Whenever my husband or I reference Leah Mitchell, the word “delightful” is one of the adjectives we always use. She really is delightful – and funny and smart and oh, so talented. You know how there are some people who you don’t get to spend a lot of time with, but the time that you do spend together is always special? That’s Leah. I met her at church when her father was my pastor and I fell in love with the whole family. Leah and I just kind of clicked and I enjoy her perspective on just about anything. Obviously it was natural that I would ask her to join this series. So, without further ado, here is Leah in her own words:
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I was 9 when I realized there was something wrong with my body, that there was something wrong with me. Up until then if I thought about my body at all it was to think: can I climb that? Can I jump that? How long can I spin in circles? If I run really fast will I lift off in flight? My body was a tool, it was a toy, it did things for me and I made stuff happen with it. But when I was in 4th grade that began to change. The kids at school had started calling me names that focused on my rounded belly and strong legs. Fat, they called me, I now know that it was more about being a new kid in the classroom than any overwhelming heftiness on my part, but at 9 I lacked the ability to see the bigger picture and as I looked into the full length mirror my rounded belly and strong legs got bigger, morphed into something wrong, something bad. I began to internalize the words that my classmates said about me, made them my own and began to define myself by them. I was fat. I am fat. Those three words became all there was to know about me, became the standard by which I would forever judge myself and be found lacking.
At nine I was already absorbing the implicit message that our culture sends women: that our primary value comes from our looks, that it doesn’t really matter what I can do, only how I look doing it. It’s why female politicians get scrutinized for their hair or their dress choices as much as or even more than their policies. It’s why successful and intelligent women still focus on and agonize over their weight.
It was a Tedtalk by Renee Engeln “An Epidemic of Beauty Sickness”, which crystalized this for me. There is a lot of media focus on being body positive, campaigns by Dove and Lane Bryant, and pop songs trying to convince the world that big is beautiful, and earlier this year a lot of hubbub went on over how great it was that there was a “plus size” model in Sports Illustrated’s swim suit edition. But all that comes down to is equal opportunity sexual objectification. The root of the problem is not with our culture’s narrowly defined construct of beauty, overwhelmingly focused on youth and western European features, but that we value ourselves based on what we look like, not what we do.
The aesthetics of the human body and the desire for beauty are not by any means lost on me, in fact I probably prize them more than most. I’m an artist, of the old school figurative variety. I don’t fling paint on canvas I paint portraits, still life, and the nude. I strive for beauty and use the human figure to express that, using the physical to express a higher concept or ideal. Beauty is important to who we are as human beings, the appreciation of beauty is something that sets us apart from animals, but it is only a part, only a facet of our being. To put beauty on a pedestal, make it first and foremost our goal is to diminish ourselves.
I’m not advocating for big to be beautiful or any hashtag oriented slogan for the appreciation of the rotund, but for girls and women to say to one another that their beauty (which we all have) is only one part of who we are, and a small part at that. That we are more than decorative, prized for more than our sex appeal or fashion sense. That what we think, what we create, what we do is what makes up who we are, not how we look.
My daughter is 7 now and I’m holding my breath as she runs and jumps, spins, and tries to fly, her body is remarkable, amazing, healthy and strong, and I’m terrified that one day soon she will look into the mirror in tears and try to figure out what is wrong with herself.
Leah Mitchell is a painter of paintings and thinker of thoughts. She is a part-time philosopher, sometimes writer and full-time mother and artist. She is currently working on her Masters of Fine Arts in painting. You can follow her art at her blog:www.leahrmitchell.blogspot.com