October 8, 2009

how is beauty defined for us?

how do we decide who and what is beautiful and who and what are not?

when do we learn what beautiful means, and who is it that teaches us this?

these questions gripped my thoughts throughout most of my summer in tanzania. so much of my life i have felt unbeautiful, so much of my life i have believed i am unbeautiful simply because some people are and some people aren’t, and i’m one of the latter.  i realize this may be shallow, self-absorbed, and petty but it’s also honest. perhaps this relatively constant theme in my life stems from words spoken to me by boys, images strewn across a magazine cover or women chosen to play the leading lady in major motion pictures. but for whatever reason [or whatever countless reasons], beautiful has never been a word i use to describe myself.

on a warm july evening this summer i found myself, once again, at Kool Bar, our favorite spot for tanzanian nightlife. i was there with the usual group of friends, and after we’d all been dancing for a long chunk of time, i decided to take a break and sat down at our table, next to richard. as we sat there a group of  four tanzanian women out on the dance floor caught my eye. they were incredible dancers, moving their bodies in ways i’m quite sure my body could never move. they moved perfectly to the beat, jumping and traveling across the dance floor with such delight. in those moments i watched them their faces were lit up with laughter and they seemed so full of perfect merriment. i turned to richard and said, “tanzanian women are so beautiful.” he sort of laughed at my unexpected comment and replied, “yes, lisa, but they are crazy!” as i watched these women dancing i answered, “they might be, but they are beautiful, absolutely beautiful. look at them richard, those women are undeniably beautiful.”

earlier that day i had been sitting on a daladala, a 15-passenger van used for public transportation [usually stuffed to double capacity]. i had arrived while the bus was mostly empty, and so i had grabbed a seat in my favorite spot on the bus, and waited for it to fill so we could be on our way. i had forgotten a book that morning, so rather than reading as i waited i watched the people climbing into the bus. there seemed to be a number of women traveling that day, women of all ages.  first, a maasai woman entered the bus, she must have been about 75-years-old. a most intricate system of wrinkles made their way across her face. they creased every which way, disclosing every shape her face had ever made. when i looked closely, i could see the laughter lines deeply drawn on either side of her mouth. lines of concern formed rows on her forehead. her earlobes were stretched long and hung heavy with the weight of large colorful beads. her eyes seemed deep, as if they were a bottomless well filled with pictures of the life this woman had witnessed. when my eyes met hers it was if they shared with me, in the briefest of moments, all the joy and pain she had known…and i could feel it all washing over me.  after her a younger woman, probably 18-years-old, stepped onto the bus. she was dressed in simple clothing. her nose was pierced with a single, gold stud. her features were striking – dark eyebrows drawing intense curves on her face, long eyelashes stretching out, and her eyes were the deepest, richest brown imaginable. her head was covered with a simple black scarf, and her slender fingers were wrapped around a basket of avocados sitting on her lap. the next woman to climb onto the daladala was about my age. she carried, on her back, a small baby wrapped in brightly colored fabric, and at her side was a young boy – perhaps three or four-years-old. as the woman went to sit she swung the baby around to her front, and pulled the toddler between her legs. next, as we all sat and waited for the bus to begin moving, this woman bared her breast and began feeding her youngest child. as she did she looked down lovingly at the child suckling while intermittently looking up at the older child and engaging in a conversation with him. her hands were strong, her smile bold, and her voice steady and calming. sitting on the daladala that morning, watching these women, i thought of mama change [ch-ahn-gay], the woman who’s home i was living in. i thought of mama’s stocky build, her neck and arms thick with physical strength, her muscular hands that could wring every last drop of water out of the heaviest pair of jeans. I thought of her washing her floors by hand, bent in half at the waist and wiping a rag across the floor, mopping every inch of it. i thought of mama working late into the night, retiring to bed only after all the clothes had been laundered and all the family had eaten. i thought of her rising early each morning to tend to the chickens, go to market, and maintain the grounds. i could hear her singing and see her dancing and laughing as she did every day.

richard and i left Kool Bar and that night as i was getting ready for bed, familiar questions swam through my mind: “why are these women so beautiful to me?” “why am I so enthralled by them?” “what about these women, young and old, mesmerizes me?” “why do they catch my eye and why are these humans some of the most beautiful people i have every seen?”

it’s their story.

it’s the story of each woman i met, each woman i spent time with, each woman i watched.

it’s the story of struggle and fight and determination and hope in each one of them.

