It Is Hard to Hate Someone Whose Story You Have Heard

I heard those words during a talk about raising culturally competent children given by Professor Hotchkins, who teaches at Texas Tech University and is one of the leading voices in the nation on the subject of navigating organizational + social cultural difference.  He was the only black man in the room of white faces, and though it is sad to admit, one of the only black voices I have heard, in person, on this subject.

This made me wonder about how little I have invited diverse relationships into my life, even though I have lived in cities with a range of ethnicities represented. There is one time where I spent a considerable amount of time with latino families, two years during High School, when my parents helped with a hispanic church plant. Some of them became my friends, but I always felt as an “other” in the group.  I didn’t fully understand their culture or speak their language, but I loved those people and I felt accepted by them. It is the closest I have ever felt to being a minority, but looking back, I realize there was still always a feeling of privilege and superiority – I could navigate the world easier for many reasons, and when I left that space, I could go back to my own sameness.

Five or so years later, when my husband and I were first married, we also worked with youth who were a mix of latino, white, and black kids when we lived in a more diverse neighborhood. I didn’t think about race much, none of that mattered to me, I told myself. But I wonder now how I imposed my whiteness on them or acted in a condescending manner, even subconsciously, as I look back.

Dr. Hotchkins shared many good points and I really am glad I made myself go, made myself sit silently for over an hour, and listen to his perspective and story. I am only beginning to grasp at the edges of this complex issue.

I left with 5 pages of notes and have many thoughts to allow to simmer, but there were a few things that stuck with me especially:

1.) He asked the question, “How many culturally diverse artifacts do you have displayed in your home? Do you have pictures or items tied to a specific culture?” I thought back to my childhood and remembered the shelves of books my parents had, and how I was drawn to those few portraits and photographs of indigenous tribes or cultures different from my own. I mentally pictured our own home – no. I may have a pot or a book with some pictures, but they are not strewn or displayed in a way that my children would notice. Our two large coffee table books feature white people (The Beatles).  This is a gap, I realized. We have not been intentional in the display of other cultures in our home.  I have not been intentional in my own education of those cultures.

2.) He shared a quote, the author and exact wording I don’t remember, but it went something like: “It is hard to hate a person whose story you have heard.”

It reminded me of a story I heard once about an older couple who were home in bed for the evening. While they were sleeping, a man broke into their house, held them at gunpoint, and told them he was going to shoot them. The man calmly said, “Alright, but first, how about we have one last cup of coffee together”. For whatever reason, the trespasser obliged, and they went down and sat around the kitchen table.  While they drank their coffee, the man with the gun told the couple his story, about his loneliness and problems in life. In the end, the couple lived and the man became friends with them. The act of hospitality and deep listening de-escalated the situation and took away the cloud of hate between them.

As we are entering the season of Lent, our church is going through the book “Mending the Divide” by Jer Swigart and Jon Huckins, and within the context of peacemaking and really entering into relationship with our neighbors who look different from us, this quote is a beautiful reminder of how stereotypes can be changed and brokenness can be restored.

In their book, Swigart and Huckins suggest that the steps to being peacemakers are to SEE, IMMERSE, CONTEND, RESTORE. That first step, seeing – really looking and allowing ourselves to see the pain and conflict in the lives of those around us – is vital. Because once we have seen it, you can’t unsee it, and then you must decide what to do with that. One problem is that many times we ease our conscious by simply giving money or items to a cause or doing something ourselves for someone that has not been asked of us.  Which can be helpful and good, but often we THINK we know what love looks like for someone, but we haven’t actually asked. So we impose our privilege on them, meeting needs that aren’t even there, to make ourselves feel better about their pain.

In reality, we need to immerse ourselves in their lives, even if it means we might be judged by it or our reputation will be questioned, hear their stories, surround ourselves with their pain, and then, once we have been invited into their lives in relationship, can we begin to understand what it looks like to wage peace in their context.

I wonder how many of us are actually willing to do this.  There is a fantastic ethnography written by anthropologist Seth Holmes, titled  Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies, which describes his journey immersing himself into the lives of Oaxacan migrant workers. I read it while taking a medical anthropology class and it deeply changed my perspective – even though I haven’t been there, I felt like I saw their suffering in a way the media does not portray.

