On beauty, imperfection and getting on a bit

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Past it’s best perhaps, but I find a subtle beauty in this decaying rose. Photo: Su Leslie, 2015.

We live in a world that subtly (and not so subtly) demands “perfection”. From the Photoshop’d bodies of celebrities to the fruit and vegetables on display in supermarkets, advertising tells us we can have rounder tomatoes, straighter carrots, glossier hair, slimmer thighs, whiter teeth — if only we’ll part with our money. It’s an insidious, dangerous, repugnant ideology that leads to mountains of wasted food and irrevocably damaged  lives.

Not quick enough with the remote control last night I watched — in utter horror — the first couple of minutes of a television programme about people who willingly and repeatedly undergo expensive surgical procedures that modify their bodies to conform to some idea of beauty. Really, about two minutes was all I could take before I had to turn the set off. I looked at the Big T; he looked at me. We both wondered what sort of world we’ve found ourselves in.

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Past it’s best perhaps, but I find a subtle beauty in this decaying rose. Photo: Su Leslie, 2015.

What does this have to do with photos of decaying roses you ask?

These are the flowers given to me recently by a friend. They were a rare treat; beautiful to look at, and as a gesture of our friendship. I’ve been loathe to throw them out.

Since last night’s brief encounter with the TV, I’ve been thinking a lot about beauty. The flowers in my bouquet were exquisite; soft, plump roses and snowy chrysanthemums amidst purple kale and glossy greenery. With age, they’ve become limp, and are browning around the edges. But the thing is, I still find them beautiful.  I still appreciate the folds and contours, and am fascinated with the appearance of new textures in the rose petals.

I’m not sure if  notions and standards of beauty in nature are universal to all human societies, but beauty in people is definitely a variable, culturally determined construct. By the standards of the culture I live in, I have never been considered beautiful in the way a bouquet of roses is. I’m “too short”, “too fat”, have a “big nose”, “dumpy legs” and “thin hair” (all phrases I’ve heard about myself). And at times I’ve anguished over my “failings”, but mainly –like so many other people — I’ve reached for another chocolate biscuit and got on with the business of living. I’ve found friends and lovers who are either blind to my faults, or find other things to like about me. And despite a whole bunch of new, age-related flaws that make it even less likely I’ll make it to the cover of Vogue, I’m comfortable in my (ample) skin. Even in the worst depths of my recent depression, when I was beating myself up over all sorts of things, I still managed to feel ok about my appearance.

I wish I could think of a cheerful, upbeat way to finish this post, but in truth I don’t feel upbeat. I feel fortunate to have grown up at a time when body modification meant getting your ears pierced or having a new hair-do –“perfection” wasn’t attainable so it was easier to accept ourselves. Now I worry about my son’s generation; increasingly aware of friends’ children who struggle constantly with negative body image, and quietly terrified for my own child.

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Enjoying the beauty of age. Photo: Su Leslie, 2015.

So instead I’m offering Nick Cave’s Into My Arms; not upbeat, but one of the most beautiful songs about love and loving that I know.

This post was written for Sally D’s Mobile Photography Challenge at Lens and Pens by Sally.

 

 

 

68 thoughts on “On beauty, imperfection and getting on a bit

    • True. I am comforted though by the fact that there are older women in the public eye who are flying the flag for mature beauty. Helen Mirren spring to mind as an example of an utterly gorgeous woman who embraces her age.

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  1. Su, your heartfelt and deeply poignant words spread rays around the last stage of the rose. Or is it its finale? That rose (and roses) can be present in its dried phase for a long, long time. Beauty has become a cultural phenomenon that truly has little to do with beauty. Today’s focus is on the external, which disregards the true inner glow that comes from one’s spirit and soul. You are a person of considerable interior radiance, and that is seen in your images. Happy Photo Challenge.

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    • Thank you so much Sally. You are right; focusing on external image is robbing so many people of the joy and peace that comes from experiencing and enjoying internal beauty. All the best, Su.

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  3. Lovely photos. Lovely post. My husband thinks I’m beautiful. I don’t see it myself, but I’m glad he does. I asked him to stop buying me flowers long ago. It’s not so much about perfection/imperfection as it is the fact that cut flowers die so quickly that it makes me sad.

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    • Thank you. Beauty is such a personal thing; like you I’m glad my partner finds me beautiful.

      I know what you mean about cut flowers. I’ve even started worrying about the environmental impact of growing flowers with no other purpose than to — fleetingly — look nice. Hope you have a great weekend. Cheers, Su.

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  4. Su, I worry about these things, too, and am grateful that our girls seem to feel good about themselves as they are or at least have obtainable goals to change things they don’t like. I’m also glad they don’t have piercings other than in ears!!

    I laughed at your photos and the story behind them, but in empathy, not mockingly. I, too, took photo after photo of dried roses and flowers that were in a Mother’s Day bouquet and find them lovely.

    Best,

    janet

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    • Hi Janet. Like you, I feel I have a lot to be grateful for with my child. So far, he seems resilient, but I know he has fears and anxieties that he doesn’t share. But we all do our best and at the end of each day count our blessings. Perhaps if we can do that often enough, we can consider it a good life. Cheers, Su.

