Eye of the beholder

the-toilet-of-venus-peter-paul-rubens

The Toilet of Venus, Rubens c.1614

“…item, two lips indifferent red; item, two grey eyes, with lids to them; item, one neck, one chin, and so forth.”

Twelfth Night, William Shakespeare

Let’s be clear… fashions change, in beauty as in all else. Many of the celebrated beauties of history would not cut the mustard by today’s standards. Cleopatra had a big nose. Emma Hamilton, mistress of Lord Nelson, was fat by the time they met. And Rubens’ Venus had cellulite. The list could go on. These women, accounted great beauties in their day, to modern eyes may lack that certain something we are almost indoctrinated to seek. Was it just fashion that gave them their place in history? Or was there more to these women? Charm, grace, laughter and intellect; or did they exude that sensuality that attracts regardless of face?

I was speaking with a woman today, very beautiful to my eyes. Just a chance acquaintance, but so much of her story was poured out in that brief meeting … a tragic one… and all rooted in a simple fact; she felt worthless unless she could feel beautiful. It made me angry and set me thinking about my own journey to being comfortable in my skin. Both men and women are too often made to feel they must live up to an aesthetic ideal, yet what really matters is what is under the skin.

I never felt beautiful. I was born several centuries too late to ever be the life model for a painting of Venus. I feel I would have liked Rubens.

Looking back now at old photos, I was a pretty child at that age when, as a child you really do not notice or care about such things. I was a ‘girlie’ girl, with pale curls and the big brown eyes I now love in my younger son. Though he has always had far more eyelashes than any man should lay claim to…

As a teenager I could ape, but lacked, the confidence of my peers. I never felt I matched up. There was no envy, no sour grapes… it was just the way things were and I admired my friends, envying only their confidence. I stopped growing upwards around the five foot mark and rounded out. The pale curls became an untameable mop of mousey brown. The nose, broken by this stage already, had become a family joke; kindly meant, but leaving uncomfortable bruises on the fragile surface of the fledgling woman. The legs were decent, but the ankles not quite as fine as my mother’s… nor the wrists… nor the cheekbones… or the dratted nose. And comparison was inevitable… we looked very much alike.

My mother had lovely hair, rich auburn… and better skin too. My teenage acne had me evicted from the doctor’s waiting room one day. “You can’t bring her in here with measles!” the receptionist had said. Which did wonders for my flagging self-confidence, as you can imagine! Yet the weird thing was, I never lacked a boyfriend back then. It certainly wasn’t beauty that attracted them… I made my own guess at the cause and did my confidence even less good.

I could always see beauty in others and have tried to find ways to have them see in themselves what I could see. Bodies are incredible machines, sculpted by a master in every conceivable shape, size and hue. I have never yet seen a face I find ugly or physically repulsive, only expressions … calculated nastiness, venomous hatred and coldness… have ever seemed ugly. People can be unattractive that way. But most are not. Most have similar issues of self-image to my own and, no matter what you say or do, few can accept their own beauty as it is in the eyes of another. Even my own sons will not accept what is mirrored in my eyes… I am ‘just Mum’… my opinion therefore counts for nothing.

Eventually, I was a wife, and could look in the mirror and acknowledge that the reflection was okay… not beautiful, not by any standard I knew. But okay, and that was good enough. The eyes were nice. The nose wasn’t too bad really and could have been worse. The lips a perfect shape. Even the skin was reasonable at last. Confidence began to build… till a drunk driver rearranged the face a fair bit and it was back to square one through the years it took for the scarring to settle.

That taught me a lot. Youth defines itself often by its appearance, but faces do not define who we are. To ourselves, we are more than just a face. To others, we are more than just a face… and if we are not, then perhaps the problem lies within them, not our appearance. It taught me too that if I looked at myself and saw only the scars, that is all others would be able to see too. If I allowed the scars to be at the forefront of my vision of myself, I would see myself only as a tragedy. And so would others.

But you grow up. Priorities shift. There would be jobs and perhaps children. You did your best with what you had, accepting the self-image, flawed or not. It becomes a habit. Years and a few extra curves will change everything anyway.

