Beauty

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On Beauty

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I’ve always thought of myself as a woman who was not good looking. Sometimes I thought I was ugly, and other times I thought I was fat. Perhaps there were momentarily feelings of beauty, but mostly those emotions were punctuated with clear awareness that I was not beautiful. When I tell this to friends they find it surprising, and sometimes they think I am exaggerating or lying. But I am not. Not identifying as beautiful was part of my truth for most of my life until recently.   The transformative magic was not due to exterior change. It was not related to losing weight or changing my hair cut; and it was definitely not about considering plastic surgery. The shift in my understanding of personal beauty took place within a very internal process. I wish to extend great gratitude to two female friends who work in the hearts of the fashion industry and helped me take a different look at myself and see the beautiful part I have always ignored or denied.

In the process of this most recent transformation, I learned that what mattered the most was my own attitude towards beauty. To start with, I thought beauty was something to be hidden and that triggered a relationship of shame rather than celebration. It also prompted me to cover up my body with loose and baggy outfits. I would often go out of my way to “uglify” by hiding as much of myself in my choices of clothes and the way I walked, with a hunched back—almost wishing to disappear into the background. I did all that was possible to make sure that people see what is in my mind as opposed to any aspect of natural beauty. And that entails often talking a lot and putting the confidence in my opinion, as expressions that distract from any definition of beauty. Now, mind you, this may very well be a mind game that I played with myself without others being aware.  But again, what mattered was not the outer world’s perception but my own self-image and feelings.

When I hang out with other female friends I perceive as beautiful I never feel jealous. I respect and admire their beauty and always feel that it was something that is just not related to me. I am comfortable with what I observe as my physical disappearance. For example, if a group of female friends enter a restaurant together, I always assume that I am the one who was not seen by others. And I was always comfortable with that. It’s always surprising and even shocking to me when I’m told that I was noticed. And that story goes as back as my teenage time in Baghdad Iraq.

You may think of some of my behavior as modest and good but that was not how it landed in my heart. When the relationship with beauty is out of shame rather than celebration, it leads to a form of self-torture and denial of the most essential blessing of God.  As a woman’s right activist, I particularly took on the “lack of beauty” as a form of identity. I wanted no one to pay attention to how I look and everyone to hear only what I say. But that way I only took on one way of expressing change I wanted to see in women’s lives, as I was only speaking through the power of words and actions.

The change of attitude first happened when the women I was working with in war zones started asking me to bring them lipstick. When they saw my flabbergasted reaction, they quickly explained to me that lipstick is the simplest way to show beauty. It helped them feel good about themselves and that, in turn, was an essential part of their resilience. That captured my attention and I started noticing women who witnessed and survived the worst acts of humanity in the wars of Congo and Afghanistan were carrying themselves with such graceful beauty. That’s when I first noticed that beauty is not to be denied. It should be encouraged and celebrated, as it is a core source of human spirit. It was then that I started applying my own lipstick and paid a bit more attention to my clothes.

Still, the change that occurred in my relationship with beauty was more out of my activist self rather than the primary woman within me. The relationship with beauty may have transformed within but it was still not a settled matter within my heart. But unsettled matters are also the source of our vulnerabilities, where our insecurities lie, and in our securities there is always the risk of our own self-betrayal. I know I betrayed myself by denying the peace of beauty from within for way too many years until my friends started helped me, at the age of 44, to transform my relationship with beauty from within. Not as a political aspect. Not as a goal to help women—but as a process from within to create inner peace.

That is when I started working out as my duty towards my body. That is when I started paying attention to what I ate and showing respect to the body that God gave me. And that is when I started wearing clothes that celebrated my entire being and worked with my body instead of shapeless outfits whose purpose was to hide and deny. This led me to walk with a straight back rather than the old hunched one. I am neither denying nor fearing whatever sense of beauty I feel towards myself. Indeed I am grateful for it every day as I wake up and put my feet on the floor as I step out of bed. In that moment I start my gratitude towards God for giving me a functioning body from my smallest toe to my big nose. Suddenly, I love every part of myself as part of my gratitude towards God’s gift. How dare I deny my blessings for so many years and consider it a source of shame. Beauty, as the saying goes, helps us get closer to peace and, consequently, peace helps us get closer to God.

I only attained this attitude about a year ago. Yes, believe it or not, only a year ago. It took a series of events, some pain, and immense openness to the possibility of being wrong in my past attitude and letting a new one in. As my friend Donna Karan always says, “Clothing is not in the mere act of dressing. It takes dressing and addressing for women to feel beautiful.” And, indeed, she was one of the critical friends who helped me address my inner sense of beauty to arrive at the outer comfort with it.

