Skillful Beauty

A story from a woman I thought I knew caught my eye as I scanned through my social media apps. The last time I saw her was last summer at an impromptu gathering of horse nerds like me, a family of women who share memories and love of all things horsey.

I met this woman years ago when I moved my horse to a stable closer to my house. I was nervous and she put me at ease right away. Welcoming, always a smile on, down to earth like most real animal lovers are at heart. Susan was a barn buddy, doing all the mucking out chores along with everyone else, but she was also a serious equestrian who used to compete in hunter classes. The beauty she embodied when she jumped over oxers on her gorgeous Dutch Warmblood could take your breath away. I knew she was a nurse.

What I didn’t know was that she’s now a nurse on a COVID unit.

“If your loved one is here and you can’t be with them,” she wrote on her Facebook timeline, “please know that no one dies alone. Today I held the hand of an eighty-one-year-old man, played him music, and murmured messages from his family who couldn’t be there as he passed away. This is what we do.”

There are photos of teams of hospital professionals. We’ve all seen them. Not one of them is bragging about how great they are, which leaves me humbled down to the soles of my shoes. Every one of them could be our friends or family. They are doing their job.

Transcendent Beauty

In one of those pics, from among the masked faces, my friend’s soft gray eyes peer at the camera through the film of a face shield. Her gaze is huge above the covering over her nose and mouth. What is she feeling? Scared? Brave? Proud? Tired? Everything? I don’t know. What I do know is that her beauty at that moment is transcendent.

‘Beauty’ is a Tricky Word

In our culture ‘beauty’ is a tricky word. We’re programmed, brainwashed even, to believe that beauty is easily packaged and produced like for an ad campaign. The mistake we make is to buy that that kind of surface beauty, the kind that seduces us like a bright shiny object, is all there is. The danger lies in embracing that message so thoroughly we think that somehow we are doing it wrong if we don’t live up to the rules for retail beauty.

What a tragedy that is, thinking we’re the ones that have failed to fit someone else’s definition of what beauty is. It reminds me of old episodes of What Not To Wear. Stacey London and Clinton Kelly did their best to hammer home the fact that if a garment didn’t work it wasn’t the wearer’s fault! It simply wasn’t the right blouse or skirt or whatever! There’s nothing wrong with your body, sweetheart! Your body is gorgeous! The stupid pants were just cut all wrong! God, I loved that show.

Extrinsic Self Worth

How much of life is wasted feeling like we’re not living up to that random standard of “perfection” set by someone else, someone probably male, probably white, probably privileged.

Yet that’s the reality. In psychology, we describe putting our sense of self into other peoples’ hands as ‘extrinsic’. When our sense of self-worth is extrinsic it lies outside of ourselves. Our sense of security and how we behave is dependent on what other people tell us we should do or how we should think.

When our self-view is all about what other people impose on us, we are always in danger of psychologically toppling over. Our center of gravity is just a tiny bit beyond our reach so we’re always off balance. The result is constant doubt, lack of confidence, always questioning ourselves, and looking to others to define us. Depending too much on what others think of our appearance, character, or value in any way, can make us an easy mark for psychological abuse. A cruel narcissistic or sociopathic person will take sick pleasure in seeing just how far they can twist a genuinely beautiful person to believe falsely that they are ugly.

Intrinsic Self Worth

Then there’s the opposite, intrinsic as opposed to extrinsic.

Intrinsic means core values and beliefs that generate from within oneself. You believe you are beautiful because you know you’re beautiful, goddammit! Not because some old lech in a tacky smoking jacket says so. Research psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, and other social scientists agree: The more we govern ourselves by ‘intrinsic’ values, the more psychologically strong and resilient we are. With resilience comes strength, control, confidence, stability.

It doesn’t have to be all one or all the other all the time either. I don’t mean to say that there’s something wrong with you if you want to be hot like a Kardashian sometimes. Just as long as you know full well what you’re doing. And you’re doing it because you ‘intrinsically’ feel good looking ‘extrinsically’ hot like a Kardashian. That makes sense, right? You get to choose, you’re the decider, not anyone else.

This core value of governing ourselves from within can be our guide through life if we give it a chance.

And it can be so fun! Lately I’ve been thinking of trying out fake eyelashes for the first time. I don’t need them. I’m OK without them. But why not check them out? I’m just saying if we start from a secure place of inner confidence we can play with the shiny stuff and feel good inside and out. Like having dessert after a good, nurturing meal.

An opportunity to think about this concept smacked me in the face the other day. Looking around for a doable task that wouldn’t take too long while sheltering at home, I pulled out some boxes from a neglected corner of my home office closet. After brushing off about ten years’ worth of dust, I chose an old box of photographs, the kind you actually hold in your hand. Sifting through them, one stopped me, full stop.

How old was I in this photo? Sixteen? Seventeen? At that age, I saw myself as fat, huge thighs, nose way too big for a too narrow face. There I am, standing on a trail on the side of a mountain in Colorado, wearing shorts, a backpack and hiking boots, no makeup, hair in a tangle under a brimmed hat, and smiling so big my heart breaks. 

Look at her. She’s beautiful.

How did I not see that?

Despite what I said about the fake eyelashes, I admit I can still fall, victim of that extrinsic way of thinking, when it comes to appearance. That old influence runs deep and comes at us from all directions. Being vain, I fight that knee jerk judgment of what is “beautiful” all the time. What does that say about me? That I’m shallow? If that was all there was to my character then, yeah, I’d be guilty. But no, I have better, deeper values than that, and life has taught me that beauty can surprise you from unexpected sources.

Genuine Beauty

In true beauty, there is goodness, kindness, compassion, and strength. In genuine beauty there is nurturance. We are witness to it in the music heard from the balconies of neighborhoods around the world, in the laughter of children playing with suddenly more present parents, in the blue sky and budding trees that are so greatly appreciated after being shut-in.

And most especially now, in the masked faces and courageous actions of the beautiful essential warriors who are fighting our front-line battles.

“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern.”

Elizabeth Kübler-Ross

Elvira G. Aletta, PhD.

Elvira G. Aletta, Ph.D. is a wife, mom to two adults and one horse, psychologist and writer who lives in Western New York where it’s cool to wear a cape and tall boots every day.

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