Confidence came from other things than face or figure. There were more important things than feeling yourself to be beautiful. Seeing a new life changing your waistline to whale shaped, holding your newborn babe and falling into those eyes… closing the eyes of a loved one for that final time. I did not feel beautiful, but I knew that in such moments I was living within beauty.

Nowadays, I look in the mirror as rarely as possible. Not for fear of what I will see, but because I have better things to do with my life than worry too much about my appearance. There is nothing I could do that is going to make me fit the accepted ideal of tall, slender and youthful beauty. Other than perhaps a strict diet and fitness regime, being voluntarily stretched on some torturer’s rack and wholesale plastic surgery… not to mention a trip back a couple of decades in a time machine…

It doesn’t matter. The face that looks back at me is my own. It carries my experience, my joys and sorrows, old worry tracks my brow and laughter draws stars around my eyes. Our youthful perception of ourselves lacks depth. We see and judge ourselves on our surfaces, the sometimes brittle, sometimes bright reflection of our own image thrown back at us by the world like those fleeting glimpses in shop windows. We lack the experience to see deep enough to go beyond the outer shell and, we were to find a way in, there would still be a void the years had yet to fill.

When we are young we learn from others how to evaluate our world. It is all we have to live by until we can replace their teaching with knowledge of our own. It is easy to become stuck with those acquired filters; the habits that cloud our vision and our understanding with patterns that should have been discarded as obsolete and replaced with the rich texture of experience.

To my own eyes my features still seem coarse… but I know that I judge them by a standard learned long ago. To the cold steel of my only tape measure, my figure is not what it was. But it’s not that bad either. The hair is more unruly than ever and starting to be streaked with white. Which is fine. I have lived in this body for a good while now and done a lot with it. It’s entitled to fray a bit round the edges. I have lived, laughed, wept and more than anything, I have loved and been loved.

Looking back at old photographs, it is as if I am looking at someone I do not know. Were I to have met her, I would undoubtedly have told that young woman she was beautiful. She wouldn’t have believed me; she would have thought I was simply being kind. She would have had to learn to look out through my eyes… and her eyes were still too young and too caught by the vision of beauty she saw in others.

Today, those eyes see things rather differently. Although I can admire the aesthetics of youth, the people I would call truly beautiful are those who have lived a little longer. I see their lives in their eyes, their laughter and tears written in the map of their face, the confidence of experience and the wisdom of having learned from it… and an indefinable light within them that shines with a timeless and ageless beauty. And for myself? I live on the most beautiful planet imaginable, surrounded by wonders. I am part of the marvellous dance of creation that links every atom, every creature, each rock and wave. Why should I need to see a superficial beauty in the mirror when I can feel myself part of such living beauty?

There are too many tragedies happening quietly around us, from eating disorders, to self harm. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, they say. It isn’t so much about how others see us, but how we are allowed, and able to see ourselves.

About Sue Vincent

Sue Vincent is a Yorkshire-born writer and one of the Directors of The Silent Eye, a modern Mystery School. She writes alone and with Stuart France, exploring ancient myths, the mysterious landscape of Albion and the inner journey of the soul. Find out more at France and Vincent. She is owned by a small dog who also blogs. Follow her at scvincent.com and on Twitter @SCVincent. Find her books on Goodreads and follow her on Amazon worldwide to find out about new releases and offers. Email: findme@scvincent.com.
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76 Responses to Eye of the beholder

  1. I don’t have any classical beauties amongst my friends, but I do number some of the most popular women — with both men AND women — among my group. Whatever it is that makes them attractive, it’s not beauty as defined by Hollywood or Vogue. It’s something else. A certain something. “It” is neither intellect nor sensuality nor charm alone, but some unique combination of them all. None of them will make it as a centerfold or pinup girl or starlet, but they’ve got it. I bet so do you.

    Like

    • Sue Vincent says:

      The young woman I met should have had ‘it’ too, and it made me so angry to see what expectation had done to her. Few are classically beautiful, but a face in animation with a character behind it can be a beautiful thing.

