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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.


On Vulnerability

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Most people are uncomfortable with showing vulnerability to others. As humans, we are used to presenting the strongest and most positive images of ourselves rather than the vulnerable parts we all possess. We are more likely to talk about the things that are going well in our lives than the things that are bothering or challenging us. More attention is put on our positive accomplishments rather than failures and obstacles, on our happiness rather than our sadness, and on our strength rather than on our weakness. And yet it is in our vulnerability, the very thing we avoid sharing with others, where stronger and more truthful connections between people reside.

I have had the privilege to live in various countries and cultures in my life. And in the process I learned that each culture deals differently in which emotions they show and how they choose to show them individually. Americans’ first response to the question of “How are you?” is always “Great!” to Middle Easterners, on the other hand, always put a melancholy tone on the answer by saying “Thank God”—mostly as means to avoid saying “I am bad” or even “I am good” for cultural reasons that combines a show of gratitude with a worry that of being envied by others. Some cultures like to brag of happiness (mostly Western cultures), while other cultures like to speak of sadness (mostly Eastern cultures). I know I am highly generalizing here, but I do so to make a macrocosmic point that what people in various cultures choose to show or not to show does not always equate with openness.

The concept of vulnerability transcends all cultural boundaries. It is a human emotion that deals with our doubts, fears, and worries—something that each human being has no matter where you live and what you have or don’t have in this world. Our vulnerabilities stem from our individual stories and life narratives. Particular uncertainties may vary from one person to the other given their backstories, but fears always revolve around the concept of whether one will be accepted, loved, safe, and successful. Although we all have these emotions running in our minds, we worry about revealing them for fear of being judged.

To show vulnerability—genuine and truthful vulnerability—is the exact opposite of learning what societies have taught us for so many years, which is to hide our weaknesses deep in ourselves. But if we do not show vulnerability, we continue holding the mask over ourselves and, therefore, alienate others as opposed to sharing connections. So what happens if you expose your most intimate worries? Perhaps you fear not being accepted or loved by others if you speak your truth, or you’re concerned that you cannot achieve what you perceive as the expectations others have for you and who you are. Being fully vulnerable is like being naked with no clothes to cover the most private parts of the self.

That is not an easy task by all means. As a matter of fact, it requires a leap of faith in the goodness and the love of people around—something that cannot be guaranteed. Yet to avoid expressing your true self and desires is to be stuck in the shell of your fears and often leads to self-fulfilling prophecy where your worries become manifested. This can lead to isolation from authentic relationships and friendships.

Showing vulnerability started with the journey of truth. I couldn’t be truthful to who I am if I didn’t also expose my hopes and fears honestly. The responses I got each time I showed vulnerability varied. Sometimes people were uneasy seeing me vulnerable, and would rush to try to make me happy and tell me everything is OK. Some felt a duty to “save” me, which was not necessary needed. Others felt uncomfortable and turned the other direction immediately. But, thankfully, more often than not people showed up in the most loving, kind, caring, and generous ways. People listened and helped me reflect as I processed. Often just their presence and the smallest acts of kindness would make a huge difference in my life. The gift of that connection with some helped me filter through the meaning of friendships in my life. Knowing friends in happiness is a very different experience than knowing people in times of trouble. Vulnerability forces facades to be broken down and with that we encounter another reality of the self and the people around us.

Still, you may wonder, why should we show vulnerability? After all it is indeed a very uncomfortable feeling to share. Well, it is because you accomplish two things. First, you can at least cathartically reveal what is inside your heart and be in your truth no matter what the issue may be. And second, instead of living in fear and worry based on your own assumptions of how people may respond, you gain insight into the people around you. You will indeed go through some process of sorting that will tell you with more clarity what is worth going through. I know that in my experience witnessing the vulnerability of others—even someone who I perceived as a distant friend at first—made my relationship with them so much closer and real. It has lead to the most beautiful friendships with the most unexpected people.

The way to deal with vulnerability is not to worry more, but to open your heart and with that your mind and connection with others will follow. When it was I who showed vulnerability, the process felt like vetting through the “truth” verses the “bullshit” of people around me. In the time of thoughtful language brought by the life coach industry, expressing yourself helps you distinguish between those who only “speak” from those who actually “act.” The experience will always lead you to a more truthful place with yourself and with others around you. And the taste of truth is always, always worth it!