Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Beautiful


My brother was getting married in less than a week and I had nothing to wear. Mom watched on patiently as I covered a fitting room floor with pants and blouses and long, short, floral, black, rayon, and linen dresses. I was twenty-years-old, a junior in college, and uncomfortable in my own skin. Within a year, I had cut my hair short - super short - tattooed my shoulder, and began favoring dark nails, dark lips, and dark eyeliner. The clothing I chose and how it hung on my 5’3 frame was crucial – I mean, so very indicative of the identity I was trying to craft like an interior designer using color, patterns, and textures to define a living space.

On that particular day, it was my thighs and their stubborn refusal to elongate and smoothen under the light and airy fabrics revealing cellulite and bulk that were causing me great angst and frustration. My reality and ideals were colliding in a suburban shopping mall and I was resentful of the limitations an inherited figure had placed upon me. I was cursing under my breath a perfectly healthy body until, that is, my mother, holding armloads of hangers and forty some years worth of life experience, had had enough. “I had no idea,” she told me - firmly, calmly, honestly, “that you were so vain.”

When three-year-old Mary gets angry, she’s like an automobile without breaks. Her temper picks up speed if just the slightest amount of pressure is applied to set ideas about how she’ll pass the time or what will go into her mouth as a snack before dinner. “No,” I say, “Not now” or “ Put that away, please,” and off she goes, down a road too twisted and slick for a preschooler to rationally navigate without crashing. Although she twists and turns away from me, I hold her forcibly until she melts into my shoulder with relief. You see she wants to regain control but feels powerless to do so thus, ultimately, she is grateful for an intervention.

On that fateful afternoon, fourteen years ago, in front of a cruel and unforgiving three-way-mirror, I, too, underneath it all, was thankful for being confronted on a self-deprecating obsession which had warped my view of beauty and fulfillment. I admire my mom for risking a daughter’s wrath by not catering to an emotionally, physically, and spiritually destructive tendency to judge my worth in terms of inches, pounds, and good or horrid hair days. Reassuring me that I was perfect (cute, thin, attractive) might have temporarily softened the sting of being flawed, but in the long run would have validated a debilitating assumption that losing sleep over one’s appearance is just par for the course, if you’re a girl.

During the next five years, I would struggle to strike a balance between succumbing to my vanity and denying categorically an inherent desire to be feminine. Due to Scripture verses such as Proverbs 31:30 (Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain, But a woman who fears the LORD, she shall be praised.) and a faction of pious Christian women refreshingly at ease in their simple wardrobes and unmade-up faces, I’d learned to embrace the notion that there should certainly be a disconnect between myself and the materialistic fetishes of our current culture. What I assumed that meant, however, was an immediate and total annihilation of any residual cravings I might be storing in my subconscious to look “pretty.”

And so I devoted myself, throughout the end of my twenties, to not caring (or at least acting like I wasn’t concerned) about something so banal as split ends, dark under-eye circles, or the cut of my skirts. I wore no cosmetics whatsoever and denied myself the luxuriousness of high-heeled shoes or perfume, and then internally I waged a war against jealousy and condemnation of those girls, those Christians, who went right on looking exquisite and put together while I, meanwhile, was near constantly swatting away impulses to follow suit. “This is what You want from me, right?” I prayed earnestly, “Than why am I more focused on my looks (and the looks of others) than ever?”

In 2002, I became a mother for the third time in a matter of four years and my body, which I’d spent the previous decade shaping, ogling, comparing, and then ignoring altogether, broke down from the stress of breastfeeding, sleepless nights, and a lack of solid nutrition. I was feverish, exhausted, and in a good deal of pain from a throat infection I couldn’t shake using Tylenol and lozenges. My doctor lectured me on the merits of taking better care of myself and then wrote me out a prescription for some hefty antibiotics. Seven days later, I was weak but incredibly relieved to be out of bed and able to swallow without grimacing. “Never again,” I promised myself, ”would I let things get this dire.” Vitamins, exercise, and better food choices, I realized, made a marked difference in the quality of my everyday life.

I slowly but surely began processing that separating so starkly my “flesh” from my “spirit” might not be as beneficial as I’d imagined. By first condemning the shape of my legs, my hips, and my ankles, and then alternatively reproaching myself for such pettiness I had, essentially, exchanged one form of blinding negativity for another, losing sight altogether of true meekness. … Inner and real humility, wrote Elder Joseph the Hesychast, is for one to feel, that whatever he has, life, health, wealth, wisdom all are foreign, are gifts of God.

These blessings of blood vessels, organs, and bones housing my soul were to be honored with joy and thanksgiving for their potential to help me represent Christ’s love to a fallen world. Good stewardship of my health and hygiene were just as important as Scripture reading and Church attendance when it came to physically ministering to others. The energy I felt from taking time to nurture my brain, my heart, and my muscles with activity, supplements and whole grains, fresh produce, and lean proteins, not only increased my stamina for playing with the children or listening attentively to my husband at the end of a busy day, but also regulated my emotions which were often out of whack due to fluctuating hormones and exhaustion. After wasting countless hours and much mental duress on attempting to standout, as either an exceptional beauty or a virtuous saint, I was more than ready to fill my thoughts with something, anything, other than myself.

