Doing Good or Looking Good?

How I terribly misconstrued and made poor use of a talented actress’s work.

{An edited re-post of what has, strangely enough, become one of this blog’s most popular posts. So in case you missed it…}

From about age 15 or so, Audrey Hepburn was my idol. I worshiped the iconic film star, watching her movies again and again, poring over books about her life, and searching for images of her online.

I could have done worse. Hepburn was, by most accounts, an extraordinarily lovely person, both inside and out. In Roman Holiday–my favorite Audrey movie–she’s lovely without trying to be, and the beauty and dignity of her character is apparent even as she portrays a very convincing princess in disguise. In her later years, she was a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF, having once herself been on the receiving end of emergency food aid as a child in post-WW2 Europe.

Sadly, although I admired Audrey’s humanitarian legacy and reputed grace and kindness, I was most inspired by her thinness. In the days of my Audrey obsession, her brilliant film performances were less important than the visibility of her long, lovely bones in her various stunning Givenchy and Edith Head designs. That her thinness was likely due to an eating disorder rooted in the wartime starvation she suffered as a child did not dissuade me; neither did her struggles with depression and self-loathing (which are demonstrated side effects of starvation.)

No. I saw a thin, beautiful, kind person who didn’t need to eat AND STILL had the energy to save the world. I wanted to be thin, most of all, and then be kind and save all the starving kids with the food I didn’t eat. After all, Audrey herself loved a poem that seemed to make this connection (“for a slim figure, share your food with the hungry.”) When I looked in the mirror, I saw broad shoulders and curves. I berated myself for being unable, like Audrey, to subsist on next to nothing.  ‘That’s the end of me doing anything worthwhile,’ I’d think–‘what good can I do if I don’t look like Audrey? Surely that figure was the fount of all her goodness?’

The Audrey-style of this dress only pointed out to me my (real or imagined) flaws.

Of course, this sounds crazy now. It didn’t then, partly because I was not incredibly well nourished (needed some brain food!) and partly because the idea that “you are worth something only if you look great” is a message that’s broadcasted endlessly and ubiquitously–especially to girls. Do a little experiment–listen to what people say to girls, even little ones. How many comments do you hear that are related to appearance (whether of clothing, hair, or whatever)? Do the comments that affirm (or simply call attention to) character outnumber the ones doing the same for appearance?

There are all kinds of beauty, and all kinds of ways of doing good in the world. I still like Audrey Hepburn’s movies, and I can enjoy them now without obsessing about the difference between Audrey’s figure and my own, but I still regret Hollywood’s move (beginning, some say, with Audrey) toward ever-increasing unreality in the area of women’s bodies. And so, for years now, I’ve actively looked for female role models who embody beauty that I find compelling and unusual and unrelated to body size, like Wangari Muta Maathai–women I can imagine sitting down to a meal and eating with–with gratitude and goodwill, and no guilt.

Because I want people like this girl to know that she can save the world, be beautiful in every way, and eat a great meal–and maybe all at the same time.

my niece Elli, helping pick an early spring salad

The Death of a Great Woman

Have you ever heard of Wangari Maathai? She was a pretty awesome woman, and she died on Sunday night.

Wangari Maathai was born in a small village in Kenya and went on to become

“environmentalist, feminist, politician, professor, rabble-rouser, [!] human rights advocate and head of the Green Belt Movement, which she founded in 1977.”

(New York Times)

Dr. Maathai paid people--mostly women--a few pennies per tree that they planted and that lived.

She was educated in the US at Mount St. Scholastica and the University of Pittsburg, and she earned a doctorate in veterinary anatomy at the University of Nairobi–the first woman in East or Central Africa to earn a doctorate.

She was also the very first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for “her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.” (She knew that ecological crises are often at the root of conflicts and wars.)

She was an elected member of Kenyan Parliament and served as Assistant Minister for Environment and Natural Resources between January 2003 and November 2005.

And she also had personal and political problems like crazy.

Her husband thought she was too headstrong for a woman–and too difficult to control–and divorced her. She stood up to the corrupt Kenyan president Daniel arap Moi, losing her university job in the process. She oversaw the planting of 30 million trees to fight creeping desertification. She was imprisoned and maligned for her activism. And yet she remained unbowed.

Wangari Maathai's memoir. Definitely worth reading.

She embodied a bold kind of beauty. She was brave and principled. She had a reverence for Creation:

“So these observations [of environmental degradation in her native Kenya] for me aroused an interest that there must be something that is happening that is bad, but it wasn’t the faith [that made me realize the ecological crisis.] And I wish it was, because it should have been. I should have been reading the book of Genesis a little more closely.

And she will be missed. Thank you, Wangari, for the inspiration!

{You can listen to an interview with Wangari Maathai here. In it she talks about how she’s encouraged that faith-based groups are beginning to take conservation seriously, and how her own faith was shaped. Definitely worth a listen!}