40 Days of Ambivalence

Well, I promised to write again after Lent, but I’ve been putting this post off because…I don’t know…body image is just annoying to write about. So, I’ve been procrastinating, and I’m definitely not a procrastinator- I didn’t even know I knew how to procrastinate…

As a quick side note- someone informed me throughout this Lenten season that Lent is actually more like 50 days- not 40- because it starts on a Wednesday and then they don’t count the Sundays. So, for those of us who don’t “take Sundays off” in our Lenten practice, that becomes a very long time. I can’t remember the last time I was this ready for Lent to be over (although the last time I gave up chocolate was in High School, so it’s possible I just don’t remember how terrible that was…)

For those of you who don’t remember or didn’t read my  pre-Lent post; I decided to give up wearing make-up, wearing jewelry, and doing my hair (wore it in a low ponytail with no product or hairdryer every day). Essentially, I felt ugly for 40- no, 50- days.

I have so much to say about this, that I’ve decided to break it up into two different posts (you know, because no one likes to read super long blog posts; I know I don’t (now that I’m done, I’m realizing this post is still too long anyway;)).

This first post is going to focus more on the political side of things, and the second will focus on the spiritual- though both are interrelated, of course, as they always are.

I entitled this post 40 Days of Ambivalence, because feeling ugly for 50 days really stirred up a lot of ambivalence in me. I have always felt that, as a woman, I have faced a double message- don’t be too beautiful, don’t be too ugly. Be sexy, but not too sexy. Be smart, but not too smart. Be assertive, but don’t be a witch. Be athletic, but don’t be a butch. Be sweet, but don’t be a sissy. etc, etc.

If you think that this is just my usual feminist angst, hear this. I sat in a women’s group a few week’s ago where we discussed body image. There were stories of women who were bullied for being skinny, as well as bullied for being overweight; women who had felt the shame of not being pretty enough, and women who were misjudged because they were so pretty. There’s this small box women are supposed to fit into, and it creates a heck of a lot of confusion for us when we’re trying to figure out how to get ourselves- our beauty, or our simplicity, our weight or lack thereof, our creativity, our intelligence, our athleticism, our wittiness- in there!

Ani DiFranco describes this phenomenon adeptly (forgive me if you’ve heard me quote this lyric multiple times before, but it’s so darn good):
“and God help you if you are an ugly girl
course too pretty is also your doom
cause everyone harbors a secret hatred
for the prettiest girl in the room
and God help you if you are a phoenix
and you dare to rise up from the ash
a thousand eyes will smolder with jealousy
while you are just flying past”

So, as I went without doing my hair or make-up and without wearing any jewelry part of me felt liberated, and part of me felt slightly insecure. Part of me felt like celebrating, and part of me felt like hiding.

It was sort of like I was saying, “I can look however I want, and you’re just going to have to deal with it.” After years of men staring, or making comments, or of being misjudged by women, that felt good.

But I also missed wearing jewelry and doing my hair and make-up, because I enjoy those things. I love being creative with my appearance. I love getting “dolled up” for special occasions. I will not say that this is a female thing, because I don’t think it is. I know several women who prefer not to wear make-up and don’t enjoy getting dressed up- and power to them. It’s a personal preference thing. I like dressing up. I enjoy fashion and make up and jewelry. I also enjoy days in my sweats and a ponytail.

So, on the political side, my days of aesthetic simplicity really highlighted for me how ambivalent I am about feeling beautiful. There are reasons that I like feeling beautiful- I enjoy fashion, I like to dress up for my husband, I like to be creative with my looks- and reasons I don’t- I can receive inappropriate looks or comments or I can be misjudged.

I don’t really think I have to make up my mind about wanting to be beautiful (on the outside) or not. Obviously, I want to spend more time working on my inner beauty, but I think it’s okay to rest in the tension of ambivalence regarding my outer beauty.

In the meantime, I’m thankful I live in a place where I can get dressed up and wear make up on days I feel like it, and I can go out in sweats with no make up on days I don’t. I’m thankful to have people in my life who love me on those days I look my best and on the days I look my worst. I’m thankful for a God who looks not at outer appearance, but at the heart.

And that leads us to the second post, which I will publish tomorrow.

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2 thoughts on “40 Days of Ambivalence

  1. I just have to say, that was really brave of you!! Wow. I can’t quite imagine giving up THAT for Lent. I am inspired.

    A few years back, I shaved my head in much the same spirit, though. It was a HUGE challenge to certain aspects of my identity. I felt very insecure, but also strangely liberated, eventually, by the freedom that I felt from being checked out by men. It was really interesting!

    1. Thanks for sharing, Sarah. I can’t imagine shaving my head, but sounds like a profound experience as well. Very courageous of you. Now I need to figure out what to do for lent this year…

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