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Fearless About the Body

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I've always loved Orinthia's speech in George Bernard Shaw's The Apple Cart. But, having seen it a number of times, I've noticed that it's actually better when Orinthia is played by an actress who is not conventionally beautiful because Orinthia's confidence in herself comes from a deeper place than her looks or her achievements. The king, with whom she's having an affair, challenges her: "Orinthia, what have you ever done to justify the consciousness of a goddess?"

And she replies: "Give me a goddess' work to do; and I will do it... But do not pretend that people become great by doing great things. They do great things because they are great, if the great things come along. But they are great just the same when the great things do not come along... Thank god my self-conscience is something more than vulgar conceit and having done something. It is what I am, not what I do that you must worship in me."

And yes, granted it would be better if this confidence were directed at something other than getting the king to marry her. But the essence of Orinthia's declaration is that fearlessness and confidence in ourselves come not from what we do or what we wear or how we look, but from a deep and complete acceptance of ourselves.

As women, being concerned with our looks is drummed into us from the moment we take our first breath. For eons, beauty has traditionally been a big measure -- often the only measure -- of a woman's worth. The urge to attract seems to be hardwired in us -- even a biological necessity.

Insecurity about our looks comes into full bloom in adolescence and is now almost a rite of passage. I can still cringe at how self-conscious I was as a teenager. Let's start with the fact that I was freakishly tall for a Greek girl, standing 5'10" at thirteen when my classmates were 5-nothing. I remember the trauma of being excluded from the school parade that included all the tallest girls at the school because I was too tall. Add to that unruly curly hair, heavy acne and thick glasses and you get the picture. I was only happy when I was lost in my books.

I kept comparing myself to all my beautiful, diminutive classmates as I towered over them in my exquisite awkwardness. I kept getting As in school but it didn't matter because all I really cared about is how I looked. In fact, if anything the good grades made things worse.

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Have you ever wondered what it would look like if someone brought to the market a little tape recorder that we could attach to our brains that would record everything we tell ourselves -- a TiVo for our inner dialogue. What we'd hear is that not even our worst enemy talks about us the way we talk about us to ourselves. The negative self-talk starts as soon as we wake up -- sometimes even before. It revs up when we take that first look in the mirror or get on a scale or put on a pair of pants that fit too snugly. "Oh my God, I look awful... another wrinkle here -- I hope I slept wrong and that's gonna fade out... Did I put these pants in the dryer? I can't zip them up anymore..." And on and on it goes, fretting over every blemish, every extra pound. It's like having the world's worst roommate, and one that's around all the time.

Last spring I took my daughters to see Eve Ensler's play The Good Body. It was fascinating to watch with them one woman's journey from fear about every imperfection to fearlessness and acceptance of her body with all its imperfections.

"Why write a play about my stomach?" asks Ensler. "Maybe because I see how my stomach has come to occupy my attention, I see how other women's stomachs or butts or thighs or hair or skin have come to occupy their attention, so that we have very little left for the war in Iraq -- or much else, for that matter."

* * *

Our fears about our looks lead us to endlessly compare ourselves with others -- who are all, of course, endlessly comparing themselves to us. It's the treadmill of comparisons -- a fear and self-doubt perpetual-motion machine. Why can't we just be as pretty, as sexy, as athletic, as young as her or her or her, or the hundreds of women looking at us from magazines, billboards and TV screens?

* * *

I have a large number of women friends in their fifties who look better than they looked in their forties. Yes, they take care of themselves. But, truly, the main change is an inner one. The French even have a word or two for it: jolie laide. These are women who are not conventionally beautiful but radiate a kind of magnetism that goes beyond their features.

As Karen Burshtein writes, "The term translates literally as 'pretty ugly' but could more charitably be rendered as 'oddly beautiful.' The jolie laide represents an idea of beauty wherein a hint of imperfection enhances a woman's appearance and makes her more interesting to look at. She may be ugly, but, in the end, she is more alluring, more captivating, than a conventional beauty."

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