That transformation revealed other realities. First, I buy much less clothes than ever before. Now that I am actually comfortable with loving myself, I do not feel the desire to buy clothes at all. The few pieces I have—and I promise you my entire wardrobe fits four medium suitcases—is more than enough for me. The pieces I buy are ethically produced and fitting for me. They are less about the new fashion and much more about what my heart desires. And I could not feel more beautiful than I am feeling these days. Secondly, the pressure to constantly change one’s appearance is so huge that it can easily lead to self-doubt and more buying-obsessed behavior. I am constantly asked to dye my hair, adjust my look, get new makeup, change my nose, buy a certain color, and do this and that. And if I listen to everyone around me I would easily slip back into an unhealthy relationship with myself. My own self-love and comfort within my skin is the only foundation that keeps me centered and released me from succumbing to pressure to change anything.

Ultimately, one qualification or another does not measure beauty. I am convinced beauty is a source of inner light and that light knows not a color or size or shape of any body part. A light is a light and it is that beacon that is the source of beauty. I am in my mid-forties and I love my gray hair, my big nose, my big thighs, and I welcome these kind wrinkles around my eyes. What I see of myself is not the imperfections. I recognize my beauty unconditionally and I cultivate that understanding from a source of love and peace within myself and to God.  If I could do this transformation then any woman and man can. It is all in our hands and has nothing to do with what we purchase—but who we are.

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Celebrating the Ordinary

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Rumi once said that “silence is the language of God, all else is poor translation.” As a lover of God, I always seek God in the wonders of the world, in serving other people, and in the exploration of all kinds of spiritual practices. I felt like these were attempts to catch a glimpse of God but in the process I could not hold onto that glimpse as I returned to my daily life. That glimpse was always somewhere else outside of me. Sometimes I saw it in the beauty of humanity amidst the worst of human atrocities. Sometimes it was in an act of kindness by someone we may know or may not know. The glimpse has always been like a jar that poured water of hope and belief into my heart. It was that belief that kept me going even as I worked in wars for many years. Other times that glimpse was in spiritual retreats I explored as I tried to make sense of all the wars in the world and the stories I was being exposed to. Other times I found it in my daily meditation and prayers. All were beautiful experiences but I also wanted to hold on to the sensation during my ordinary routines, be it attending a meeting, giving a speech, or traveling.

But recently I decided to explore that silence in the ordinary of every moment in my life. Instead of only separately carving some space for my meditation and prayers each day, I decided to integrate my seeking of the presence of God in every inhalation and every exhalation I take. So instead of checking my phone and my emails as I sat in the taxi or the subway, I just focused on my breathing—and with that, I focused on God. And so the practice spread throughout my day: in the shower, while walking from one place to another, and with every meal. And suddenly I noticed a beauty—a new beauty—I had not experienced before and that is the beauty of the ordinary.

Ecstatic feelings came out of the simplest experiences: the sensation of my feet touching the ground as I walked, the softness of every breeze touching my face, and even the drinking of a glass of water. And when everything was so beautiful, my seeking of the divine turned into the exploration of the ordinary of everyday life with no more separation between that, my prayers, and my daily activities. All became one.

And with that came a new curiosity. A curiosity to see everything in all its truthfulness for I figured that is where beauty lies. For example, I am someone who always put nail polish on my toenails because one of my nails broke a long time ago and never grew back normally. Therefore I always covered it up with all kinds of colors. But when the ordinary became so beautiful, I took off all my nail polish and was enjoying my broken toenail in its fragility, beauty, and even ugliness. I shaved my head and took all my makeup off. I know this is a bit extreme, but it is an extreme I can afford and am willing to do. Soon I started noticing how makeup felt like a mask that I was putting on every day: sometimes for good reasons, sometimes to cover up sad stories, and sometimes to pretend everything is perfect. It is not that I stopped putting makeup on, but at least I laugh at my silly attempts at masking. And “why mask?” I started wondering to myself. It is in our vulnerability that we connect to each other as people. It is in our joy and our sorrows, in our light and our shadows that we connect, learn, and grow. Suddenly those in my life who covered their shadows, as I covered the dark circles under my eyes with concealer, stopped being of interest to me. How can I connect with those who hide their shadow so deeply? It feels as unreal as the perfect looking woman who is full of plastic surgeries. She is beautiful! But everyone knows it is not real, natural beauty. And it is hard to connect with the unreal. For God is only in the real!

So here I am starting my 2014 with the most obvious knowledge that I have not paid attention to all my life: the beauty is in the ordinary. It is in the ordinary of our behavior of love, generosity, and kindness. The beauty is even in our behavior that triggers shame, embarrassment, and anger. For these moments help us grow. And in the cracks of the self, new light eventually comes. And with this, I started experiencing God with every breath: not separate from my daily life but part of every movement and every step I make. And for that, I am grateful!

May 2014 helps us all see the beauty of the ordinary.