is only one of these terms that possibly applies to me.  If I'm completely honest, I don't see myself as beautiful.  I think I've made peace with my body.  I've accepted what it is and isn't.  But acceptance is a long way from embrace.

I know rationally that there are many kinds of beauty in our world.

Yesterday, we completed a very long journey from Nashville to Fish Creek, Wisconsin.  I've been to Green Bay once before, but that was in February.  It was striking to drive through the early May countryside and think about how different this part of the country looks from season to season.  Sure, winter in Nashville brings leafless trees and more brown that green.  But the landscape in northern Wisconsin experiences a more dramatic and drastic transformation.

I would not say that Wisconsin is more beautiful than Tennessee - they are differently beautiful.  Yet I struggle to mesh my inner experience of myself with my definition of beauty.  What is so troubling and so difficult about beauty is that we begin to define what beauty is and isn't at a very early age.  How can I undo forty years of assimilated thoughts about beauty?

As with nearly everything, I think the first step is awareness.  It was only after I had pictured the long, flowing hair I defined as beautiful that I realized my own hair doesn't look that way. I don't like to wear my hair long - not because my hair isn't straight or shiny but because the longer my hair gets, the more it gets in my way.  It's a definite choice on my part - and a practical one at that.  So should I grow my hair out to make it more beautiful or wear it the way I feel most comfortable?

Or is there a third path?  A path that says the way I feel most comfortable is the way I am the most beautiful?

The Wisconsin birch trees are not spending time and energy trying to look like Tennessee magnolia trees.

Maybe by the time I'm the age of the trees surrounding me, I'll be similarly content with my own structure and able to see the beauty within and without.

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