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  5. Su, I watched Nick Cave’s video, the words are really beautiful, I did not understand the grief though, what does that represent. Sometimes I find perfect plants almost revolting, and much prefer a little weathering any day. Not sure if thats normal but thats how I feel. My fears are not for what I look like but that theres probably less time going forward than there was looking back. My body is physically less able now, so by the time I am 80 how much energy will I have. Never mind wrinkles, its the get and and go I worry about.

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    • Hi Julie. As Annabel mentioned, Nick Cave apparently wrote the song after he broke up with PJ Harvey. I was watching a video of their duet ‘Henry Lee’ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uHdNCHomHlU); very emotionally charged! I agree with you about aging; I definitely feel slower in my movements and I tire more easily. But we humans are wonderfully adaptable; my grandmother was still living in her own home and looking after herself well into her 90s, and I hope that, like her, I live as long as I want to, and want to as long as I live. Hope you have a great weekend. πŸ™‚

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    • Thank you. It’s so easy to feel that we’re swimming alone against the tide and it is exhausting. I’m always so uplifted when a blog post strikes a chord with others and I am reminded that I’m not alone.

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  6. Whereas I have been thinking about the fact that if I don’t mind at all how other people look when they’re getting old, why am I so horrified by my own saggings and wrinkles ?
    You’re right, of course, Su. And this is a lovely post.

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  7. Love the Nick Cave. My (23 y.o.) son is a big, no huge, fan/follower. And I personally often find beauty comes from deep within, and is as much an attitude as anything else. And, I found that programme disturbing too.

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    • I agree; as I get older I see that beauty is a quality of character, not so much appearance. The TV programme is really disturbing — all the more so because Katie Piper, the presenter, is a survivor of an horrific attack that left her in need of plastic surgery. She seems amazingly gentle with the damaged people she talks to.

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  8. Su – my counselor side really compliments the wisdom in this post – the practical downright truth! and for me – I think it was about ten years ago when we saw a show where the mom – yes the mom – was having the teen get a boob job – what the heck! and just speaking of plastic surgeries – I think most people forget that all those beauty treatments are actual surgeries – that toll the body – put chemicals into the tissues with each shot – and come with a price to the cells.
    but seriously – there was so much I loved about your post and this was one of my fav lines:

    It’s an insidious, dangerous, repugnant ideology that leads to mountains of wasted food and irrevocably damaged lives”

    oh – and I also watched the show with the male Barbie-doll looking guy – about 3 or 4 years ago – where he had pecs implanted and stomach muscles put in – crazy – but at there end of the episode they had him on this boat with his friends and they were drinking – and well, the sad truth is that he is still not going to fill the inner void that is there – now sure -sometimes a lifestyle lift or a corrective surgery might really be the positive life help – and I heard that one organization has rescued elementary students who get bullied for facial defects – and so I know there can be value – but I think in many cases folks go under the knife when they really need to read more posts like this – to celebrate who they are – not compare – and see beauty in aging and all that… and I like what Sally wrote in her comment too – “Today’s focus is on the external, which disregards the true inner glow that comes from one’s spirit and soul.” ahhhh – I guess you can tell I really enjoyed your post Su!
    anyhow, hope you have a nice weekend ❀

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    • Thank you so much for your support and comments. I agree that cosmetic surgery can be a wonderful tool to help people with disfigurements — after all, many of the techniques were developed to help soldiers and airmen who had received facial wounds and burns in war. I think you are right that these are just extreme ways of people trying to fill a void in their lives (like compulsive shopping, or binge drinking). The sense I got is that people are resorting to more and more surgeries, because each one is fundamentally disappointing in that it hasn’t turned them into the wonderful person of their dreams.

      I read somewhere really recently that what children these days are most afraid of is failure. That saddened me so much because it suggests we’ve allowed competition to overwhelm co-operation in society, and that everything is a test. If that’s how we see life, then of course we will fail and resort to more and more desperate measures to give ourselves “an edge.”

      Things like this make me feel so gloomy; so it is always so nice to be reminded of how many wonderful, caring, thoughtful people there are in the world too. Hope you’re having a great weekend too. Cheers, Su.

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      • I like how you noted this about how kids are consumed with performance –

        “allowed competition to overwhelm co-operation in society”

        and whew – I think we could keep going on here – and one thing I learned with my boys when they were younger was that they needed time to find their own things – like especially in summer – adventure camps are fun and regular camps have their place – but they also needed some weeks of being bored and maybe feeling and then working through angst and whatnot. oh boy could we go on…. ha!

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        • Absolutely. I think it is so sad watching children being dragged around endless activities, and never allowed to just stop and experience stuff. Random, side of the road stuff, that adults think is pointless and time-wasting, but kids love. Actually, I still love that stuff, which is one of the reasons I like to travel alone. No-one gets impatient or bored if I get side-tracked and just enjoy the moment. πŸ™‚

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  9. Su, just this morning there was a promo in our local newspaper filled with tips on style and appearance for the “older” woman – you’ll know the sort of the thing, I’m sure. What infuriated me about it, before I even read the content, was the promo photo. It was of an “older” couple, both airbrushed so that their skin appeared as flawless as a newborn. But worse still, she was sitting on a swing, the man was standing behind her pushing the swing.

