“Women have long tended the gardens of others. While providing the context for others’ development, they have historically neglected their own. When a woman carries the virginal girl across the threshold into womanhood, when she speaks in her own idiom as naturally as she mouths the language of the patriarchy, when she hits on the deepest truth about who she is and tells her story of becoming whole, she gains access to a world that is as fertile and abundant as the most verdant gardens. Only when we wed girlhood autonomy to womanly fecundity and recognize the connection between germ and soil will we restore our generatively as a culture and thrive and flower.’*
A few weeks ago I spoke with a group of sixteen girls between the ages of 13 and 16 who had been awake for 28 hours dancing towards their last day of a Summer Enrichment Program in Virginia. We spent time together over Skype exploring beauty and how we view ourselves. They asked me some incredible questions (“Why is it important for young girls to think about beauty?”) which I answered as best I could from my dining room a few States away.
So, why is it important for young girls to think about beauty? I believe it is crucial for women of all ages to think about beauty and what it means to them, particularly how they apply this concept to their body and self-image. In the west, we are embedded within the multi-billion dollar industry of “looking-good” – a focus which plays out through the mediums of music, film, beauty, fashion, and advertizing. In order for these industries to sell something to us, they need us to believe that we need it. Your skin doesn’t look like this digital, airbrushed image? Never fear, _______ is here.
When we consider that these thoughts (“you’re not X enough”) were never originally our own, nor based in reality, we begin to see the conditioning that we’ve been raised in, something which I believe disempowers women in our society. It’s important for the next generation to think about beauty because we must start creating and affirming our own thoughts about ourselves, thoughts that instill self-confidence and a positive self-image.
It’s not an easy task and the road can be rocky. Often the most outwardly self-confident models are cripplingly insecure. I don’t believe we can sustain a dynamic of inflating our image to compensate for our hurt feelings. We’ll never see nor touch the wound that way. And if we don’t touch something, how can we begin to know how to heal it? If our self-esteem and confidence are important to us, then it is imperative that we begin to repair the wounds we may have inflicted upon ourselves by believing in thoughts that are not our own.
Another of the other questions the girls asked me was how I thought about beauty before I was a model, and how my understanding changed, which I thought was very interesting. I realized that as a young girl under the age of 15, beauty for me was not something to attain, nor something outside of me, but part of life which I was embedded within. As I thought about this question, I remembered a book I’d just read called To Be A Woman: The Birth of the Conscious Feminine. One particular passage expressed the incredible power and sense of possibility inherent in young girls before they reach adolescence.
“Who is this ‘girl within’? What deep truth does she possess? Poised between the make believe of preschool and the thrall of adolescence, a girl this age occupies an intermediate zone of childhood, an interim space between fantasy and reality that fosters creative self-ownership. Playful yet purposeful, she has opened the gate to the age of reason. Practically an old hand at school, she is already reading and calculating, playing group games, acquiring athletic skills, and absorbing the rules of her young society.’
“When she has the good fortune to grow up in a family that encourages independence and and celebrates achievements, a girl this age meets the world on her own terms. A soaring imagination combines with competence and adventurous longing to take her far from home, both in imagination and reality. The rapid development of the girls mind, the acceleration of her know-how , the shift in the way she thinks are acknowledged by cultures around the world. Nature and society conspire to allow a girl this age to flourish; harmony and integrity abound as she enjoys a wholeness of self, a unity with the cosmos, a natural radiance.”
Remembering this girl within, free from the formations impressed upon us, we may come into contact once again with the inherent beauty in life, living through our bodies. For me, beauty comes forth with laughter, love, or the wonder of a child, an animal, my intelligent body. When we can remember this feeling of being embedded in a world that is inherently perfect and more than ‘good enough,’ we stop ‘buying into’ what someone else says is beautiful, discover our own world and develop our own perception of beauty. We are our own stewardess, wholly self-contained and wholly powerful.
“There is a “critical shift we need to restore the natural balance of those values: the shift from object to subject. By reclaiming the girl’s sense of self as subject, by countering woman’s position as object, by reaching back to catch hold of the girl who embodies a primary feminine identity, women can stay true to the potential of the fertile feminine world that survives apart from the sterility of patriarchal values. [...]‘
“In the alliance between the girl who possesses initiative and the woman who knows her generativity lies the creative force we need to become fully ourselves and to make of this culture what it so desperately needs. The fullness of human development depends on circling back to the girl within and carrying her into womanhood.”
* Excerpts from ‘The Girl Within: Touchstone for Women’s Identity’, by Emily Hancock, in To Be a Woman: The Birth of a Conscious Feminine (ed. Connie Zweig. 1990, GP Putnams’ Sons)