Is Beauty An Illusion?

June 25, 2012

Aishwarya Rai

“At seventeen I learned the truth,” sang Janis Ian, “that love was meant for beauty queens.” And so those of with ravaged faces, presumably, hung out at the library, consoling ourselves we were beautiful on the inside. Beautiful people get all the breaks: better service, more respect, even better jobs. They mesmerize us. Our minds stop, we lose ourselves for a moment in their presence. But we also feel inadequate, imperfect as human beings.  Heck, even unattractive people discriminate against plain people. What can be done? Short of running to a cosmetic surgeon? Is being beautiful what we imagine or is it just another myth?

Think of the most beautiful woman ever. Elizabeth Taylor, GretaGarbo, Ashwarya Rai? Whomever you pick, the chances are she is an actress. This is no co-incidence. For beauty is a kind of acting. It is a make believe. I was greatly impressed when MAC Cosmetics employed Ru Paul to its spokesmodel. Ru Paul appears to be a typical,  blond bombshell. In fact he is a rather nerdy looking, skinny black man. But he, like many drag queens, knows how to work the beauty trick. We are lied to using lighting, make up, hair design, clothing, accessories, posture, walk, voice, facial expression, digital enhancements, cosmetic surgery. Famous beauties may need less work, nevertheless they employ the same bag of tricks as drag queens. At best this is cheating, at worst we are being deluded.

I mean, don’t we all look good some of time?  Each of us, even the plainest among us, has a few good photographs: when the light is right, at the right angle, and when our outfit is flattering. Greta Garbo was (and is still) considered the epitome of perfection. Make up students are told her face proportions are the most ideal. The Swedes didn’t think so. Greta was an average starlet in her native Sweden. Then she came to Hollywood and met Louis B Mayer. His team of make up artists created a special make up for her. Couturiers designed a look.Photographers created magic. Her flawlessness was manufactured. It was as big a lie as Ru Paul.

A young pretty face is so powerful that it implies the body must taste like ice cream, it must smell of fresh fruit. Where as an old, ugly face is assumed to be attached to a body that smells like a sewer. So powerful is this illusion that people sometimes pay good money for an intimate taste of young pretty flesh. But here is a reality check: The secretions of the beautiful are no less rancid than those of unattractive people.  No matter how firm the flesh or smooth the skin, when he or she wakes up his mouth reeks, her skin is oily and the hair is a mess. You just never believe it when you see these demigods in print. These thoughts may sound strange at first, but they are a reality-check to the beauty myth constantly sold to us.  The truth is everyone of us needs a plethora of soaps, shampoos, deodorants, colognes, mouthwash, toothpaste, talcum powder to keep from stinking. I mean, would any of us want to travel inside a sewer pipe? Probably not. What is inside a sewer pipe comes from human bodies (the old and the young, the pretty and the plain). If you think about what the human body is made of, it is food. And food is a perishable commodity. Leave out food for any period of time and it will stink. Leave the body unwashed and it too will stink. Beauty is not even skin deep. That watercolor complexion you see in magazines is, literally, made up.

I am not proposing that we constantly remind ourselves how odious the human body really is, rather I am suggesting we give ourselves a reality check whenever we feel captivated by the body beautiful. Or perhaps repelled by a hideous one. Haven’t we all dismissed off a grubby old homeless man on the street? Ordinary people make assumptions about the worth of a person based on the absence of beauty as much as the presence of it. I am saying that if we remind ourselves that beauty is an illusion it cannot overwhelm us. The spell is broken. Thereafter we can behave as rational, compassionate human beings towards all. I believe part of the reason the aged and the homeless are invisible for city dwellers is because of the value placed on appearance. If however, you were to look into their eyes, you will see beauty. It is the only part of the human body that is beautiful. Specifically, it is the light in the eyes. When a body dies, that beauty disappears. When we speak to a person, the light of eyes are the only part of them worthy of looking into. The rest is all window dressing.


Some Friendly Advice

June 18, 2012

The Sex and the City girls make a whole

Friends make a person complete. Or so I used to believe. I have moved about a great deal throughout my life, as a result my friendships have been few. I used to lament the lack of friends. Lately I have been questioning the necessity of friends. Are long-standing friendships the only way to not feel lonely?

Allow me to illustrate what I mean. My most intense friendship was with Wade.  I met him as a fellow volunteer for a telephone helpline (do such things still exist?). We were the same age (mid-twenties) but we seemed to have little else in common. Then we discovered we were both vegetarian. This led to going out for a meal together. Here we discovered our similarities of character and values. And perhaps more significantly, our interdependent needs.  I was a big city boy savvy to its ways. He was a small town boy finding his feet in the big city. We were both lonely, and thus our great friendship began. Those first two years were wondrous, like some kind of honeymoon. We dressed alike, moved alike, thought alike. People often asked us if we were brothers, despite our different skin tones. Then my mother died. I fell into a six-month depression. No one called to see how I was doing. Not even Wade. Did I mention he was a social worker? Eventually we reconciled but it was never the same. Friendships should come with one of those fragile, handle with care labels. Once broken, they are hard to repair. Nevertheless, Wade taught me a great lesson about the nature of friendships: Friends are friendly only so long as you add value to their lives.  Put it another way, a comedian once joked,” A friend in need is a nuisance. Get rid of him.” Sadly, he was correct. That is the crux of the problem. But also its solution.

