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Column: A new perspective on beauty—my own!

July 29th, 2014 Posted in Opinion

By Noelle Johansen

I hadn’t shaved my legs in nearly three months, but nothing stopped the tiny old woman with a chin as hairy as my legs from patting my calves heartily. She had to be at least 80 years old, and her worn, floral housedress smelled of tobacco and bleach. All I could do was smile and nod as she continued to pat my legs and tell me, “God bless you and your big legs!”

She called me “elegantona,” which means giant, elegant lady.

She called me “elegantona,” which means giant, elegant lady.

I don’t remember ever hating my body, but I never so happily embraced my big legs and thick ankles until I lived in the Dominican Republic for a year and a half. As a Mormon missionary (wait, don’t leave yet), I expected to return home from my little Caribbean haven fluent in Spanish and with a greater conviction of my beliefs. The newly discovered and abundant confidence about my body (God bless it!) was a surprising bonus.

My mother is a good woman, a teacher. She taught me to embrace the child-bearing hips and sturdy legs I inherited from her. When I journeyed through my “woe is me, I’m so fat” teenage years, she never once suggested a diet and always responded with a swift “you’re just curvy!” She taught me that brains trump brawn, and beauty equals more than physical appearance. I owe to her my relative level-headedness and sarcastic wit.

I found much of my mother’s sarcasm and bluntness in the Dominicans I grew to love during my mission. Their brazen honesty startled me at first. People lovingly used nicknames like “fatty” and “skinny” to those who were, well, fat or skinny. Occasionally, nicknames were ironically inversed, as I discovered when one friendly market woman always called me “negra.” But my nicknames that stuck fast were those referring to my tallness and whiteness. My 5-foot-7-inch, 170-pound frame was a head taller than most men and women around me, and I was easily the palest, freckliest creature for miles (although that’s pretty normal stateside, too).

By U.S. standards, I am shy of the conventional beauty standard by some 40 extra pounds and tan-resistant skin. But in the Dominican Republic, the spectrum of conventional beauty widened greatly. Sure, skinny was beautiful. But so was curvy, full, tall, short, white, black and everything else. The physical diversity of beauty was immense, and I embraced it wholeheartedly.

One night I sat on a dark, narrow porch with my companion and a young couple. As we were getting ready to head home for the night, the girl, thin and in her early 20s, motioned to my leg and teasingly asked why I wouldn’t give her a little something to beef up her skinny calves. I stared back, confused. This darling girl, so thin and lithe with skin the color of caramel, wanted cankles like mine? It started to click in my brain. Beauty, it would seem, really is in the eye of the beholder.

In a country where 44 percent of female high school students are attempting to lose weight and 81 percent of 10-year-old girls are already afraid of being fat, it would do us some good to stop obsessing over an impossible standard of physical beauty. Instead, we could try focusing on the values of intelligence, health and kindness, you know, things that make up true beauty.

Many public beauty campaigns seem to be headed in the right direction. If we can keep the true beauty trend moving forward, maybe the young girls of today won’t have to wait until they are 23 years old and in a foreign country to develop confidence in their bodies. As for me, I have a newfound appreciation for my tree-trunk legs. God bless them!


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