We have to enter into their brokenness and even be willing to lose something in order to begin to understand and offer a voice as an ally and upholder.

3.) Your voice as an ally must be bestowed upon you and stay on the periphery of the discussion.

I have heard the word “ally” tossed around a lot since the Black Lives Matter movement was in the forefront of my Facebook feed. However, as my circle of friends were not diverse (read: almost all white), I never heard it being spoken by someone who was black. And I thought, “yeah, yeah! I can be an ally!”, but I didn’t know what that really meant. And I didn’t realize that as a white ally, I can’t be leading the discussion. My voice needs to be on the periphery, it needs to be a supportive voice, it needs to be informed by those in the center.

So, this Lent, I want to be intentional about listening to those who are different. Immersing myself before jumping to conclusions about what an individual or group needs from me or anyone else, and becoming an ally and friend in the peacemaking efforts.

Can you even imagine if everyone treated their neighbors this way? If every oppressed identity had someone of a privileged identity willing to lose something to make their lives better? There is so much work to be done, it is overwhelming.

But the first step, right now, today: Start listening with your whole body. Look deeply at those you normally pass by or you think you already have pinned down, because once you have SEEN the suffering, it is hard to look away.  Once you have heard the stories, and peeled away the stereotypes, your perspective will change.

-b.e.

 

 

 

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the most frightening and truest freedom I could ever know

The morning light creeps through the window and gently nudges me awake.

I breathe in that quiet morning space, folded into the warmth and safety of my sheets, and slowly my eyes open and close as I feel both weightless and heavy at the same time.

All at once, I begin to list in my head the many tasks to accomplish and places to be: our children’s needs, my own, our home, my job. And I wonder how in the midst of all of that, what light I have to offer, what light there is to receive.

I wonder why my body suddenly feels so heavy and round and how will this day be any different than the one before it? How can I carry myself – and everyone who depends on me – through it?

And then, I remember a simple, beautiful, profound truth: I matter. And I am loved.

The things I do are an overflow of who I am and the love that is in me, but they do not define me.  You can strip them away, the titles and stereotypes and relationships and there I will be, naked and vulnerable and simple and plain and absolutely, wonderfully beautiful and fiercely loved.

But, in that moment of complete vulnerability, I question whether I will be able to accept it. Can I look past the shame and failure, see myself for who I am without any of the stories I use to present myself and only be reminded of the ugly chapters I choose not to share, and still believe in such an incomprehensible and wild love? Will I be able to embrace the most frightening and truest freedom I could ever know? To be seen and valued for who I really am?

And, grace. Will I extend grace to myself?  What about to those who don’t see it – especially those who also can’t see or accept their own intrinsic and God-given worth?

Because what do we really think about the ones who don’t have the pretty stories to wrap themselves in?  The marginalized and different-from-us folk who we write off and push out of our focus so we can continue comfortably indifferent, pretending we aren’t judging them as harshly as we really are.

I don’t have the answers.

But I will start by choosing to accept my worth and stop trying to prove it. I am creating a new practice, so that when the morning light first pulls me out of my sleep, instead of reminding myself of the to-dos I need to complete to receive my worthiness, I am simply going to breathe in and welcome the sun and say,

“I matter. Thank you, God, for your light. There is light and life for me to offer and receive in this day.”

Because I deeply believe that once I accept the source of my own worth, I will begin to live and love from that place inside of me, which will spread to everyone I come into contact with.

It is a daily action. An intentional choice to make myself stop and accept this truth over and over again. To refresh my soul and let myself become smaller so that God’s love can shine brighter and spread farther through me.

Surviving, Thriving, and New Year Resolutions

Young Women Travel Together Concept

There have been many different seasons of my life.  Some have been times of intense focus, joy, anticipation, change, sameness. Some have been easy, others hard.

Some have made me feel like I have just been surviving.

Three young kids and little sleep contribute to this feeling. The life of a mother is ever revolving, there is always another need, another small hand tugging on your leg or calling out for ‘mama’, a rubbing, rawness that is constant and reminding you of who you are and the life you nourish and give to those around you.