These days, I keep my hair trimmed, my eyebrows plucked, and my weight in check. I found a resale shop in my neighborhood selling gently used clothing in styles and colors I feel great in, for next to nothing. I am thirty-four years old now and satisfied with the likeness of myself reflecting back at me in the mirrored closet door. This body of mine has birthed four infants, has held the hands of hurting friends, has rubbed my spouse’s feet and braided pigtails for my daughter.

This nose inhales the incense in our Church on Sunday mornings; this mouth sings hymns of praise and receives the Eucharist. I respect the expert craftsmanship that went into my creation and do my best to treat this miracle of a unique “ME” as a temple of the living God. I’ve noticed, as I’ve aged, that the women I admire glow even brighter the more you get to know their personalities, and that emulating the godly traits that make them so lovely and striking is a far superior way to grow more Christ-like than trying to become them. God created every one of us for a specific purpose, with distinctive features and distinguishing characteristics. This nation, however, is breeding generations of little girls who disdain their inimitability, wishing only to become clones of one another.

I want for my daughters, Priscilla and Mary, to delight in being female – to make modest choices based on personal preference rather than societal trends. Toys, now, commercials, backpacks, t-shirts, and lunchboxes advertising “role models” I think many parents are uncomfortable with, compete against us for a higher percentage of influence over our families. We are careful in our home to regulate as much as possible the amount of aggressive marketing techniques our kids are exposed to, knowing full well (unless we shut ourselves off completely from the world at large) that, eventually, they’ll have to maneuver around the tricks of the trade themselves and combat what I imagine will be an even more intensive campaign for both their loyalty and money.

It will take prayer, much prayer, and discretion to instill within my daughters a healthy, productive, and Christ-centered sense of confidence that can transcend both conceit and insecurity in order to break through the barriers that “keeping-up” with others can place upon one’s time, witness, and contentment. I must not minimize the pressures placed upon them to fit in, nor compromise our standards centered on being “in this world but not of it.” I will look for signs of struggle, watch for cues to intervene. I will seek out as many opportunities as possible for discussion. Let us offer up to God all of our children, granddaughters, nieces, sisters, and even ourselves that He might save and protect us from faulty thinking and then together, as women precious in His sight, let us praise Him for the love and generosity he bestows upon each of us who were sculpted, with forethought and precision, in His image.

This article is featured in the Fall 2008 issue of The Handmaiden. Click HERE to order a subscription!

10 comments:

Dove Knits said...

Molly -- this is absolutely beautiful, and speaks right to my heart! I've been thinking alot lately about how I used to obsess and suffer over the imperfections of my body, and how lately, I'm so happy with this same, imperfect, but slightly heavier, body because it WORKS SO WELL. And really, what more could we possibly ask?

I love that picture of Priscilla.

Molly Sabourin said...

You are a perfect example of the feminine grace and warmth I am referring to. What you gave to us tired mothers at Christ the Savior, in the form of unconditional love for our kids, made you shine and grow increasingly more stunning in all of our eyes. And now your own body is stretching and evolving in the sacred process of providing nourishment to your unborn child - well, oh my, what could possibly be more beautiful?

Dove Knits said...

Well, now you're just making me cry!

Sandy said...

Beautifully written. After I had my daughter and swore I would never obsess over my body in front of her again, I found myself not obsessing over it while not in her presence either! Now we eat organic, local, sustainable food and involve our children in the process of weeding out what's healthy and what's not (you'll often hear my Ella yelling at the grocery store "don't get that cereal, the cartoon on the front means wayyyy toooooo much sugar!") I feel so much more content with myself. I pray that through guarding my children's minds and play (like steering away from Bratz Dolls and explaining WHY Ella cannot have one) they will be at peace with themselves as well. Thanks for putting into words a struggle for so many women AND mothers. God bless you!

Anonymous said...

Wow, that's gorgeous; every girl should read that

Holly said...

Thanks be to God,

Molly, You can't possibly know how much I needed to read this tonight..Thanks far all that you do.

Hope in Traverse City...

Has said...

Beautiful, fantastic!
love Selena.

Lucy said...

Great post. I had someone say something similar to me when I was about the same age, although I was thinking I was so horrible, how could God love me because I was so terrible and I was told I was proud. I remember being shocked, but it's always stuck with me that thinking I'm too horrible for God is just as prideful as thinking I'm too good for God. Your mother is a wise woman.

I struggle with this, too. I want so much for my daughter to be confident in her femininity, but in a culture that focuses so much on our appearance, it's hard. I struggle with taking care of myself, too. I don't know why; I feel so much better when I do! It's hard not to think of exercise, meditation, taking good (and expensive) vitamins as indulgent somehow, but really, it keeps me on the right side of that thin line called sanity.

Once again, a beautiful and timely article. :)

kelleylynn said...

Absolutely beautiful! Thank you for sharing your "pearls of wisdom" handed down by nun-other, your mom!
I am on board with you in every aspect of your posting--thinking that I may read this to Hannah and Mary Kate.

Molly Sabourin said...

Isn't it interesting, and ultimately so comforting, how universal is that struggle to find a balance between negligence and obsession with our bodies. Like Lucy said, it is such a thin line separating anxiousness and frustration from wellness and sanity. I can think of nothing more empowering than to band together as women opposed to the cultural assumptions stating that beauty is inseparably linked to what is trendy and seductive. We have minds, we have souls, we have daughters to thoughtfully tend to. We have little time to waste on feeling needlessly inadequate. You are wonderful women - admirable and distinctively lovely. Thank you for sharing with me a desire to rise above a ravenous and insatiable preoccupation with ourselves.