“Beauty is truth, truth beauty. That is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
–John Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn”
They are among the most recognizable lines in English literature—taught in every twelfth grade English class, recited with little cognizance by millions of students, and something of a mystery even to scholars. Just what did John Keats mean?
And lest you think this blog has devolved into the realm of the esoteric, let me remark that it was just days ago I started to really get these lines supposedly spoken by Keats’ Grecian urn: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.”
It hit me when I was gazing at the cover of Sports Illustrated’s latest swimsuit issue with so-called “plus size” model Ashley Graham crawling toward the camera in an alluring pose on the beach. When Cheryl Tiegs tweeted that Graham was a poor role model because of her weight, public outrage (at Tiegs) was instantaneous.
As it should have been.
Because beauty isn’t just in the eye of the beholder; it’s also a lot deeper and more complicated than a dress size…or even a pretty face. Like truth, it’s multi-faceted, complex, open to interpretation, and rarely absolute. And it’s also way more than skin deep.
But I can say all these things until I’m blue in the face, and it won’t keep the vast majority of American women (and girls, too) from looking at themselves in the mirror and launching into a litany of self- criticism:
My nose is too big.
My breasts are too small.
My hips are too wide.
My feet are too big.
I’m too short.
I’m too tall.
I look fat.
I hate my muffin top.
Ugh, look at that back fat.
I need to go on a diet.
And on and on it goes. I’ll admit it. I’ve done it, too. After all, in the 40 years I’ve been alive, the ideal woman, physically speaking, has been tall and waif-like (except for the breasts—the breasts remain Barbie-doll size; and I’m talking Barbie from the 1980s, not the C-cup version of modern times). In short, she has been, well, freakish.
But I have, like most other women, nevertheless longed, at times, to exist a little closer to that ideal, even though I was, fortunately, raised by parents who never put a lot of stock in popular notions of beauty. In fact, I don’t think they could have cared less what I looked like. I was raised to place value in intelligence, hard work, good character, and, thanks to my dreamer father, risk-taking and adventure-seeking.
This is not to say I have been immune to the desire to look tantalizingly beautiful. Heck, I admit it, I put on mascara and lipstick to go to the gym. Nevermind that I’m wearing yoga pants and a tank top. I am determined to put myself a step above the Walmart variety woman running around in her flannel PJ bottoms and crocks with socks that don’t match. (Though there is something in me that admires her “fuck it, I just came here to get Doritoes and a box of wine” attitude….)
I do take a little pride in the fact that I stop at lipstick when it comes to gym and grocery store runs. There’s a limit to the absurdity of obsession with appearance in which I will engage. I know women who will do their 20-minute makeup routine before starting a workout that’s going to sweat it all off within 10 minutes. I also know women who primp in front of the mirror, trying on one outfit after another, redoing their hair half a dozen times, wasting precious hours of their lives in an effort to be stunning every single day, physically stunning at least.
And these are not women who have nothing else to offer the world. They are wildly intelligent, witty, successful, worldly. Why the hell are they standing in front of a mirror in Rome fussing with their flat iron instead of just putting a hat over the bad hair day and exploring the perhaps once-in-a-lifetime world on the streets outside?
I think it’s because they don’t really understand what beauty is. Someone somewhere has taught them to define themselves by their face, their breasts, the curve of their hips, the shape of their legs in three-inch heels. Meanwhile I’m lying on a beach with stinky sea lions in the Galapagos or squeezing my body into the most unflattering wetsuit ever and turning my feet into fins. (If you want to test the depth of your self-confidence, put on a snorkel mask and stuff a regulator in your mouth, and let someone take a picture of you.)
A gentleman I dated recently asked me why I was so committed to exercise. “Do you have a goal you’re trying to reach?” he asked. I’m sure he expected me to say something like I wanted to lose 15 pounds, or I wanted to be able to bench press a sofa. But I replied, not the least bit tongue in cheek, “I exercise because I don’t want to deprive myself of wine and cheese and because I still want to be able to hike the Grand Canyon when I’m 80.”
Beauty is truth.
Do you get it yet?
If you’re running five miles at 5 a.m. every morning, and your sole motivation is that you believe in the depths of your soul that your ass is the size of a picnic table, then it’s time for a reality check. If you’re running at 5 a.m. every morning, I don’t care what size your ass is, you’re awesome. You’re strong. You’re motivated. You’re beautiful.
Rest assured, this wasn’t something that came to me overnight. I’ve spent plenty of time lamenting the fact that my eyes aren’t as lovely as Elizabeth Taylor’s or that my rear isn’t as shapely as J-Lo’s. But chances are good, I won’t be lamenting it while teaching my daughter how to ride a bike, while kayaking on a glacial lake, or while sharing cocktails with my best girlfriends on a Friday night.
I find my beauty in strength, courage, and aliveness.
Where do you find yours?
Because if you can’t wipe off the eye shadow and the lipstick, pull off the flattering cocktail dress, the beautiful heels, let down that perfect hair, and stand in front of your bedroom mirror in all the nakedness of your body and soul and feel beautiful, then it’s time to start being kinder to yourself.
No one’s asking you to crawl on a beach in a bikini while photographers take pictures of you and plaster them all over the covers of magazines. In fact, no one’s asking you to do anything…other than be you.
And it’s in that critical truth—your own naked authenticity—that you’ll find your beauty.