There is even more to it than that, though. More a question of purpose and whether I am living to my fullest potential or not.

I have been able to find great joy in the mundanity and simple everyday moments seeping through the cracks of routine, but there is something different and life changing about living in a way that makes you feel the most alive.

Around this time of year, I feel drawn toward a word for the upcoming season. This morning while I was running, I felt the sun warming my skin and I found myself closing my eyes for a moment, imagining rays shooting out from me and an incredible joy fill my soul – I felt like I was doing something I was meant to do: thrive.

Which makes me wonder, how do I thrive when I am doing the mundane tasks that must be done? How do I infuse my life with meaning and light in a way that ignites passion and life into others as well?  What practices do I need to put into place to create an attitude and environment that brings about that change?

Is it something I do, or just a choice I make?

A resolution?

So often our resolutions are about fitting into an expectation of who we should be and how we should look or act. I am tired of vowing to become smaller or more fit, to just be a better friend or wife or mom. No more attempts at vague goals like writing “more” or being “more” generous.

Instead, I want to stop apologizing for feeling so much and allow myself to be seen. I want to set specific goals that expand my love and not be afraid of stepping out and offering that love to others. I want to live into the wild, radical and relentless love I see in Jesus and offer it to others without hesitation. I don’t want to just survive on this earth – that is not what we were created to do. Death is too much a reality and our life is too uncertain for that. There are limitless things outside of my control, but one thing I can choose is to be present and mindful of what I am doing, to bask in the joy or the sorrow or the boredom or the newness of every moment.

I want to thrive.

On summer, motherhood, dreams, and being seen.

I wrote this post several months ago, but failed to publish it. So much has changed in our life since last summer, but still, this holds a part of my story and heart and as I read this post it seemed as if I was transported back to the space where I felt these thoughts deep enough to actually write them down.


 

 

There is a leaning, a gentle swaying and arch of my body and emotions that happens when I just stop.

Stop my whining and dragging of feet and annoyance and let my step become lighter and open my eyes wider so light and love can enter.

When I see my children clearly for who they are and the needs they have and stop rushing and criticizing and reminding them of their shortcomings.

There is always so much.  So much I want to accomplish and balance. So much attention I need to give. And in the “so much” I miss out on being available.

Available to sit and snuggle and make space to listen to their hopes, dreams, desires, interests; to feel their body against mine and allow our rhythms to align.

The summer goes by without rhythm. We wake up, eat breakfast, and mostly have no plans for the day. Maybe we will go to the beach or a park, or just stay home and sit in underwear all day. We just see. I have stopped being a homeschooler who tricks my kids into home schooling in the summer.  We read books, but no intentional science experiments or “strewing” has taken place. We aren’t practicing our alphabet or letter sounds. We are being bored and finding things to do or people to engage with (or poke). An endless vacation.

Some days it makes me feel like I am accomplishing nothing in all this nothingness.

Laundry may be caught up and the kitchen clean by the end of the day, but in all of the housework and cooking and cleaning and taking care of the baby and mopping up water and dirt tracked in from happy sprinkler feet, it is never finished and I rarely get to the deeper things I ache to do.

Music has lost its presence and I as I type this I feel a physical ache in my heart. Piano is a balm for my soul. When I sit and play, I instantly feel a melting inside, like broken jagged bits softening and solidifying together again.  I am whole.

Music shakes my insides like nothing else can and loosens things in me. Playing guitar and singing with all my being reconciles worlds to me.  This has been my lifetime therapy. And I miss it. It is something I do alone, mostly.  I sing strong when no one is listening to me.

Because when no one is listening or looking I am free to express myself however I choose. No criticism. No applause. No attention. I am a wildflower, able to bloom whatever way I am meant to and not hide my brilliance or dullness out of obligation.

It is harder when there is an audience, an expectation. I go rigid. I feel like I don’t belong here. Like I am not good enough to be in front of anyone doing anything. I feel this way about everything.

Sharing my words? Not good enough. Sharing my art? My photographs and videos and songs and creations? Who cares?

I share it, anyway, because I believe in doing things that scare and stretch me.

