Beauty, Part II

I'm hesitant to share much about my students in a public forum- mainly out of respect for them. But it seems worth noting that eating disorders and beauty were one of the things they couldn't leave alone. I can't even count the number of response journals I read saying "I never felt beautiful, because I was too thick/skinny/whatever," even from the stereotypically beautiful girls in my class. Which makes me so incredibly sad, because my students? Not only are these girls gorgeous, they're tenacious, insightful, smart. Maybe I'm a little biased because they show up in class on a cold, rainy Monday for a lecture on cancer- but maybe that's precisely my point. I've taken them tough places with this class, and they've been more than willing to go, and to look at how their lives play out surrounded by the tough issues- including how they look at themselves.

And...I'm realizing now how responsible we can be for how other people perceive beauty, how they perceive themselves...and how devastating the merger of those things can be when it leads so simply to eating disorders with long term, potentially fatal consequences. The way we talk about food, the way we talk about how great women look when they lose weight, how we would like to lose weight, how we shouldn't eat X...And I've started to wonder what children learn when we give up favorite foods for Lent. I don't have my own children yet, so I'm less directly involved with this...but we associate food with sacrifice and celebration so easily. It takes kids so long to understand church, tradition, etc, and they imitate so much unconsciously and unquestioningly (I'm remembering an episode when I was about 9 when my friends and my parents flew into a fit because we were baptizing each other in a swimming pool).

When I was a senior in high school, we had to read a Sylvia Plath poem, titled "Mirror":
I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.
Whatever I see, I swallow immediately.
Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike
I am not cruel, only truthful –
The eye of a little god, four-cornered.
Most of the time I meditate on the opposite wall.
It is pink, with speckles. I have looked at it so long
I think it is a part of my heart. But it flickers.
Faces and darkness separate us over and over.

Now I am a lake. A woman bends over me.
Searching my reaches for what she really is.
Then she turns to those liars, the candles or the moon.
I see her back, and reflect it faithfully
She rewards me with tears and an agitation of hands.
I am important to her. She comes and goes.
Each morning it is her face that replaces the darkness.
In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman
Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.

The teacher...who, I suppose, was in her mid-late 40s told us, with disgust, that she'd learned to empathize with that last line that year, as she'd watched new wrinkles creep in. And she asked us to let her know when we started seeing our faces change daily...something about acknowledging mortality and the shortness of our life, I think?

I remembered that statement somewhere mid-2009, because after that first grad school semester, my face did start changing. Partly because I've lost ~15lbs since starting school (mostly due to lousy graduate student parking),the crinkles at the corner of my eyes and mouth when I smile have become a bit more pronounced, and the angles of my face have taken on a different character. But it's a change that I love - because I'm not the same person I was two years ago. I've met new people, seen new places, taken on more challenges, worked harder and been more wildly successful and happy than I could have imagined (and, honestly, it's a lot easier to teach undergrads when you don't look quite so much like one yourself).

And I think maybe that's what gets missed somewhere....that what we see in the mirror reflects the choices we've made and the things we've experienced in our bodies. And if we'd focus on the real things rather than the reflections, maybe we could learn to love them both.I believe that young woman in Plath's poem drowned herself in the mirror- by choosing to stare at it rather than go live her life. do we teach *that* to college students, highschoolers, children?


Emily said…
As you mention above, I think it starts with being aware of what our unthinking statements about ourselves and others really mean... and the effect those statements have on ourselves and others listening--particularly children! But I think we can't stop there. Everywhere we look there are images telling us a story about how we have to look a certain way to be acceptable. The story isn't true, but gets into many of us so deeply that it becomes part of how we interpret reality. I don't know exactly what to do about this... but I think we can't just do nothing.

I had no idea how deeply those images effected me until I went to Canada and then came back to the US. In Canada, I lived on a little island with no bill boards, no shopping malls. I lived in a home with no TV, no newspaper advertisements, where people were taken seriously no matter what they looked like or what social group they fit into, and where the women who were a part of my life each day didn't wear makeup. I got used to the real faces of real women, and I thought they were beautiful. Living at this place had a sort of cleansing effect on me. When I came back to the world of shopping malls and makeup advertisements, I could see for the first time that there is a story behind them and that the story isn't true! And I could see how my intense dislike of my body has been caused by believing that false story.

But--it's not enough to just tell people that the images are lying. Like any truth, people have to be brought to the place where they can really hear it for it to get into their hearts and change them. I was told time after time after time that the images are lying. My heart couldn't believe it, though, until I was removed from a culture based on those lies. And even now, I have to be careful not to start believing the false story again...

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