To the Women I Have Met, Known, Admired, and Loved

I recently met a woman from Nigeria. One day, as we were walking home from the gym, she opened up about her life.

“In Africa, so many people bleed to death. They start bleeding and others say, it’ll pass. It happens during childbirth all the time. The woman starts to bleed and before you know it, she’s gone.”

My skin flushed with the horror at what she had just said, her frankness, a sad fact she lives with, that I live with now too.

She went on, “Maybe I’ll stay in China for a few more years and get a degree in public health. I want to help these women. It happens too much.”

She is an MD. She wants to go back to school and get an additional doctorate in Public Health. We go out together, and go to the occasional yoga class. Her ambitions are so pure and inspiring to me.

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My mother is a landscape architect who owns her own company. When I was 15, she went back to school after many years as a homemaker to get a degree in horticulture, as well as becoming a certified arborist. She works in a male-dominated field and says that she is often the one of the only women at some events. She’s treated poorly by some of her customers because of the way she looks. She fights every day to be taken seriously, and the fact that she is five feet tall with an adorable Wisconsin accent doesn’t help. But each day she studies more, works harder, and doesn’t quit.

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When I think about women in my life who I’ve met, known, admired, and loved, I never think about their physical beauty. I don’t love looking at my mother’s face because it’s beautiful, but because her eyes are deep and brown and thoughtful and crinkle when she smiles. Getting to know someone brings me into a blind stupor regarding their face, body, clothing. I think this happens to all of us when we meet a person we get along with. Looks stop mattering, because faces are only faces until they begin to speak.

The de-humanizing of women has been going on for ages. It’s happening in our presidential election right now. Women are never just an assembly of parts, pieces to regard and critique. Women are complex novels, encyclopedias of knowledge and experiences. Watch an author interview with Toni Morrison or Maya Angelou. It’s possible to hear in a ten-minute YouTube clip of them more wisdom and fire than anything you’ve heard all year. And yet, as women, we worry. Or at least I do.

I feel the need to apologize when I don’t look my best. When I’m tired or my clothes don’t match. I sometimes exercise out of vanity and not for the health and endorphins. I spend hard-earned money on beauty products that I’m not sure I want, but I believe I need.

Why?

Because I, like my mother, my grandmother, and all women before us, have been conscious of my appearance since I could look in a mirror. It’s not inherently internal; as long as my body functions the way it’s supposed to, I’m fine with it. It’s external events I internalize so much that they become me. It’s comments from boys and men, girls and women alike, some innocent, some not. It’s being catcalled and harassed on the street for existing as a woman. It’s every written description of a woman where her sole value lies in her looks. It’s every photoshopped photo. It’s critiquing myself in front of friends, who critique themselves, believing it’s okay to hate their bodies for not looking like a standard of beauty that none of us truly believe in.

It’s not what matters to us; real beauty isn’t something that we can see, but rather what we can feel. And we know this. I have a friend who’s working a part time job and getting her Master’s degree. I have another friend who got a job right out of college in an incredibly competitive field. One of my other friends is in a computer lab with mainly men, all day every day, getting a degree as a computer engineer. They’re beautiful to me because they’re ambitious and smart. I don’t get chills when I hear Michelle Obama speak because of the way she looks, but by the truth of her words and the tremor of passion in her voice. I don’t follow my sister’s advice because of how well she dresses, but rather because she has never, and probably will never, be wrong.

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As much as I don’t believe it, I have the potential to be a role model too. And so do you. And every other woman who has ever existed. We deserve to regard ourselves as we do our most esteemed idols. I don’t expect Zadie Smith to look like a runway model, but I do appreciate when she writes hauntingly beautiful stories I carry with me each day. So why should I ever hold myself up to a standard that I don’t care about when it comes to others?

In this world filled with images of expectations rather than reality, if we focus less on our projection of wellness and more on our interior well-being, we will look in the mirror and not see a jumble of parts that will never look right, but rather the doctor, the grad student, the careerist, the engineer, the entrepreneur, the role model, the woman.

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During my freshman year of college, I had a blind math tutor. I could tell him the math problem, and within minutes he sorted it out, showing me some numbers on paper. The writing was for my sake. For the most part, the math occurred in his mind. I was dumbfounded. He was doing particularly well one day and was helping four students at a time. One girl began to compliment him.

“You’re so good at this, it’s really insane what you can do.”

We all murmured in agreement. She kept going.

“With your skills, you’ll have a really beautiful wife some day.”

He snorted, smiled, shook his head.

“Doesn’t matter.”

We all laughed. It was true. By her flushed cheeks we could tell she meant physical beauty, and what would physical beauty matter to him? All of what he thought was beautiful was without a face, without a color, without a shape. Without sight, he could not only figure out the most complex mathematical problems, but also that beauty isn’t always determined by it’s tangibility. It’s the substance that matters.

I never forgot it.

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