beauty that grows within the heart of humankind…

What did beauty mean to you when you were in your 20s?

It seems funny to be asked what beauty meant to me in my twenties because I can’t believe how unaware i.e. unconscious I was of my inability to be any different. Beauty was external and it referred to what I did “to make” myself attractive – to the opposite sex. It’s as if I was raised to be attractive to men not only by my parents’, but by my parents’ who were acting in collusion with some outside force which I now recognize as the culture. So in that sense beauty not only referred to physical beauty as in the right hairstyle, make-up, clothes and shoes but there was also an emphasis on sexual attraction. By the way – I almost dyed my hair blonde at one point. The line that permeated radio, TV and paper advertising, “Blondes have more fun!” was meant to be entice all women. So, just like Betsy mentioned, if one’s mom was influenced then the daughter usually followed – albeit reluctantly right behind. Ah ha! So now I have also discovered a connection between beauty and having fun and the images set out by advertising.

What does beauty mean to you now?

I still think of beauty in terms of physical appearance which includes physical health. However, my the concept of beauty has blossomed to include spiritual, emotional, and psychological attributes which reflect the development of an interior orientation that began when I was in my mid thirties.

If different, why have your ideas about beauty changed over the years?

The connection between my expanded notions about beauty are intimately linked to my spiritual development and the cultivation of a rather serious prayer life which began when I was thirty-six. I learned that though I was a wife, mother, daughter, sibling and friend I was “more”. At fifty-seven (almost!) I continue to learn about what process of becoming means to me. I enjoy many facets of my life and hope that the parts of my life which don’t appear to be very beautiful will one day be transformed. Until that day comes, I hope to enjoy the more hidden and little moments of beauty which put me in touch with the beauty that grows within the heart of humankind.

Helene, 56


Welcome to the dog and pony show

“I’ve worked hard for these wrinkles,” an older friend of mine smiled recently over salmon quesadillas. I was explaining to her why I was here in San Francisco, thousands of miles from home, doing an art project on women, beauty and aging. This project is a strange mutt, a mix of art and sociology. I will interview women 60 and older, recording their recollections of how they viewed  beauty in their 20s, their current ideas and how things have changed over the years.

During the interviews, I will take photos to later translate into oil paintings on boxes. When I show the work, I will run an audio of splices from the interviews. This blog will run alongside the project. Always with my work, I want to invite dialogue. The women will speak of what they knew and what they know now. I will listen, ask questions and write. I invite you to join in the conversation.

This project comes after a long personal diatribe against the beauty industry, modeling, the selling of the sexualized female body. I’ve worked with these themes for years. This project also joins the current (or recent) ranks of celebrating women of all ages…the voluptuous senior models of The Calendar Girls, Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty, the recent commercial from Kaiser Permanente, “When I grow up, I want to be an old woman.”

So my celebrations are not alone, nor are my queries. I’ve spent a lot of time with contemporary consumer culture. I know “the look” of what sells – the young, long-legged beauty. And I am curious. The last 100 years have seen the birth and exorbitant growth spurt of the modern advertising industry. Almost every woman alive today in Western culture has been surrounded to some degree by advertising and subsequently, beauty images. I wonder on a deeper level how this has shaped us…how women of different generations are affected similarly or quite differently.

Recently, a friend mused about the ambiguous role and space older people occupy in our culture. If nothing else, this project carves out a little space. A space to listen to memories and ideas. A space to see faces that are not “idealized” or a cookie-cutter sell. These are faces instead that carry the deep beauty of life lived, of wrinkles earned…remnant traces of a thousand smiles, the frown, a glamorous cigarette.

When I Grow Up, I Want to be an Old Woman – Kaiser Permanente ad

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