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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.


Another Perspective

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There is indeed a kind of self-righteousness we each possess as we look and judge the world from outside ourselves. We are each the center of our own universe in which we see and analyze those around us in relation to our own experiences with them. We see some of the people we encounter as “good” and some as “bad.” Some we consider as one of “us.” And others we see as one of “them”—those other people who are bad or malevolent.  There is even a Talmudic saying that demonstrates this point: “We see things as we are. We do not see things as they are.”   Even though it may be unavoidable to see the world from outside our own perspective, it would be an interesting exercise to shift position and see things from another viewpoint whereby the lens is looking inward as opposed to outward. And instead of judging others, we first look inward at ourselves and own our full story with all its goodness and badness. I physically do that in my practice of aerial yoga, where you flip upside down with the help of a hammock and see the room from a different perspective. It took me a long time to learn but when I finally mastered the pose, I wondered what it meant to have this other perspective of myself, how I view my life, and those around me.

Now you may say, “why should I bother to do this? I am happy with the way I am, or I am perfect and content, and don’t have interest in shifting my lens.” If that is what you believe, I would be worried about how you see yourself and what your attitudes are towards others around you. Where there is light, there is a shadow. And we cannot see the full self if we do not acknowledge both the light and the shadow within us. When we are aware of these two dynamics, we can then make a choice of which one to nourish more and which one to accept and control. In my experience, every time I was unaware of my own shadow it would sneak up on me in uncontrollable ways and end up hurting me more than anybody else could hurt me. And every time I acknowledge the shadow within me and understood its source, I take its reign and am able to regulate it and control it.  In that process, there is a deeper understanding of the self in a humbling way that makes me more responsible and in control of my actions. It makes one more humble in walking this life, more empathetic and less judgmental in seeing others around you, and more able to see the self fully in its beauty and its beast.

There is no end result of this journey and there is no way to reach a state of perfection. It is an ongoing process that aims to provide a more realistic way of seeing the self. The more one sees the self in a clear and honest way, the more you know what to take in from other people’s opinion of you, and what not to take. The more you own your own story and experiences by looking inward at your own responsibilities, the more you are able to distinguish what is truly yours versus other’s projecting their story onto you.  There is a calmness that comes with compassion—not only to oneself but also to all others around you, even those who may have hurt you. The more you work on seeing your own shadow, the more you are able to see those around you with a new lens—a cultivated outlook that recognizes the light as well as the dark. And this will help you spot those who put themselves in the middle of the light and deny their own shadow.

Angeles Arrien, a great teacher and mentor, pointed out in her anthropological work of indigenous cultures around the world how “every person is a mirror of some aspect of our own nature” and how “we are all mirrors for each other.” She identified the mirrors as “clear,” “shady,” and the “no mirrors.” Clear mirrors are those who bring the best out of you, lift your spirits, and bring you joy when you are with them. Shady mirrors are those who irritate and annoy you, or those who you are sexually attracted to.  No mirrors are those who you do not notice no matter how many times you encounter them. In Arrien’s retreats, which I had the privilege of attending several times, she has everyone sit in a circle and asks all participants to practice direct conversation with the person who holds any kind of mirror to them. If one is a shady mirror in terms of irritation, she asks us to identify what aspect of ourselves did this other person touched within us. And instead of blaming the other person, one needs to acknowledge that the person who represents a “shady mirror” only triggered this because it exists within you.  All of this had to be done by going to the person and having the courage to communicate this to them honestly, without blame, in front of the whole community of retreat attendees.

You can imagine that this is not an easy conversation. Silence is usually held for a long time and each person has to confront their own discomfort with the idea of having to acknowledge their own story instead of scapegoating the other.  Even those who are sexually attracted to another person are asked to have this honest conversation by acknowledging their attraction to the person, thanking them for triggering this feeling within their heart. And if they are not available, they are released from all desire to respond or act.  Just the confrontation of that in an honest way releases all tension and drama, which are usually triggered when there is sexual attraction and when there is no honest conversation around it.

Arrien proves many points with this exercise. One truth is that there is no obsolete definition for any one person as good or bad.  It is impossible for one person to be loved by all or hated by all. Instead, everyone holds mirrors that trigger different things in each other. So the same person can be loved by some and hated by others.  This can’t be a sole reflection of the person. A large part of that is the mirror this person holds for others around them. This is an exercise of utter self-responsibility, of seeing oneself from another perspective, of having to confront even uncomfortable subjects we often prefer to hide. But it is also an exercise of liberation from self-righteousness. It is a step towards walking the path of humility and compassion towards the self. And in understanding oneself fully, you understand others around you.

Whatever self-perception we have of ourselves does not matter, really.  I could tell myself that I am “this or that” all I want.  And I can see others as “this or that” until the end of my life.  What is important is the walk one takes in life and the actions one does or does not do. The more you are truthful to yourself, the more you can be in touch with your values and the life you want to live. And with that, the more you can give of yourself with compassion and grace for a better world. So ask yourself, have you had that honest and hard conversation within yourself? Can you have that conversation with others—be it in your family, work, or community. If not, the mirrors around us are plentiful. You only need to start seeing things from other perspectives. The route may be hard—and even horrifying to see our own shadows and to have the honest conversations—but I promise there is liberation in owning our full stories and in having truthful conversations within us and with others. And freedom is always worth the journey.