If a friendship is based on needs, as those needs evolve, either the friendship grows, or you drift apart. Isn’t this need-fulfilling why we imagine good friends enhance well-being and happiness? Can our friends be compensation for those traits lacking in our own personality?  Think of great friendships, fact or fiction. Think of The Beatles.  John Lenon was the intellect of the group, Paul the emotional heart, George the spiritual side, and Ringo the physical one. Together they made one complete whole human being. Same with the Sex And The City girls. Carrie is the philosophic side, Miranda the rational intellect, Charlotte the emotional romantic and Samantha the raw physicality. Together that is one complete and balanced human being. So then, is the feeling of loneliness a sign that one or more aspects ourselves is underdeveloped? I believe it is.

What if two individuals, both fully-formed, whole human beings, were to become friends not out of mutual needs. Would that be a pure, enduring friendship? I cannot say because I have no experience of this. But I believe I can try to fully-rounded and whole by developing my personality.

It is hard to decide who is a true friends sometimes. People use friendship as a weapon in the workplace. Office politics is an extension of high school in this respect. As soon as you embrace one set of friends, without wanting to you create another set of non-friends. Oscar Wilde said something like, “To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong affair.” You yourself can be your greatest friend or your greatest enemy. We can all think of people who abuse their bodies with drugs, put themselves in harm’s way, invite cheaters and users into their lives. We have to wonder, do they even like themselves? Surely it is better to befriend oneself. To be kind to oneself, to be honest with yourself, to want the best for yourself. Are those not the qualities of a true great friend?
After all these years I have decided to flip my experience with Wade on its head. To make friends,  add value to their lives. In other words, be the type of person you would want as a friend. Single people often have a wish list of the qualities they would like in a potential mate. I always ask them, “but do you have these same qualities yourself?” The same applies to friendships. I would like a friend who is loyal, trustworthy, insightful, honest, respectful, cultured. And so I work at those qualities in myself. Quality friends (not acquaintances) happen spontaneously. And like romances, friendships cannot be wished, cajoled, manipulated . They are organic entities, with a life of their own. And like love, they know neither logic or reason. So I make myself available and open to friendships. I volunteer, try to remain cheerful and polite at all times. Beyond that I work at bettering myself. And I wait.

Why I Volunteer My Time

June 11, 2012

I was late for a shift at the homeless shelter and decided upon a taxi. The new immigrant taxi driver was genuinely perplexed why anyone would give up his leisure time for free? I pointed out to him that millions of people around the world do exactly that because it is rewarding in other ways. Even as I said that I was aware that during the thousands of hours I have given in the service of others,  not all of the work has been rewarding. Over time, however, I have worked out a few things about effective and satisfying volunteer work.

Be Selfless: The volunteer work I did in my youth was  motivated by loneliness. Not an inconsequential motive, loneliness is the malady of our times. I had hoped that by giving my time to causes I would meet a better class of persons, perhaps strike up friendships that spilled over socially. I discovered that, just as in paid work,  here too people move about in cliques.  Judgments are made based upon age, race, gender etc. People seek out tribes. Now I no longer have expectations for myself when I decide upon volunteer work. I let the work itself be the criteria.

Repayment of debt: In my youth I abandoned some work because I felt my contribution was not appreciated. But now I do not expect gratitude, and I am no longer disappointed. I see volunteer work as a repayment of a debt to society for taking care of me all these years. Hundreds of anonymous strangers contributed to my safety and well being, from policemen to taxpayers. Now I am clear in my understanding that whatever I undertake is for my own growth only, and appreciation is not required or expected.

Tool for Learning: New immigrants and students often complain about being rejected by employers because of a lack of experience. Volunteer work can give that experience or perhaps a chance to acquire new skills. Granted these are not selfless motives but they are a reason to try volunteer work. I learned to write because of volunteer work, and now, through the literary magazine Descant, I have acquired a level of literary expertise. While this may not land me jobs or riches, I feel learning and growing are important in life. Cognitive dysfunction associated with aging can be curbed by cultivating intelligent new skills. I use my mental faculties to further grow spiritually. My volunteer work at Descant is a tool in this important growth.

