Last weekend, I sat across from a beautiful woman, though I’m sure the word would not be one she’d use to describe herself.
As a girl, a hurtful, shaming “fat” was once lobbed at her thin and lissome frame. As a woman, she grew into a voluptuousness more suited to Botticelli than “Baywatch” and has at times wrestled with shedding an image, and the pounds, that seem determined to stick. More recently, she learned “pretty” can be a grudging praise that stings.
And yet, to me, she has always been beautiful. As her friend, I know I am biased. But staring into her wide, expressive eyes last weekend as she shared her struggles to own her beauty in a world constantly presenting her with another ideal, I wanted nothing more than to flood her in a magnificent spotlight, to pull out every memory in which she has shone, every moment, from the grand to the insignificant, where she’s epitomized the word far beyond the superficial.
Yes, I love my friend. And, yes, I believe it a worthy, edifying enterprise to celebrate the loveliness of my friends, to remind them whenever it occurs to me — and often for no reason — of the goodness of their hearts, the abundance of their gifts, of the way their presence adds richness to my life. This, to me, is simply what girlfriends do. For all the perceptions of catty, competitive female friendships that exist, I’ve always believed we women are at our best when cheering each other on and connecting over our similar stories and histories.
My girlfriend and I spent last weekend doing exactly that. I arrived at her house on Saturday to find her caramelizing onions in the kitchen, just one step in what seemed like a very involved process of making paella. I was notably impressed. She was simply embodying two of her great gifts as a nurturer and a creative spirit who can make almost anything, from cooking a meal to picking out the right pair of earrings, feel like a work of art.
And she is an artist. She sews and knits, makes jewelry and music, and pens songs that showcase her quirky wit and philosopher’s soul. This year, she finished the first draft of her first novel. Her company, and her conversation, always invigorate me. Something about the way she moves and thinks and speaks makes me more aware of my creative self.
As we talked and laughed, while she prepared the paella and then on her porch over a leisurely dinner, I marveled there had ever been a moment when we weren’t friends. There are some people whose presence can make us feel vitally connected to the things that matter in our lives, including the possibilities we envision for our future. By being who they are with such vibrant authenticity, they give us permission to do the same.
My friend is one of those people for me. So at the end of a fun, inspiring weekend spent floating wild and plausible ideas by each other, unearthing old and tangled tales and promising discoveries born of more-recent introspection, it made me sad to see her burdened by society’s conventional standards of beauty. There had been a moment earlier that day when I turned to her as she sat on a picnic table in a park, a look of serene contemplation on her face, a smile flitting about her lips. Without a trace of makeup on, in that verdant setting, she was as pretty as the flowers in bold bloom a few yards away from us.
I was taking in her physical appearance then, but I saw so many facets of who she is in that contented and thoughtful look.
It made me think of how our self-esteem and notions of worth are often bolstered, not by our families of origin or our romantic partners, but by our dearest friends. When I was a young woman, my dad would sometimes greet me with a cheerful “Hello, pretty.” But as a girl, I can still remember how he teased me about my heavy thighs.
My partner Zane has left Post-it notes around my house, on mirrors and places I wouldn’t expect to find them, reminding me of my beauty. Sometimes, he interrupts my chatter when I’m especially excited about a topic to tell me how pretty I am.
But it is with my girlfriends I often feel my most beautiful. There is something about the way we adorn ourselves — with unfettered laughter and the sheen of tears, with pure silliness and deep wisdom, with all the honest, quaking, exquisite revelations of heart and soul — that enthralls and casts a glow.
There are experiences and people that may chip away at our self-worth, memories and patterns that may take a lifetime to dismantle. But thank God for these women, who see through to the truth of who I am and remind me when I forget. They are reflections of a radiance that never dims, keepers of a light that burns inside with purpose and joy and strength.
And it is this light I hold for my dear and gorgeous friend, for the days she has to strive toward its brilliance — and always.
– Life in LaLa Land, published in The Intelligencer and Bucks County Courier Times