With tears welling up in her round blue eyes, Serene told me that it had never seemed necessary or important to her to use moisturiser or look after her skin. Now that she’s starting to see the signs of aging on her skin, it’s made her self-conscious so she signed up for a series of cosmetic skin treatments. She’s embarrassed about it she said because to her it’s shallow and frivolous. She feels ashamed and guilty for spending the amount of money she is on beauty treatments.
I shared with her my own body image issues. When I was a teenager I was constantly yo-yo dieting and mentally calculating how many calories I consumed daily. I still have that tendency to police what I eat and feel shame and anxiety if I overeat and feel very full. I never feel thin enough and as I’ve aged and put on weight it’s uncomfortable for me to take photos because I don’t like how I look in photos now.
It made me sad that we were both holding ourselves up to such a limiting view of the appeal and attractiveness of women as one based on youth and youthful figures. A homogenous and hollow view that values women for our sex appeal over our accomplishments, qualities, character, and contributions. A shallow standard of beauty that exploits our most base instincts and biological impulses.
Nevertheless, these instincts and impulses are real. Creation seeks to sustain itself and biology can have a strong influence on us all and especially when we’re not consciously examining our conditioning. Society and the media have facilitated in programming us further to believe in an ideal that foregrounds our reproductive and thus survival capacity. This is just part of what it is to be human and inhabit our world.
At Latin dance class or socials, sometimes I would spot a tall, attractive masculine man who would make my heart beat a little faster, my cheeks flush, and my body warm. I would look forward to dancing with them when we rotated partners as we used to do in class before the pandemic. If it was a social and I felt particularly brave, I might ask them to dance or hope that they would ask me, which they sometimes did.
What I found was that these men were not my favourite dancing partners. Most of them could or would not adapt to my level of dance experience and ability. They just wanted to look good rather than enjoy the dance and interaction. Some would get irritated when I couldn’t keep up with them or correct me even when they were out of rhythm or not leading me in the right way which just left me feeling bad and like I wasn’t good enough.
Because Latin dance is a social dance, you get to dance with a lot of different partners and what I noticed was that I enjoyed dancing most with the men who could adapt to my level and experience. It wasn’t about them looking good all the time. They were more aware of me as a partner and focused on our interaction and connection rather than just the moves. Many of these men were married or in relationships which made me wonder if that was how they had learnt to be so attentive to a partner. All of them had a sensitivity that brought a wholeness and balance to their masculine presence. It was so much more than their looks and appearance that contributed to their attractiveness to me. It was my experience of interacting with them and how they made me feel. How they related to me with consideration and interest.
The Most Beautiful Is Whole
In Taoism, The Tao (道) is the most beautiful thing imaginable because it is aligned with nature and whole. It is both masculine and feminine, yin and yang, young and old, heavy and light, tall and short, light and dark, soft and powerful. It is the very essence of creation, the greater being that we are a part of and belong to.
It is the skin that Serene didn’t put moisturiser on while she was helping marginalised communities. Her slim athletic build that walks tirelessly alongside others as they carry out their social missions in service to their communities. It is the weight I have carried since I started starving myself then bingeing on food after being molested as a child. The shame I have felt in my body which drove me to learn about diet after diet, then healthy balanced eating and what it means to feel peace and meaning which enables me to help others do the same. It is the grey hair, scars, wrinkles, and age spots that we all get more of as we age that show the responsibilities we have taken on, the times we have cared, and adventures or misadventures we have had. The risks we took and the life we are privileged to live. It is all that we are and ever could be.
As we sat together on the picnic mat in the Botanic Gardens trying to shield ourselves from the hot morning sun, Serene and I listened to each other without judgement or denial. We expressed our pain, shame and vulnerabilities. We allowed each other to be human beings who compare and struggle with feeling like we have to live up to an external ideal of what we should look like. Then we shared what we both admired and appreciated in one another, the unique and positive ways we saw each other make an impact and difference in the world. We helped each other contain the life, worries, thoughts, and emotions within us, our fragility as well our gifts, and in doing so we became more whole and more beautiful than we could have imagined ourselves to be.
In what ways do you feel like you have to live up to an ideal?
What are the fragilities and vulnerabilities you struggle with?
What gifts and goodness do you carry within you?