      Liked by 3 people

  2. Beautifully written and an important message in this era of constant bombardment with society’s idea of beauty. Thank you for sharing this! I have a feeling I would have gotten on very well with Rubens, as well. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. davidprosser says:

    I thin it truly a shame that often our view of ourselves depends on how others see or perceive us to be.It’s when that view doesn’t match what we’d like to be seen as that the trouble starts.
    I was never handsome, lucky for me, I never perceived myself to be so, so that remarks about by nose or whatever didn’t sting quite so much. I’d always hoped my humour might carry me through but there was never an audience for the unpopular boy.
    How easily we can be shaped by others and pushed into corners to hide, to become introvert. Until by chance love appears and someone looks for the inner rather than the outer beauty. We tend to forget these rules can apply to men as to women, certain expectations of looks and shape until nothing is classed as normal any more.
    It takes age to help us sort out the priorities and to start looking in a different way. Then maybe we can bloom.
    xxx Massive Hugs Sue xxx

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sue Vincent says:

      I agree, David. Both young men and girls face these same challenges and the damage can be severe for many who feel worthless based on an unrealistic expectation to be ‘beautiful’, when that beauty really resides within, no matter how perfect or imperfect the face.
      Yet when someone looks at you, with love in their eyes… ‘love sees only beauty’ as a friend once put it. Hugs xxxx

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Powerful piece, Sue. Sitting more comfortably in my skin than ever before, I empathise with this..

    Liked by 1 person

  5. stevetanham says:

    From the heart and very beautifully written . . . x

    Like

  6. …this piece carries such powerful message, I MUST reblog it, from m’Lady, Sue Vincent… a truly beautiful friend…

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Reblogged this on Seumas Gallacher and commented:
    …this piece carries such a powerful message, I MUST reblog it, from m’Lady, Sue Vincent… a truly beautiful friend…

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Ali Isaac says:

    Beautiful, Sue. I’m sure a few tears will be shed reading this. I feel the same when I see some people react to my little girl. They are the ugly ones, and it has nothing to do with outward appearances. Xxx

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sue Vincent says:

      I’ve seen it with Nick too… I find it very sad for them, the flaw in their vision must hide so much beauty rom them. xxx

      Liked by 2 people

      • Ali Isaac says:

        Yes, I guess you have. Thankfully Carys doesn’t notice, but it must be very upsetting for Nick. I would be very angry, its hard not to be.

        Like

        • Sue Vincent says:

          It can be. The worst time.. though not the worst preconception from anyone, was the time Nick called a business. He was still struggling against the effects of the paralysis and other problems that affected his entire body then… The woman who answered was exceedingly offensive and told him never to call again when he was drunk.

          I called her back.

          She might think twice about that kind of comment…

          Liked by 1 person

          • Ali Isaac says:

            Ha… Good for you! I really feel for Nick though, having to cope with attitudes like that. No wonder he has so much determination.

            Like

            • Sue Vincent says:

              It really is a sad reflection on how our attitudes to difference and disability still need to change. Even the kindest often unconsciously highlight a difference in attitude.

              Liked by 1 person

              • Ali Isaac says:

                I know. We were only talking about this today. Sometimes those who are trying so hard not to stare are as obvious as those who don’t give a damn. Maybe it’s hard to strike the right balance. But there is no excuse for rudeness and intolerance.

                Like

              • Sue Vincent says:

                Those who have not had the opportunity to get to know anyone who is different… either in terms of race, ability, culture… have no frame of reference. I know I was the same… good intentions, no idea… But no. Rudeness and intolerance… No.

                Liked by 1 person

  9. Karen says:

    interesting post, and good points raised for all. However, just a thought about some cases, when reading this – such as, for ex., when a 14-year old girl is diagnosed at a routine medical exam with a double spinal curvature and the xray looks like a caduceus, who is then told that double spinal fusion surgery is eventually required, including a body cast for months, who gets no support emotionally from anyone in that environment…or, say, when a young adolescent boy might be faced with a similar situation, who never feels athletic enough, handsome enough, or whatever, at a similar age. Yes, one can try one’s v best to look within, et al, and see one’s good qualities – however, the truth is that in our society today – including re: the disabled, for example, or those who might have other long-term, although perhaps not as ‘visible’ 24/7, yet at times debilitating conditions – other people do not (and often will not) bother to attempt to see beyond the usual stereotypes – that is not something that one can do anything about, for ex., as it is their reaction. Such it is in our Western society, and many communities, even today. Here’s hoping that young people of all ages and cultures can, today, get more support at that v critical age…. while, dare I say, as we get older, lol!, none of us women tend to look in the mirror as much, anyway, lol!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sue Vincent says:

      I agree, Karen, that where there is a disability or anything ‘different’ many people’s vision stops right there and they cannot see beyond it. Even if they want to… they don’t know how. We have seen this far too often with my son. Subconcious judgements are made almost immediately.
      For those who face a self image shared by pain, disability and chronic conditions, visible or not, it is an even more difficult task, male or female, to grow into adulthood with confidence in the way the world percieves them. Here’s hoping indeed that we, as a society, can change that.
      Meanwhile, who needs mirrors? 😉

      Like

  10. jmgoyder says:

    Wonderful message. When I was young and beautiful, I thought I was fat and ugly. At 56 I am now finally venturing into the world of self-acceptance.

    Like

    • Sue Vincent says:

      I was never a beauty, but certainly prettier than I thought I was back then! It is such a shame that so many feel that way through their youth, from inner or outer pressures. Getting older, though , does seem to have some benefits in terms of comfort 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Reblogged this on Smorgasbord – Variety is the spice of life and commented:
    Beauty does come from within and here is a terrific post by Sue Vincent that illustrates that perfectly. When I was in my 20s I met a guy who had been blind from birth. He used to greet me with ‘Hey Beautiful’.. I asked him one day why he called me that when he had never met me.. he said that his other senses had told me I was.. he could hear it and feel it in my touch. I have never forgotten that even when I have been at my lowest physically and emotionally.

    Like

  12. Susan Scott says:

    I know from past experience that men and women I initially thought were unattractive physically became very beautiful in my eyes when I got to know them a little better because of their beautiful inner shine. I also think that people who are conventionally pretty/lovely/attractive rely too much on the outer or they are forced into this. I too am comfortable in my own skin – though the years do take their toll! Loved this powerful post Sue, thank you. (am in throes of huge catch up at desk now that visitor has left)

    Liked by 1 person

  13. 1WriteWay says:

    Wonderful post! Self-image is an issue I’ve dealt with all my life, too. My mom was never one to hesitate commenting on another person’s looks (whether they were “homely”, etc.). I suspect that was because of her own self-doubt, being one of seven daughters. Her critical eye trained me to be critical too with myself and others. And yet the friends I have who are the happiest are not the most attractive by today’s standards. But their happiness with themselves and their lives makes them the most beautiful people I know.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. Oh Sue, I just hit ‘publish’ for my post today, about beautiful people. The ones I know without having to ‘see’. And this post is the second one I read after I hit publish. I am sometimes surprised when I look up in a bathroom and see a mirror….sometimes I have felt that freedom at this time in my life to not have time or worry about what I look like. I worry more about how I behave and treat others.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Your post is a thing of beauty, Sue. It’s always fascinating that people start looking more beautiful all the time when their spirit begins to reveal itself. It works in reverse, no matter how lovely the outer package, ugliness cannot be concealed. 💕

    Liked by 1 person

  16. noelleg44 says:

    This is a wonderful post, Sue, and one with which so many women will empathize and agree. I think you are right – with age comes acceptance. I’m happier with myself now and willing to accept the scars (there are plenty) and imperfections. And confidence is a great beauty aid!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sue Vincent says:

      Men feel it too, though less publicity is given to their problems. That self acceptance gives a lot of confidence… they say youth is wasted on the young, but I think, perhaps that should apply to beauty… few are at ease with their looks in their youth.

