Looking Beyond the Mirror

In my high school, the most beautiful girls belonged to a club called the Kilties. The Kilties wore kilts and white sneakers and stood on the sidelines at football and basketball games waving their green and white pom-poms when the team scored. Our high school had cheerleaders as well, but they jumped up and down and got sweaty. The Kilties kicked their legs Rockette-style for a few minutes at every game, but their real job was to look long, lean, and beautiful. As if beauty could win the game. As if beauty could save the day.

As you might sense, I am the tiniest bit resentful about the Kilties. (OK, I envied and despised them. And as my friend Anne Lamott says, I was certain that God hated them, too.) But I have a confession: Although long, lean body parts are not included in my definition of beauty, I believe that beauty can save the day.

A wise teacher once said that we surrender to power unwillingly; to beauty, willingly. Think about the last time you were stopped in your tracks by beauty — a star-studded sky, a blazing sunset, your child’s gap-toothed grin. Notice how the things we find beautiful have the power to move us beyond our ordinary sense of self. Their loveliness makes the concerns of daily life click into their rightful place; we remember what is important. The fact that our thighs are bigger than we'd like them to be, that our favorite socks were the dog's breakfast, or that we weren't given that promotion — these all become what they truly are: passing concerns.

Beauty relaxes, beauty soothes, beauty comforts.

I'm not talking about the "beauty" that conjures images of movie stars with wide-set eyes, lustrous hair, a mouth as big as a small country. (Not to mention those long, lean bodies.) When that's your definition of beauty, you begin thinking that to be beautiful you have to look like someone else. So you diet, squeeze into clothes that are too small, and feel bad about your imperfections.

Halle Berry, who is considered one of the most beautiful women in the world, once said, "Beauty? Let me tell you something — being thought of as a beautiful woman has spared me nothing in life. No heartache, no trouble. Love has been difficult. Beauty is essentially meaningless, and it is always transitory."

When we define beauty by what the culture considers physically attractive and try to fit into that narrow ideal, we not only make ourselves miserable for an elusive goal, but we miss the point. Beauty isn't about someone else's idea or definition of what's beautiful. It's about the palpable feeling of openness and gladness you get when you see something lovely, whether it's a cloudless sky or a surprising act of kindness. Suddenly, everything seems more vivid, radiant, alive. That's real beauty. It's free for the looking and available every second, all around us. But to see it everywhere, we have to be willing to let go of our conviction that beauty exists in certain places and not in others. And we need to be able to appreciate beauty in ourselves.

During my weekend retreats, I ask my students to walk up to a mirror and tell me what they see. At a recent workshop, one brave soul, a woman named Alissa, volunteered to go first. She sidled up to the mirror, looking trapped and terrified.

"Tell me what you see," I said.

"I see thighs the size of a beach ball," she said. "I see eyes that are too small and hair that is stringy. I see a body that needs to exercise and a face that could use a face-lift."

"Ouch," I said. "It's painful just to listen to you. All you've given me is a list of harsh judgments."

She nodded her head. "But that is what I see when I look in the mirror. I am usually so disgusted by my body that I avoid looking at myself."

A murmur of agreement from the others washed through the room.

I said, "You are telling me what you see through veils and veils of unworthiness. Everything you see is colored by your judgment of what you think you should be seeing, what an ideal body would look like."

"Try again," I said. "But this time look with the eyes in the center of your chest. Tell me about this body and its particular beauty."

"OK," Alissa said, "I'll try." She took a deep breath. "I like my eyes," she said. "They have gold flecks in them, and a pretty shape. They have watched my children grow up and they've seen the turquoise of the Caribbean. They've been good to me."

"Good start," I said. "Now tell me more about your eyes. Look at yourself the way you would look at a work of art, and tell me what you see."

"I can see — oh, wow! — it's like I can see behind my eyes to something that's hard to put into words, something big. I can see wisdom there, in my eyes. I can actually see the child I once was. I can see joy. I can see beauty and possibilities."

Alissa turned to me. "Geneen," she said, "are you hypnotizing me?"

Laughter swept through the room. I said, "It's amazing, isn't it, that the minute we start seeing beauty in our own faces, beauty in our very aliveness, we think we are being hypnotized. We are so used to judging ourselves that when we stop feeling unworthy, we think someone must be playing a trick on us."

After Alissa took her turn, the others stepped up to the mirror — not thrilled, but willing to see what they would notice in themselves if they weren't looking judgmentally. And as one after the other walked up to the mirror, recited what they usually say to themselves (ouch, ouch, ouch), and then were able to look with their hearts, they were amazed at the beauty they saw.

Imagine how your days would change if you knew that everywhere you went there would be beauty. So a difficult day could be brightened by something as mundane as a stranger's smile. Imagine if, when you looked in the mirror, you saw what was beautiful instead of what you didn't like. Suddenly, you'd no longer be weighed down by the vision of yourself as a collection of imperfections, a burden that keeps you from being your true self. You wouldn't have to turn to food for comfort because you'd have all the comfort you need.




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