But then, anxiety. Why does it matter?  Why does it stop me?  Why do I worry about the attention? I become overwhelmed and step back from it all and lean into silence again. Lean into my own world.  I devote myself to making kombucha and not eating sugar and keeping the floors cleaned. I find contentment in simplicity. Which is good, but it is also an excuse.

An excuse to keep from being seen.

Some people know this about me, but I occasionally worked as a fine art model for a couple of years. And I was seen by the eyes of artists. They all interpreted my body differently and it was fascinating to see the variance in shape and size and angles and curves.

When you put yourself out there and allow your heart to be seen, everyone will see it differently. You can never be everything to everyone and you will always be too much or too little to someone.

But for now, I am wading through the simplicity and the tasks summer presents for mothers of young children. I am keeping my longings and plans tucked neatly against my chest as a secret. My mind is never at rest and all day I compile and organize lists and dreams.

The song, Dream by Patricia Ahn has been resonating with me and makes me burst with the desire to dream like a child again and think things are more possible than my grown-up mind would like to believe.

How I hope my children will always believe in their dreams. How I hope I will lean into my own and have the strength and confidence to be me.

 

 

RE-POST: A Mother’s Wishlist

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// that I make time to nourish my body through food, movement, creative outlets // my children hear love in my voice. always. // that I stop apologizing for what I feel // I make things both useful and beautiful with my own hands // a heart brimming with gratitude // a house filled with less things and more grace // that we live somewhere new, for a little while // that we nurture a sense of adventure and curiosity // that I react less and embrace more // and some new pillows would be nice, too.


 

I wrote the above post back in June, nearly 6 months ago. There has been a yearning for adventure, something new for a while, but in the midst of that, we have settled down, like a babe in the crook of her mother’s strong, yet tired, arms, softly swaying, fighting the sleep.

The yawn and heavy eyelids come, we are so close to that sweet slumber, the rhythm is soothing and lulling us, the familiarity of everything around comforts us and we think this is all rather nice and why not just nestle in and rest?

But there is a pull that keeps us blinking, and now, very suddenly, we are jerked back awake.

This move is big for us, although it feels like something I have done many times before. This place – this home – where we have had babies and made friends and put down our roots, it is the longest I have lived anywhere and my heart hurts a little when I think about leaving.

Yet, I can’t count the evening strolls in our little town or the nights drinking tea and staying up too late, talking and dreaming and wondering what could be and how much more we could do and what kind of people we want to be and how it is okay and good to be here, but there is something about going that creates a stir, a catalyst for change.

Some of these simple “wishes” I am always going to be working on. But it gives me hope that some of my deep desires are becoming reality.

We got some new pillows a little while ago, also.

 

-b.e.

 

 

On Greatness: Finding your Artistic Voice and Offering Hope to Others

“Greatness is never achieved by trying to imitate the greatness of another. Greatness is chipping away at all that does not belong to you and then expressing yourself so truly that others can’t help but recognize it. It is in silence that we discover ourselves.” – Jewel, Never Broken

“Greatness is when you leave the room, & people have more hope than when you entered.” – Rob Bell

I read the first quote last month while reading Jewel’s book, Never Broken, and heard the second during a podcast interviewing the author, Rob Bell.

These words of wisdom have challenged my views of greatness and self-expression and the importance of being true to yourself.

Most of us start somewhere on our journey to finding our artistry – we often mimic others we admire first and then slowly learn to find our own personal expression and flow. This can take time however, and it is easy to compare ourselves and feel like we will never be “talented” enough or as good as others.  Maybe someone else is already doing what we want to do, and we feel like there isn’t space for us.

Greatness feels like a lofty and selfish goal, in some ways. As if it means being better than others or getting more recognition for your work. I love the freeing notion that greatness can bring hope. It isn’t about being better or more liked or more beautiful or making more money, but bringing hope to others.

I think about my various artistic endeavors which bring me joy – writing, photography, picking flowers from my garden and making simple arrangements at home, painting, drawing – and when I think about whether they are worth the effort or question whether they will ever “amount” to anything, I realize I am using a false measuring system and asking all the wrong questions.

I know that whenever I start to feel a motive creep through me that comes from a desire to be admired or make myself feel like I am better than someone else or to prove something to the world (or family, friends, competitors, etc.), I am allowing my step to be shifted away from greatness and toward something much less worthy of my time.

