curves in all the right places

What did beauty mean to you when you were in your 20s and what does beauty mean to you now?

I probably wouldn’t have admitted it in my 20s, but I think I had pretty standard ideas of beauty…what the culture and what my mother told me was beautiful. She was influenced by the culture just like everyone, and I was too. For women that meant a good, well-proportioned slim figure, with curves in “all the right places”, preferably tall, clear skin, nice hair, male attention and stylish clothes and shoes. So basically perfect everything. Like I said, I wouldn’t have admitted that I was influenced by that stuff, but I know I was. It was an underlying standard and pressure all the time.

I did have one consistent quality of beauty. I had long, thick eye-lashes. That was one I could count on. The figure? I was small with kind of a boyish figure. When I did develop more curves, I liked it but I was also afraid that it would change any minute. My skin wasn’t consistently clear. I wasn’t tall, so that was something I couldn’t change. So the eye-lashes? That was something I had – long, thick eye-lashes. I did have to use mascara to accentuate them. I didn’t like going out of the house without mascara because of that. That was my one quality I could count on when all the others didn’t quite measure up or felt too “movable”.

By college, I found the thrift stores, and I had fun experimenting with clothes. It was more free.  It helped to be in a more diverse community too. I knew lots of women who didn’t fit those standards of beauty…women in theater and in art. I noticed qualities in them that were really appealing…personality, humor, other kinds of talents. I noticed that even those other qualities did get male attention. But I think I still secretly held those old standards of beauty too. They still worked on me a bit and lured me into thinking life would be easier and more “sure” with those qualities.

I’m 46 now. I’ve seen changes in my body, and even my thick eye-lashes aren’t the same as when I was in my 20s. I still wear some mascara but the mascara doesn’t quite go on my eye-lashes the way it used to. My world hasn’t come to an end because my eye-lashes aren’t quite as long and beautiful as they were. I see other women my age and older who don’t match the standards of beauty anymore. But they have a different kind of beauty, a beauty appropriate to their age. I find that really appealing. This has helped me too in relaxing some of those standards.

I think it helps that I don’t live close to my mom, who, even though she’s 80, still does hold a lot of those standards of beauty. When I see her, she mentions things about my hair or my clothes which still can feel like I’m 13. I think having some distance helps.

Why have your ideas about beauty changed over the years?

I think my ideas have changed for two reasons: my own experience in a changing body and seeing that my world hasn’t fallen apart with the changes and also knowing a lot of older women who I consider beautiful and role models in the way they’re aging. They have a naturalness about themselves and their physical appearance. Their beauty seems to come from inside them instead of all the external things which used to matter so much.

They may have some external qualities which are beautiful or not. Yet they still have a beauty that comes from something deeper. They smile a lot and they laugh a lot. And they laugh in a real way. They care about things deeply, like other people, animals, and the world. That makes them interesting and beautiful.

Susan, 46

San Francisco, October 2010

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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

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