Unveiling the holy

There’s always been more to beauty than meets the eye, says Tanya Meeson
Woman&Home, June 2022

There’s an image of a woman I keep in the ‘pictures’ file on my laptop, a screengrab from an old Humans of New York Instagram post. She’s older than 60 but could be anything between that and one hundred for all I know. (Who can say what age is supposed to look like?)

It’s basically a headshot of this woman and she stares directly into camera, her body very slightly turned away. Her expression is stern, her lips turned down at the corners, the lines of time pulling her skin into a thoughtful half-frown. Her hair is an ombre of white to purple to black; she wears a gold embroidered shawl over her shoulders. Her blue eyes are rimmed with kohl, around her left has been drawn, in black ink, radiating lines curled at the edges, like an ode to the Egyptian sun god Ra. In the middle of her brow is a flower bhindi made of peridot stones sparkling summer green around a small citrine heart. Her lips and lids are painted pink. She wears silver around her neck. Everything about her blazes with intent and purpose and clarity of self.

Whatever photographer Brandon Stanton captured in this woman that day burned itself into my brain and now whenever I hear the word ‘beauty’ I think of her.  

19th century author Margaret Wolfe Hungerford coined the phrase ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ in her novel Molly Bawn, a story about a sassy, convention-defying Irish lass named Eleanor ‘Molly’ Massereene.

Marcia, Molly’s bitchy but pretty cousin, drops this pearl as an insult to Molly’s looks, but the phrase survives into the 21st century and has become something of a truism, I think, because it so wonderfully simplifies the complexity of beauty as an experience that originates within the observer.

‘Beauty’, it reminds us, is beyond the academic definitions of aesthetics. It’s a subjective pleasure, drawing on a million different threads from the observer’s life.

When I look at that woman in the picture it is true that the particular combination of colours and art that she’s made of her self-expression is typical of what I find striking. But it’s the way she’s looking at the camera that grabs me and demands attention. In this I see some elemental force of nature. How fierce she looks; how powerfully intentional about her being in the world.

Beauty isn’t always pretty, but it is always powerful

She reminds me of beauty, I realise, because that’s what beauty is to me: coming face to face with a representation of life at its most vital, no matter what space it occupies or face it takes. The strength and power of an athlete’s body, perhaps. Or the sublime colours of an artist’s palette, a brisk, icy wind off the Atlantic on a winter’s morning, the perfectly decaying corpse of a golden mole, alive with life…

Beauty isn’t always pretty, but it is always powerful. The poet and artist Kahlil Gibran wrote in The Prophet: ‘Beauty is life when life unveils her holy face. But you are life and you are the veil.’ There is such depth and range to beauty and what it says of the person experiencing it, that I find myself constantly surprised that there’s still a tendency to equate beauty exclusively to the arrangement of youthful skin, fat, cartilage and muscle on the front of human female’s skull. What a sorrow to diminish and limit it so.

And yet, constructed ideals of beauty have been so relentlessly drilled into our social awareness I wonder how many people know what they truly find beautiful, what resonates with their soul, what moves them, what calls to them. I wonder how many people can be honest about what they find beautiful. I wonder how many people allow themselves the time and space, free from distraction, to consider beauty.

I screengrabbed the image of that woman without the caption and so any detail of her life is lost to me. I like to keep it that way. I have my story about her and the meaning this creates for me. She may be dead now for all I know, but the beauty of her fierce self transcends time and space and inspires me here and now, half a world away from New York.

Feature photo by Timon Studler on Unsplash
Picture of woman by Brandon Stanton, Humans of New York