If we are simply measuring our accomplishments in life by “likes” and “shares” on social media, comments and recognition from friends or even comparing our own work with someone else and patting ourselves on the back for creating better content, we are allowing ourselves to get lost in the noise and stunt our forward motion, when true growth comes through silence and reflection and practicing the hard, everyday discipline of showing up and doing the work.

So now, when I question my worth and how much energy I am putting into something, when I look hard and deep and wonder if there is any point or if I am going in the “right” direction, I am asking new questions.

I am asking whether it brings hope.

Or sheds light on truth.

Or inspires beauty and growth and goodness in others.

Whether it brings joy to myself and those around me.

This feels so simple and can be applied to so much in life: work, art, parenting, writing, teaching – anything we aspire to do or be. Even small things can be done with greatness. But it is hard, because it feels backwards to what our culture teaches us about success and security and moving up in the world and making a difference and becoming something “big”.

But “great” and “big” aren’t really the same word.

And as Jewel states, greatness is actually about becoming smaller, shedding the things that don’t belong to us, and expressing our light freely.

-b.e.

 

 

 

The Things I Am Too Scared To Write

I am up late.

I drank the 5pm coffee, on the back porch, legs swinging in rhythm with our old, white wooden bench swing, my head nestled into the crook of his arm. I chatted and breathed in the fresh, dewey air. I felt the cool breeze against my skin. My heart was content and I smiled.

The warm cup, shared with my love – it was worth it, to be up now at 11:44PM, restless and alert.

I tried to journal.  To read. To breathe in and out slowly. To distract myself from the ideas and thoughts and hard looks I give myself when it is dark and quiet and I become so obvious I just can’t help it.

I feel a bit like a hunter, looking for some prey.  A bored kid turning mean, looking for someone to pick on. Here I am, vulnerable and alone and questioning who I am. Ripe for the kill. I tear into myself, sending uppercuts to my gut like a big ol’ bully.

Some of it is good.  I ask myself what I want to be doing. What is important. What I should be speaking out against or  for or who I should be reaching out to. I try to evaluate how I spend my time and what I am working toward.

Then I begin to question my abilities, talents, gifts, art.  Is it all meaningless? What do I have to offer? Why should I ever promote my work, my accomplishments? Do I just brag?

And then, my value. What do I bring to the table? Do other people even really like me? Tolerate me? Am I just a friend of convenience – the one you call up when no one else is available to hang out with? Do I come off as preoccupied and busy, or is that just everyone these days?

So, I get up and flip up the monitor on my laptop and let the lights from the screen wake me further and hope that if I just write, I will relax and tire and sleep will come.

But it doesn’t seem to be working.  Words lead to more words which lead to deeper and bigger stirrings in my heart I can’t express here. Words that desperately want to leap out of me. But I am too scared to write any of them here. I save those ones and type them occasionally into a Word document. One that grows slowly and feels too raw to share. Maybe one day.

I can be vulnerable with myself. I am mean, but not that mean. It is hard to let others see me. To let them know my true opinions and thoughts.

I would rather be quiet.

I would rather hang on to some mystery.

I know the doubting won’t ever stop.  This is what pushes me to grow.  This is what keeps me from becoming complacent. But, it would be nice to learn how to not be quite so concerned with myself.  To turn outward and just be and let people think what they will about me.  They will anyway.  Everybody does.

-b.e.

 

 

 

What Are You Defined By?

Teacher, writer, artist, creative, intellect, doctor, professor, clerk, housecleaner, nanny, mother, grandparent.

Who are you?

Often when we get to know someone, one of the first things we ask is, “What do you do for living?”

There are some people who have found themselves (or worked very hard to get to that position in life) able to make a living by doing what they love. Some people love their job, although it might not be their greatest passion.  Some work in order to support their hobbies or other interests, although they may never make it into their profession. Others work to survive and don’t necessarily have any time on the side for creative endeavors or hobbies.

Then I think of motherhood, because that is where I tend to go as my life is so deep in this season. I think about the times I have asked other women I meet while out at a park or preschool event, “What does your husband do for a living?”, innocently trying to learn about their family, but also inadvertently implying that her identity is somehow wrapped up in what her husband does to provide for their family.