Compassion muscle workout: Particularly at the homeless shelter, I find what I do there is a sort of gym for building up my compassion muscle. I stand at a window and give out a bag lunch and a drink to the homeless and the poor. The food is donated by someone else and the staff or other volunteers actually make the sandwiches. The only thing I can contribute in the act of distributing this food is a smile, eye-contact, and a pleasant word. These are things of which the homeless are particularly deprived. Too often we want them to be invisible. We walk past on street corners ignoring their request for coins. I have discovered that the skills I have developed in respectful compassion, are spilling over into my whole life. I am kinder to the people in my life. I forgive more freely. I am less inclined to judge. Everyone is in need of a smile, eye-contact, a friendly word.

Feel thankful for what you have. One of the worst disabilities in life is self-pity. It can make you needy, selfish, entitled. The cure is easy. Find people who are worse off than you and spend time helping them. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, you begin to put your own problems into proper perspective. You appreciate the strengths in your life. This happens naturally, without any effort.

Be fearless: I used to dread the prospect of growing old. I imagined a lonely existence where my body was falling apart along with my mind. By volunteering with geriatrics, I have discovered that some old people retain their alertness and actually grow in their wisdom, despite an ailing body. Being alone does not have to mean being helpless or indeed even lonely.  Some old people have rich spiritual lives, they beam with joy through their eyes and speech. All that is a reward of work they put in their youth. Bhagwad Geeta is correct in saying that no spiritual work is ever wasted. It accumulates. I can now envision getting old but with a confidence of greater peace of mind. Most people in the last stages of their lives are not afraid of dying. They welcome  the rest while acknowledging the full, rich life they have experienced. This is a lot to learn from donating an hour a week.

I am puzzled why I ever expected gratitude for my time when I was young. Now I am grateful to the people whom I help for what they do for me.

Nutrition Myths

June 4, 2012

The news media love to pepper their pages with the latest discoveries in the field of nutrition and health. And who can blame them. Amid all the economic gloom and crime reportage, a story about a startling new finding on the merits of tumeric or olive oil is a breath of fresh air. Or is it? For those of us  interested in self-care, there is a confusing amount of information about just which foods are good for your body. In this post, I have decided to critically examine some common myths.

Broccoli is a superfood: While it is true that broccoli does have cholesterol-reducing properties as well vitamins and fiber, so do other cruciferous vegetables. A researcher might conduct a study to prove the benefits of a food group and he chooses a member of that class of vegetables to experiment with. But the media confuses the sample for the finding.  If broccoli or blueberries were used as a sample in the study, the media announces that broccoli or blueberries is the superfood. Totally missing the point of the research, and confusing the public. The truth is, a good serving of a variety of fruits and vegetables in  your diet will have steady, long term benefits. That is all the researchers ever try to illustrate.

Fresh is better than frozen or canned. Instinctively that makes sense but that is not the case. So much of our fresh food is imported, and as such is picked unripe to increase its shelf life during transportation. By contrast, sometimes canning happens at the farms themselves, or the produce is frozen before canning, hence retaining its full nutritional properties. Of course, buying the seasonal fruits and vegetables from your local farmer’s market is the best tasting option, nutritionally the canned variety is usually the same.

Supplements are good for you. Some of us have a plethora of vitamins on our shelves – every letter of the alphabet. Yet there is no medical evidence to suggest that popping vitamin pills has health benefits. That does not mean they don’t do any good either. It may just be that people who consume supplements are  concerned about their well-being and as such do other things such as exercise to maintain good health. Hence the supplements alone do not give them better health but we can’t isolate that they don’t either. Generally, there is no substitute for a well-balanced diet. Supplements are useful for short-term deficiencies detected in your blood work (such as iron or calcium), but they should not be relied upon as a permanent and exclusive solution.

Fish Oil is good for the brain and heart. Omega-3 is, and fish oil does contain rich amounts of it. But then, so do walnuts, flax seeds and kiwi. If you have an ethical issue with consuming mangled up fish bodies (as I do) then many alternatives are available that are equally as good. Though you would never guess it from the media coverage fish oil gets.

The Mediterranean Diet is Best. This makes for good press, but what does it really mean? Italian food is often high in starch and is very salty, very different from a couscous salad. The essence of the Mediterranean diet is that it is low in red meats, and high in fresh fruits and vegetables. The cuisine of any part of the world that is balanced and consumed with an awareness of these facts is just as good. I have often heard it said that Indian food is bad for you because it is oily. My mother always cooked everything from scratch. She never used processed foods. Oil was used sparringly, we rarely ate fried foods. It is also now known that spices such as tumeric and cumin contain healing curcumin, an effective anti-inflammatory.

My mother also taught me to splurge on the best quality of fresh food I could afford. While cutting corners with other luxuries makes sense, cutting corners with nutrition does not. One of the great things about living in a global world is the availability of varieties of cuisines at your doorsteps. It is foolish to restrict yourself to just one type of foods. Nutrition seems complicated if we rely on headlines, but the research is all pointing to the same few things. Eat well-balanced, variety of foods in moderation. Simple.

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