As a teen I longed for the day I would be grown up and beautiful. I looked for affirmation of the value of my physical self easily as often as I looked for validation from my academic or creative abilities. I examined my round face in mirrors, scrutinised each freckle, worried about sunburn and wished I didn't look so solemn. Each year I was less convinced that I would grow out of my puppy fat, and graduate from awkward gosling to elegant swan.
It has been a natural thing for me since childhood to develop a sense of beauty unrelated to my body. To feel deeply; to be moved by music or a scent or the changing sky; to want to be surrounded, even overwhelmed, by the world - these have never been difficult. If anything, my challenge has been to control my emotional response to what I observe so that it doesn't become too much. I think this is a significant contributor to my motivation to write; it gives me an outlet for expression of the beauty I experience. I can well comprehend a beauty in sadness and brokenness as well as in what appears perfect and whole, and I see it in all people too: in their individual humanity, the interplay of bodies, faces, hearts and minds. But always, or almost always, unconnected with myself.
I think this is because our natural tendency to observe beauty is often trained from a very young age to equate beauty and perfection. Perpetuated notions of a demi-godlike standard of physical beauty have trained humanity to aspire to often unattainable goals, and in the pursuit of achievement (itself no bad thing), our focus on the physical can so often derail us and distract from a broader, observable beauty inherent simply in being. As I recognise this, I am having to gradually retrain my mind to a more balanced appreciation of the world and, by extension, of myself. In learning to detach from a harmful obsession with a perfection I cannot achieve, and which is not in fact of lasting value, I rediscover other values I had lost.
This past weekend I spent several hours looking at Renaissance paintings in the National Gallery, and the predominant thought I took away was how captivating an honest portrait can be, even centuries later to complete strangers. There is something beautiful in every true likeness, some story told in the eyes, the lines, the mouth, that connects on a very human level the art and the observer. Drawn to the faces of people about whom I knew nothing, and yet through studying them feeling I knew all, I was challenged on my perceptions of beauty once again. Muddling through my thoughts since then, I wrote the following:
Let me write a love song to your face,
For adoration is my true confession:
Its lines of beauty and its lines of grace
Born of artless, frank, and free expression.
There honesty has placed its overt mark
And disallowed the mask that some may wear;
Dissembling smiles may please those in the dark,
But in the light all secrets are laid bare.
Your visage, strong, emotive, cannot lie;
It speaks the truth of every thought it knows,
In anger, joy, frustration, love - that I
May read each feeling as it comes and goes.
As time does add its depth to what I see,
So truth in beauty makes it dear to me.
Rembrandt's Self Portrait at the Age of 63, on display in the National Gallery, London.