While waiting with other members of our food co-op, someone who should think of other ways to start a conversation asked me a cuttingly critical question. I couldn’t even come up with an answer. That’s not like me. The best response I could muster was a fake laugh, as if to acknowledge that she must have been joking. (She wasn’t.) Her question seemed to be more curious than mean spirited but it forced me to think about how other people see me.
I thought I’d let Beauty go, along with her twin sister, Shame, long ago. Apparently not.
Some people look amazing all the time and at any age. They know what clothes are in, what accessories to use, how to walk in fussy shoes gracefully. I’m impressed by them even if they seem like a species only faintly related to my comfortably slouchy self.
My presence makes people who are fashion backward and technologically inept feel much better about themselves. Clearly there are perks for hanging out with me. But apparently I give so little thought to my appearance that others might come away with the wrong impression. As my questioner put it, “You really leave the house looking like that? It must be easy when you don’t care.”
I do care.
I care about practically everything.
I churn through my days trying, and sometimes succeeding, in doing what good I can do even if on the smallest scale. I talk to people and animals kindly, try to listen more than react, and when I’m upset ask myself what darkness in myself lets me see shadows elsewhere. I write about natural learning and sustainability and peace. I support good causes and when times are hard, as they tend to be, I attach myself to hope like a barnacle. This leaves very little energy for personal beautification. Heck, I rarely muster up the ooompf to keep weeds from towering over my vegetable plants so there’s no way I’ll get around to using a blow dryer or nail polish. I’ve never had the money let alone the inclination to have a manicure or pedicure, go to a spa, or have my hair styled. Well, I’ve never actually had a hair style….
When I came home I emailed a few close friends. I explained I’d been at the co-op, where we unload a truck and do other labors befitting less-than-great clothes, so I wore jeans and an old embroidered cotton shirt, my hair tied up and scuffed clogs on my feet. Because I’m no saint, I described the unflattering horizontal stripes of the shirt my questioner wore and how it was a so tight that her form-fitting pants pushed bulges of flesh through at least three of those stripes. (I try to be non-judgmental. That day I failed.) Then I asked the most important question. I’ve never steered that question to appearances before. My friends were all ridiculously nice when really, I was hoping to know if it’s time to start dying my hair or stop wearing my daughter’s hand-me-ups.
I know we broadcast something about our self-esteem via our appearance. Still, I’m not any more motivated than I was before that day at the co-op. I tweezed an eyebrow once, back when I was a teen. It hurt at the tears-in-my-eyes level. Won’t do that again. There’s no way I’ll bother wearing earrings or remembering hand lotion.
But I’ve realized an appearance-based truth from all of this. My body, like everyone else’s body, gets used up by life. And that’s exactly how it’s supposed to be. Years of changing diapers, gardening, canning, washing dishes, kneading dough, and taking walks no matter the weather have left me with creaking knees and hands that belong on someone much older. These are all ways of using my body for a purpose. When I stroll off the planet I want to know that I’ve enjoyed all the health, vigor, pleasure, and meaningful work my body can generate.
During yesterday’s walk the wind was intense and it started to rain. My face and hands were pelted with icy drops from a beautiful still-bright sky. I should have left the house with a scarf and gloves but I didn’t turn around. I walked right into the wind, letting it toss my hair as freely as it blew the last leaves off the trees. I felt completely alive.