As if it is understood that during that window of time we have young children, we somehow lose our identity within the never ending work of childrearing.

Some of us love the identity of “mother” and wouldn’t change it for anything in the world, or we grieve that we have had to give up a career or passion because we are torn to be away from our little ones (or cannot reconcile the cost of childcare if we were to continue working). Some of us have no choice but to work full-time, maybe in a job that is not fulfilling, but provides food and clothing and shelter for our family. Others continue working out of choice, constantly finding the balance between home-life and their careers.

It feels really hard to me, personally, to give up time with my kids. I place an incredible pressure on myself to not look back some day and feel like I, or they, missed out because I wasn’t more present.

But, I wonder how much of this has to do with the culture I live in and the ideals I have been surrounded by as I have grown up.

I have a spectrum of friends – those who homeschool, are avid public school supporters, are stay at home parents, work outside the home, are entrepreneurs, and more. Different choices, lifestyles, parenting styles, etc. You cannot make these choices for someone else, many choices we don’t even make for ourselves to an extent. Life presents itself, and we make the best decisions we can.  It doesn’t mean we don’t make mistakes, this is to be human. But, we don’t see everything and there is no way to actually put ourselves 100% in the shoes of another.

I think I have adopted this idea that if I am not constantly present with my children, I am going to harm their development somehow.  I am going to miss out on the enriching experience of being with them and seeing every moment of their childhood. Or they won’t feel loved or seen enough.

Lately, I am feeling more and more like this is a false ideal that I have clung onto in order to excuse myself from working hard and making dreams come true.

And it is hard for me to come to a conclusion, because I see both sides of the coin. I see real value in simplicity, in slowing down. In trading in the hours at a job and the extra income it brings for time to be present and with others and to pursue passions and learning and being generous with time and our resources.  I have seen how less stuff and more time brings more fullness into my life. It is why I am continually trying to minimize our home and life.  It brings focus and shifts our values around in a positive way.

I also give great credit to those who have made sacrifices in order to fulfill a calling or dream or passion in their life and have achieved things that could seem impossible given their life situation. I think it is actually a gift they give their children for them to see their parents working.

Balance is necessary, as there are extremes on either end – there is a toxicity to busy-ness and over-achieving and non-stop go, go, going, as well as the danger of becoming lazy and so self-focused we become stagnant and miss out on community and having a purpose outside of ourselves.

Sometimes there are seasons of extremes and we must just continue to do our best and try and find balance.

For most of my childhood, my mom worked outside of the home. I remember her most as a waitress and we used to occasionally help her close up at one of the family restaurants she worked at – filling ketchup bottles and resetting table settings. She was a banquet manager for a while and I have memories of our family coming in at the end of a big brunch to eat the leftover buffets. And then some years later, she worked at a bookstore. And then a bookkeeper for a non-profit.  There may have been some other jobs in there, but those are the ones I mainly remember.  When she worked, we were usually home being watched by our older siblings. When I became older, I remember being responsible for my younger ones much of the time. Or we went with her to some of her jobs and just sort of hung out, read, did some schoolwork.

Did it harm me or my siblings that my mom worked as much as she did?  I don’t think so. There may have been other things that she could have done better (there are many things I could do better, too). But I think it is good for our children to see us work. Whether that is in the home or outside or pursuing a hobby or interest or all of the above.  To see us make sacrifices and continue to grow and change and do things for ourselves and our family and others.

More and more I feel a gnawing that my children need to see us put more focus on service and less on ourselves. To work for a greater cause than our own pleasure, development, and needs. To give up something without looking for a reward. I recall many situations in my life where I had to serve someone and it wasn’t always easy or comfortable or something I felt like doing.  But, I always felt better about life afterward and am thankful I was made to step outside of my comfort zone and do something selfless.

In doing this, I believe we will find truer fulfillment and a deeper connection with others and the world we live in.

I hope that I can be defined more by what I give (art, encouragement, support, space, inspiration, grace) and in selfless service than in what I make for myself.

-b.e.