    Su, this is a really great post.Your photos are stunning. Your roses are ageing beautifully.

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  10. Wisely spoken, and I agree that the wilted rose is stunning and poetic – there’s beauty in fragility as there’s beauty in dignity.

    However, I think that our craving for eternal beauty and youth as a species is nothing really new, we just have more efficient tools to both make and fake it. It’s interesting to see, once again that it’s the dose that makes the poison: you *can* maintain your dignity for quite a long while taking proper care of your body (think aged athetes, for example) until you reach the watershed of ridicule.

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    • Thanks so much for reading and for your comments; you make a really good point. There is a huge difference between taking care of our bodies in order to try and preserve them, and engaging in practices that modify them. And I guess part of my disquiet is that the latter option seems to be an abdication of responsibility for self-care. It’s like suggesting that the availability of bariatric surgery makes it ok to over-eat and not exercise, because someone else can “fix” the problem. Cheers, Su.

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  11. Su, thank you so much for this thoughtful post and these vibrant photos of an aging rose. I, too, am a huge Helen Mirren fan. Several years ago, I wanted to purchase a pair of boots, but was worried that they were too young for me. I was, instead, going to purchase boots that I didn’t like nearly as much, because I thought they were more “age appropriate.”

    One of my adult daughters was home, and was looking at the boots with me. She was growing exasperated with the idea that I would spend money on boots that weren’t my favorite. She finally said, “For heaven’s sake! Look, can you envision Helen Mirren wearing these boots?” My reply was an immediate, “Are you kidding? Helen Mirren would ROCK these boots!” And her response? “Then YOU can rock these boots!”

    I placed an order for the boots the next day. They quickly became my go-to boots for the winter, and 4 years later, I continue to get compliments on them. Helen Mirren has become my gold standard. If something looks good on me, and I can envision Helen Mirren sporting it, I wear it with confidence.

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  12. Every word you used to describe yourself, I would say the same about me. Self-esteem takes a beating when you look in the mirror and find yourself falling short of the current standards of beautiful.

    As bad as I felt about myself as a teenager, I’m grateful I’m not a teenager today trying to measure up to the bombardment of what passes for beauty in social media.

    Your flowers may be well past their prime, but your photos have captured their fading beauty ❀

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    • Thanks Joanne. I suspect there are quite a few of us who would say the same thing; and probably all agree that we’d hate to be teenagers now. I have a few friends whose daughters are suffering really badly with low self-esteem and negative body image. It breaks my heart!

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  13. Poignant and deeply moving, Su–both the post and the music. My family has laughed for decades in that anytime I’m given flowers, I quickly hang them upside down and observe their beauty from an inverted state. I preserve them and the gesture of the giver for as long as possible. I think my dried flowers hold a heartful of memories that are too fleeting to last for a week in a vase.
    And I wholly agree about human beauty too. There is such depth to the definition of the word. It’s important to explore it as we walk through life in as many ways as possible.

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    • Thanks so much Shelley. It does worry me that “beauty” as a concept can be so easily co-opted these days and shoe-horned into a tiny sphere that excludes most people. It wouldn’t matter I guess, if the means to spread that narrow concept weren’t so ubiquitous. πŸ™‚

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  14. I think as a society we are so obsessed with finding the fountain of youth and obtaining unattainably perfect beauty that we are leading oursevles down a very dangerous path. When billions of dollars are being poured into developing products to blindeningly whiten teeth, regrow hair, and eliminate wrinkles instead of educating children, and eliminating hunger and diseases we’re doomed.
    We lost sight of the true meaning of beauty long ago and it may take something more catastrophic than we can imagine to relearn that beauty comes from within and the most beautiful things a person can possess are a kind heart and giving spirit.

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  16. I think societies have always contorted themselves in the quest for perfection in physical beauty; thinking here of foot binding, or absurd hairscapes of the 18th century, white face powder made of arsenic, impossible whale bone corsets, http://www.nbcnews.com/id/22546056/ns/health/t/suffering-beauty-has-ancient-roots/#.VZpJI7WOY00. Why do we do it? To find a mate? To find status? Whatever the reason, it is depressing that we keep on finding new ways to ‘torture’ ourselves, not only in our youth but in our older years as well.

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  17. Not upbeat at all, but no reason for it to be so, Su. πŸ™‚ Isn’t it strange- this is the second time today that I’ve followed a link to your blog, from 2 different sources, and both times liked what I found. I’m sorry our paths don’t cross more often.

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    • I know what you mean. It’s like being “friends of friends” who occasionally meet at a party. I’ve just gone all wistful over your Norwich post — thinking that next time I make it to the UK, I should try and go there when it’s not raining. I lived in Cambridge for a while and explored a bit of East Anglia, but had only the most fleeting visit to Norwich.

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      • It held lovely memories for me because it was the first place I ever ‘went away’ to with my husband, more than 40 years ago. It had changed! πŸ™‚ Thanks- I enjoyed your company, Su.

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