      Like

  17. marjma2014 says:

    A lovely post, very thoughtful and beautiful in sentiment. That is the key, to be beautiful inside, the outer image can be lovely but if the heart is devoid of warmth than something is terribly lacking. Recently my daughter said mum I’ve found a photo of you looking like a vogue model. I must admit my curiosity was triggered! I wondered which photo she was talking about. It turned out to be a photo of me before I had my daughters. I was on a wonderful sailing holiday in Greece, and yes it was probably one of my best photos, but I wouldn’t go back in time to that moment if I knew I would lose something precious to recapture my youth. So much has happened since then some good things, my children, my friends, my writing and blogging and some bad which I won’t bore you with but the positives certainly outweigh the negatives. I am indeed very fortunate, and blessed, and that matters far more than anything else.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. I would have been quite happy during Reubens time. I know I have put on a bit of weight over the years but i do get cross when people like to point it out to me. One of my patients did it on Monday (elderly ladies are the worst offenders surprisingly) she looked at me, patted her stomach and tutted that she was getting big. Bless her! For the young though it is awful the pressure that is put on them to fit some kind of ideal. No matter what we tell them, that being healthy is more important that being stick thin , if they are not the right size or shape then they consider themselves ‘ugly.’ They do not see their beauty at all which is so sad.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Just…beautiful Sue. I love it when you fall into these reflections most of all. You speak with such honesty, wisdom, and tenderness. (Sniff sniff – grab a tissue). Thank you for a lovely post.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Mary Smith says:

    What a wonderful post, Sue. I agree with all you say but I wonder if I would have taken a blind bit of notice if I read it when I was young and trying to turn myself into what was considered to be the correct image. I overheard my mother telling a friend I had ankles like a cart horse! And when I was only four or five years old she was doing home perms on my dead straight hair to try to make it curl and make me look prettier. I do think it’s a shame that squashed self-esteem and confidence take so long to unsquash themselves. I’d like to have had the level of self-confidence (still a bit shaky) I have now when I was in my twenties.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sue Vincent says:

      No, we wouldn’t have listened at that age… we might have wanted it to be true, but wouldn’t have believed it. I remember my mother with blonde hair dye when my fair curls began to darken… Lite and Brite the stuff was called… though how I remember that I don’t know!

      Liked by 1 person

  21. With age, comes beauty! Kinda like a fine wine…Great thoughts, Sue 🙂 You have a way of expressing topics with such thoughtfulness! Thanks

    Liked by 1 person

  22. olganm says:

    Beautiful post, Sue. I was watching one of Jane Fonda’s exercise videos (yes, she keeps going) and it was quite funny how she’d comment on her prosthetic knee and hip… I wonder if even the prettier people ever think they are pretty enough and feel relaxed about it. In the past it was the tone of the skin, or what you wore or… I suspect in the time of Rubens if you were skinny you’d be really out of luck. I remember a girl who studied Medicine with me who was very thin and told me she would never wear skirts because her legs were too thin. So…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sue Vincent says:

      I don’t think how we feel about our appearance has a lot to do with how we really look. A dear friend who became anorexic could measure out her hips against her image in the mirror and they were three feet wide… in her vision. To the rest of us she was dangerously thin. Our self image goes deeper than surfaces, but in youth, and often for decades later, we project the inner image onto the surface, maybe that is less challenging… perhaps we seek to excuse ourselves… I have often wondered about that.

      Like

  23. Fantastic Post, Sue.
    I cannot recall when I turned that corner where the mirror or others’ expectations of what beauty was didn’t matter to me. I am far happier that I don’t need to worry or think about the things we did when we were young and agonized with fitting in. It’s not that I don’t care what I present to the world, I make sure I’m presentable: showered, clean clothed and lipsticked. I’m happy in my skin now. Too bad young people need to go through all that angst they do. ❤ ❤ 😛

    Like

  24. The best-looking people have troubles also. Some are never satisfied no matter how beautiful they are physically. It seems most of us are never completely happy. I don’t think we’re meant to be. I think we’re meant to need others and help them to complete whatever happiness we’re meant to have. I reached an age where getting old failed to bother me any more. It was a relief. This was a memorable piece Sue. Thank you for it.

    Like

  25. The beauty of your words makes my heart sing. Laughter drawing stars around your eyes is such a joyful expression! I love this whole piece. Sounds like aging is bringing you wisdom.
    Melinda

    Like

  26. Reblogged this on Musings on Life & Experience and commented:
    Great piece. Thanks, Sue.

    Like

  27. outstanding writing. A message that needs to be passed on .

    Like

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