 

A Woman’s Body: Being Okay with Just Existing

Why is the world obsessed with commenting on women’s physical features and appearance? Why is there so much pressure to conform to societal expectations about how we should look and what our purpose is as human beings, specifically as females? Why, as women, do we worry so much about the way we look, how others perceive us and how we can be more beautiful?

Why do we have to be attractive, anyway?

I have been stripping away lies for two decades, starting from the time I was about 9, when I started becoming aware of my body and the object that it is in the eyes of culture.

I remember specifically being told once that I should eat less fries and start exercising more (although, I don’t recall anyone ever mentioned this to my brothers who ate the same amount or more), being told a few years later that I had “slimmed out” confirming my previous 10 year old chubbiness and countless other comments about my body, all of which shaped what I thought of myself – what was wrong and what I was getting right. Over time, I would listen to this feedback and make adjustments to conform more and more to the beauty standards thrust at me from every media platform and good (or bad) intentioned neighbor.

I realize there are men who also are shamed and bullied for their bodies, but as a woman, I am not able to speak to their experience – and even what I say here is limited to my own perspective growing up as a female in a beauty obsessed culture. Renee Engeln, a psychology professor at Northwestern University writes in her book, Beauty Sick, “Some men suffer from appearance worries, many quite significantly…The depth and breadth of the influence of beauty concerns on women’s lives means that, on average, looking in the mirror is a substantially different experience for women than it is for men.  Beauty sickness may not be exclusive to women, but it is overwhelmingly a women’s issue.”

I also cannot speak to the experience of transgender women, who as they transition definitely begin to experience having their body objectified and held up to this standard of “pretty” in a similar, yet unique way.

Women grow up understanding that they will be looked at.  When I am out with my children, people often stop to comment on their looks.  My daughter has long, curly blonde hair, big eyes, and olive-y toned skin.  She loves to wear dresses (equally as much as whatever is conveniently found in the top of her dresser), so she often hears things like, “What a beautiful dress you are wearing” and “Oh my, your hair is gorgeous” and “What a pretty little girl you are!”.  My son has been told he is handsome or has a beautiful face, but increasingly less often and not nearly as much as my daughter.

My daughter recently told me that the reason she doesn’t want to wear certain clothes that she owns and likes is because she doesn’t want people to notice and comment on the way she looks in them.

At age 5, my daughter is already acutely aware that out in public, people are looking at and evaluating the way she looks. This makes my heart drop and feel gritty and I am sad that my daughter does not feel like she can just exist. And it is amazing the smile and joy and pride she gets out of hearing me tell her that she is smart, strong, fast, clever, creative, and thoughtful. Yes, girls should know they are beautiful. But we need to redefine the word “beautiful” from simply meaning, “pretty”.

I have often wondered at why I have felt so self-conscious about my appearance for so much of my life. Maybe it is not all “in my head”.  Maybe it is because people do look and do comment. Sometimes I feel the way my daughter does – I just want to BE without worrying about what others think or notice. At 29 years old, I am only just starting to learn how to do this.

It is starting to work, a little.

Just this morning, I woke up and looked in the mirror fresh out of bed and I actually thought, “I like the way I look.” Flaws and all, I’m happy with me. And what exactly do I owe to anyone else? Do I owe attractiveness to the grocery check-out clerk or my friends or acquaintances?

Easy pep talk to give myself, until I am sitting behind the steering wheel and looking at myself in my visor mirror before getting out of the car.

I am learning to let go little by little to the beauty myths, that somehow beauty brings satisfaction and happiness and once my skin is a little clearer or my tummy is a little flatter or my hair looks a certain way or I have the right clothes I will then stop worrying about what others think.

It is all a lie and a distraction. The more I strive, the more I lose myself.

We are told attractive women are more likely to succeed in the workplace, that wearing makeup will help gain you promotions and friends and exciting opportunities. Youtube is flooded with makeup and beauty tutorials. SO MUCH MONEY is spent on cosmetics and plastic surgery it is mystifying. We are so wrapped up in looking a certain way, in our identity and our appearance that I truly believe we waste years of our lives on something that won’t last forever, because we can’t stop the aging process. Maybe we can hide it or postpone it to an extent, but one day, we wake up and look in the mirror and we are no longer in our thirties. Around the time we should have found ourselves and be displaying strength in who we are, we are instead grasping at something fleeting that we have no control over retaining.