it’s the story i saw in the eyes of the maasai woman. a story of countless miles tread by her two feet, a story of giving birth in a dark, small home constructed of mud and cow dung, by the light of a smoky fire. it’s the story i saw in her eyes of seven decades battling malaria and watching loved ones struggle. it’s the story i saw in each line creasing its way across her face…a map of the joys and pains she’s known.

it’s the story i saw in the young muslim woman. it is the story of a deep faith, which has shaped each decision she’s ever made. it’s the story of incredible discipline and it’s the story of deep mystery. it’s the story of a woman living her life in honor of the god she worships. it’s the story of the weight she’s carried around on her head and in her heart. it’s the story of the peace inside her, the great reward for such obedience. it’s the story of loneliness that often fills her. it’s the story of all the prayers spoken from her lips.

it’s the story of the young mother feeding her child with milk from her breast. it is the story of the laughter she’s shared with her young son. it’s the story of her back being strengthened each day as she carries her child around while completing the chores that must be done. it’s the story of working to earn enough money to send those children to school some day so they might have the opportunities she doesn’t. it’s the story of this woman loving them more than she loves herself. it’s the story of the bitterness that sometimes creeps into her heart.

its’ the story of mama change choosing to be strong for her family. it’s the story of mama choosing to model strength and independence for her grandchildren. it is the story of mama loving her children without abandon, and the story of the pride revealed in her face each time she looks at them. it’s the story of mama’s hands creating innumerable meals shared around her table. it’s the story of mama falling in love with a  man and having to share that great love with three other women.

and it’s the story of those women dancing at Kool Bar. it’s the story of them growing up in a new world, one different than their mothers’. it’s their story of wading through the messages of their culture colliding with messages from the dominating western world. it’s the story of them dating men who cheat on them and laughing despite it. it’s the story of them loving their bodies not for what they look like but for what they offer and the strength they contain. it’s the story of the expressions they make out on the dance floor.

what makes these women so beautiful is their collective story, which they so freely share with others. it’s the story their bodies, faces and voices tell of the life they know. what illuminates the beauty that these women possess is the honesty and candidness with which they share their story. they ask for no pity, they offer no excuses, they place little blame…they simply tell the only story they know to tell: their own.

and it is incredibly refreshing to see beauty not found in body shape or clothing. it is so moving to find beauty not defined by media or measurements. it is unbelievably freeing to discover beauty through the telling of that being’s story. i saw beautiful women, beautiful humans, and their beauty was defined differently than all the definitions i was familiar with.

and what if this is true for me? what if my beauty is found not in the shape of my body or the clothing that covers me? what if my beauty is not defined by media or measurements. what if my beauty is found in the story of who i am. what if my beauty is seen in the story of a woman whose life has not gone as expected? what if  my beauty is seen in the story of a woman who deeply treasures the people in her life and desires to love without abandon? what if my beauty is found in the story of a woman who messes up, hurts others, and sometimes feels frightened? what if my beauty is seen in the story of a woman who searches for hope?

what if this is what defines beauty in all of us?

this seems theologically sound. God’s beauty is found in his story. beauty is found in the story of a creator having its heart broken by its very creation. beauty is found in the story of a God loving his children without abandon. beauty can be seen in the story of a perfect being wanting to make perfect again all that has fallen. beauty is witnessed in the story of a father sacrificing his only son so that all others may know life. and beauty is certainly found in the story of death being defeated. God’s beauty is found in his story.  as beings created in his image, it seems that beauty is also found in our stories.

the world i’ve grown up in didn’t define beauty this way. in the world i live in most months out of the year we aren’t taught to look for the story behind each face, within each body. that takes time, and so we simplified things. we developed more timely ways to define beauty: body shapes, bone structure, measurements and skin type. maybe by this definition i’m not beautiful, but i am beginning to wonder whether i want my beauty to be defined like that anyway. because i think i’d rather be found beautiful as God is found beautiful. i think i would rather others find me beautiful because they have heard the story behind the face and within the body. i think i would prefer to surround myself with the types of people that look for beauty and find beauty and define beauty not as this world we’ve grown up in has taught us, but  within the stories of struggle and fight and determination and hope and redemption in each one of us.  and i want to remember to keep looking and listening for the story in people, and continue to be amazed at how beautiful humanity is.

God spoke to me of beauty this summer. he showed me the stories of the people around me, and i heard his story within them. he taught me that beauty is found in the story, beauty is so much more than all we’ve been told it is. it took sitting in a bar in tanzania for me to begin believing that i, too, am beautiful.