I thought my 11-year-old daughter looked weirdly flushed at the park the other day. She was pushing her younger brother on a swing in the shade, and it was a warm day, but still, winter. I felt her cheek with the back of my hand; her skin was cool, not feverishly warm. She assured me that she felt ok. Then I realised it was pink blush from the makeup bag I leave beside my ensuite vanity. Ah, yes. It begins.
I don’t mind her mucking around with a bit of lip gloss and nail polish occasionally, and it’s cute to see this whole ‘tween’ stage happening, but I can’t help proceeding with caution when it comes to letting any of our kids spend a great deal of time, effort, and mental space on their appearance, or other people’s.
We live in a world where it is practically considered morally unacceptable to not be physically attractive according to narrowly-defined standards of physical beauty. You don’t need to look far for evidence of this prejudice; writer Carly Findlay is one voice of authority.
In a recent article in The Sydney Morning Herald she in part describes the fear, insensitivity, and abuse she has endured because of her visible difference as a result of her ichthyosis, a genetic skin disorder.
My husband and I tell our children that everyone is different, with different looks and different talents and special gifts, and that the most beautiful thing about any person is the beauty of their soul.
It’s a conversation that is ongoing; I find that at different times all of our kids need reminding that people come in many different shapes, sizes, and colours, and we can never judge a person by their appearance and that we never need to meet others’ expectations of what “looks good” either.
We can tell our kids, and ourselves, that what’s inside counts the most, but as Catholics we have more to offer than this platitude in our 2000+ years of encounter with the source of all beauty.
My favourite image of feminine beauty is from a poem by St Therese of Lisieux, An Unpetalled Rose. In it she expresses her wish to be a rose devoid of petals because they have been strewn to soften the path of Jesus’ feet on earth, from his first baby steps to his steps on the way to his crucifixion. There is no question of the ‘use’ of another person or allowing oneself to be used here; only mutual, loving, sacrifice.
If you haven’t encountered this poem, you might think it sweet, maybe too sweet, and move on. But stop here with me and think about this a bit. She wanted to be the dead rose head – with the petals already trampled on and rotted, unnoticed even by the playful toddler Jesus or the dying Jesus.
This is not an image of girly sweetness or plaster saint holiness. A rose is a typical image of femininity, and St Therese loves them, but here she inverted it into an image of voluntary poverty, of the cross and death in intense identification with Christ. Like the saint, this poetic image is confident, creative, mysterious, and powerful.
I’m sure that St Therese, who thought of herself as a “little flower,” identified just as much with this denuded rose. It is no longer recognisable as a rose; in the poem it isn’t fit to join the ones decorating the “feast” of heaven. It is “just flung out to blow away”. There are the people whose giftedness and successes are evident, and then there is Therese, who saw herself as having “squandered” her life out of love for Christ, expending everything she possesses for no reward, not even an assurance of heaven, but with joyful abandon.
For me the unpetalled rose is a powerful image of strength born of a woman’s love, deeply rooted in God’s sacrificial love for her. It contrasts the well-intentioned but sometimes harsh expectations for women in general to remain beautiful inside and out, to be empowered, to “shine.”
But at the same time it encourages me to look for more beauty in my life, to know where my power lies, and to shine in a very personal and particular way.
On many levels I’m drawn to wonder over this mental image as no cover on a magazine or pixels on a screen could ever do. In offering a perspective on a loss of beauty as being very beautiful it offers a bulwark against the fear of growing old, of the diminishment of one’s mental and physical strength and attractiveness.
Other renderings of feminine beauty may be very beautiful, and I can enjoy them too, especially with my daughters who still need to come to know and understand the culture they live in. And many images of Christ’s mother, for example in Michelangelo’s Pietà are beautiful and can inspire us to greater love, but St Therese’s unpetalled rose is also a Marian image, and a very good one.