As Engeln suggests, it is a power we do not get to keep:

It might not be fair that people care so much about how women look…but if this is the only kind of power our culture is really willing to give you, you might as well use it. It’s no secret that beauty is a kind of currency for women. It does offer a type of power over other people.  But let’s be honest about what kind of power this is…the power beauty gives resides on unstable ground. It’s power that exists only if others are there to acknowledge it. It’s never really your own power, because there’s always someone else in charge. Even worse, it’s power with a strikingly strict expiration date, because the link between youth and beauty is near universal. It’s power you don’t get to keep. (Beauty Sick, 2017)

I do not have the answers and this is a deep issue that seems simple on the surface.  My own experience is different from many others, but if I could go back and talk to a younger me, I would be affirming that nine year olds worth and beauty and strengths and try to help her realize that the problem is not her, but with the surrounding culture.

I am really glad that there has been a shift to focusing more on being fit, active and strong, taking care of our bodies and letting our natural beauty shine. I realize there can be the same problems in comparing our bodies to fitness models, which can be just as unhealthy of an obsession. I am thankful for photographers and artists and authors who are normalizing female bodies of all shapes and sizes, and showing what a “normal” mother’s body looks like after going through the changes of pregnancy and birth and breastfeeding.  I remember specifically realizing one day that I was comparing my body to 19 year olds who had never had a kid and that it wasn’t fair to myself. I recall the healing that took place when looking at Jade Beall’s work, “The Body of Mothers”.

Maybe this is easier for me to say, because I have never been good at applying makeup and have skin issues that make me sensitive to most of it anyway, but saying goodbye to the status quo makes me feel better about how I am treating my body and just because something is an ideal, why not try?

And this is even a more complicated issue than I realized, because I also like to feel attractive.  We all do. We wear certain clothes and jewelry and style our hair and wear make up and I don’t think there is anything wrong with this.  We are individuals and expression is important.  What I want to know is how can we be okay embracing uniqueness and stop trying to fit everything into a tidy little box?

How can I identify and be happy with my own personal beauty and attractiveness, because I will never look like _______?

Is it possible to just exist the way it seems many men do without inviting commentary on who I am?

I could write for days on this subject.

So, I’m wondering. Honestly, truthfully, if you are willing, leave a comment. What are the thoughts that you most hear when you look in the mirror?  How do you combat those feelings of ugliness? Who do you try to look attractive or pretty for? What have you been told about the way you should look? How do you feel about that? Does any of this resonate or do you have a different perspective and experience?

-bec

Part of the Process

I have been attempting to write everyday.

I am finding that most of what I write is not worth posting and not heartfelt. I simply type out lines of words and thoughts that aren’t necessarily cohesive or true or intentional or compassionate. It is part of the process.

But I am realizing that when I fail to connect the flow of words on a page with the beat of my heart, the result is hollow. There is no content, no point, no draw, no change.  No invitation to stop and sink into the meaning, which we must find ourselves.

If I write to convince, I start to doubt my certainty in the first place.

If I begin to research in order to back up my claims, I dig a hole of searching for answers and I must stop before I can’t reach the top anymore.

So there are many drafts of half-hearted posts, lines of thoughts and beliefs and statements I feel strongly about voicing, but I haven’t found the words.

Writing everyday is liberating and discouraging and exciting and depressing and rewarding and just hard all at once.

For whatever reason, I have a flame inside and I must write. I must write words so they don’t burn a hole in me. I hardly even know what I am saying or what it is that I am bursting with, only that the words will come.  It is not really for you, reader, that I write. Not yet. I hope some day it might be, except when I write to you, I begin lose myself and the only reason this blog exists, this tiny speck of information in the vastness of the internet, is to reveal something.

Something about myself, about the world we live in, the choices we make, the things we get used to, the people and issues we dismiss, what is important and what is superficial.

I am learning how to speak and write from a place that is not so influenced by those around me. I am learning not to compare. I am learning to put myself out there, embrace vulnerability and not do things simply to gain approval.

-b.e.