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True Beauty

By Sally Collings - 12th July 2010

This year, the theme for our primary school disco was ‘Beauty and the Geek’. My eldest daughter loves dancing, and couldn’t wait to dress up in one of her favourite princess dresses to shake her tail feather.  Her father took her along to the disco, so it was only later that I heard from the other mums about some of the remarkable versions of beauty that were on display there. One or two girls did the ‘geek’ look, complete with nerdy glasses and plaid shirts. Most, though, went for the ‘beauty’ option, which meant full makeup, midriff tops and tight, tight skirts. I’m talking well pre-adolescent here: seven and eight-year-old girls.

How tragic, I thought, that for these girls the idea of beauty is already paired with everything artificial. It would be nice to feel they had a little period of innocence before doing battle with images of pencil-thin models with puffer fish lips, Botoxed brows and fake body parts.

We are so used to thinking of beauty as external perfection: the spectacular, the outstanding, the flawless.

There is another way of seeing beauty, though. There is a concept called wabi-sabi, which is a world view based in Zen Buddhism and Taoism that finds beauty in things that are imperfect, impermanent and incomplete. Wabi-sabi honors the simple and the unpretentious (wabi) and the beauty that comes with age or much use (sabi). 

I have a favourite table. It has made its way to our front verandah now, because one of the legs is a bit wonky and the top is cracked. It is a very frivolous table, probably meant as a plant stand. It has curved bow legs and a russet brown marble top. I bought it in a flea market in France many years ago and it has crossed the world with me. When I run my hand over its cracked top, I think about spotting it amongst a tangle of broken-down chairs and old books. I remember how I haggled for it, how I loaded it into my friend’s Range Rover and drove it back to my London home. It is aged and worn. It has wabi-sabi by the bucket load.

What about your wabi-sabi? You’ve probably seen better days. Maybe your heart is a bit cracked from being dropped a few times. You might be a bit soft around the middle after childbirth – if you’re like me, your abs have taken a hammering that no amount of crunches can erase. Maybe your nails have seen better days, or your back is aching from picking things up (children, toys, yourself). You might be busted, but you’re still beautiful.

It’s easy to see beauty in the face of a supermodel. It’s a hundred times more rewarding to see it in the brokenness and flaws of the people around us. And ourselves.

So I’m going to keep the foundation and eyeliner on the top shelf for a bit longer and try to instill an appreciation of wabi-sabi in my girls rather than an airbrushed, media-moderated idea of beauty.

Comments (2)

SallyCollings's picture

Wabi-sabi outside the western world

Yvette, thanks for the feedback! I do think that wabi-sabi is easier to spot when you get off the track of wealthy Western society - or perhaps it's simply more important for us to see it in places where we might not expect beauty to be.

YvetteVignando's picture

Wabi Sabi and Perspective

Sally, you wrote that "Wabi-sabi honors the simple and the unpretentious (wabi) and the beauty that comes with age or much use (sabi)."

As I travel around India I have seen beauty of the Wabi and the Sabi kind and in places where I am not expecting it. I have seen it in a cement and palm-frond thatched hut painted in jewel-like colours; I have seen it in the gorgeous giggling face of a 7 month old wearing an otherwise non-beautiful blue and white striped beanie; and I have seen it in the artistic way that fruit is piled and pyramid-ed in baskets on the roadside.

I am looking for beauty of the wabi sabi kind because outside of a main centre in India - that kind of beauty is everywhere. I am grateful for it because otherwise the confronting nature of the poverty and the pollution and the precariousness of simply being transported around, would be overwhelming. Loved your post, thank you.

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