Attacks at home and around the world continue; this has been a difficult year. Some would argue that from the perspective of refugees in particular, it’s been half a decade of horror. Working in communications, I can’t avoid the conversation. In fact, I am a part of it. But after eight hours caught in the downward spiral of social media and news, I need a break.
I need some beauty.
History knows what I’m talking about. During World War II, red lipstick was deemed a “morale booster” by Winston Churchill in Britain. On the other side of the Atlantic, Elizabeth Arden created “Montezuma Red” lipstick as part of the Marine Corps women’s uniforms.
Decades later during the recession of the 2000s, cosmetics companies reported that consumers were actually buying more products, not less. This is known as the “lipstick effect,” a trend first discovered during the Great Depression. During times of economic downturn or uncertainty when sales of larger items like cars and homes decrease, the purchase of smaller luxury items like lipstick and high-end candles increases.
Before you write off consumers as shallow, watch what best-selling author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has to say about that. The outspoken feminist (and one of the most intelligent women I can think of) recently became a spokesperson for cosmetics company No. 7.
Fellow author Elizabeth Gilbert tells the story of a woman she met in Bali who used to work for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Even in “the war zones and refugee camps of Central America,” she would wear lipstick, perfume and minimal jewelry. “Just enough to show that I still had my self-respect,” she told Gilbert.
Angelina Jolie’s character is reprimanded by Nick Callahan (Clive Owen) for doing just that in the film “Beyond Borders.” “You’re wearing perfume?!” He exclaims in disgust. The derision he showed towards her femininity and love of beauty ensured she never made that “mistake” again.
His response stuck in my head because I was a Social Justice and Peace student at the time I saw the film and I dreamed of working in a refugee camp someday. In those dreams, I was always wearing perfume. To not wear it wouldn’t have felt like me.
When things are difficult you need those most essential parts of yourself around you. They help you feel more human when everything around you seems like chaos. They remind you that even in the midst of pain, moments of beauty and humanity are possible.
I never got to work in a refugee camp, but I did become a journalist in North Africa during those turbulent years after the Arab Spring. And though I was surviving on a shoestring budget, I always saved just enough for a few beautiful things. The two suitcases I carried from Canada contained scented candles, books, my favorite lipstick and perfume. They gave my life a sense of normalcy, even on days when tear gas leaked through my windows from the protests on the streets below.
When things are difficult you need those most essential parts of yourself around you.
I also formed a deep sisterhood with the women I worked with during that time. We were activists, political assistants and journalists and we all had two things in common: a passion for our work and an appreciation of beauty. No matter where we gathered – in coffee shops, at concerts, in art galleries – I always felt like I was home.
Now I work in communications for a private relief and development agency in Toronto. One Monday this winter I heard the news about refugees being stranded in airports. Then my brother sent a message about a mosque close to his house in Quebec being attacked. It felt a bit like there were stones lodged in my heart. The people who took me in as part of their community in North Africa were being targeted on my home continent.
Walking always helps me clear my mind at times like these, and in the dead of winter the mall offers enough space and warmth to walk for hours. Wandering past the Elizabeth Arden counter of a department store, a wonderful lady named Fariba was offering a hand massage. It sounded like just what I needed.
Twenty minutes later and the tension I had been holding was gone. The fresh scent of the lotion she used, along with her warm demeanor, had melted my introverted defenses. We talked about my husband, about the little girl she sponsored with my organization and about our shared love of beauty products. I forgot everything but that small moment of bliss.
As journalist Sali Hughes says, beauty “is such a joy.” Fariba may never know, but her gift to me was that joy just when I needed it most.
Another day and for another person, that joy may be attending a house concert, knitting or enjoying the glory of a sunny day. People might discriminate, but beauty doesn’t. It can be enjoyed in any form by any one. And during difficult weeks, I am thankful for that.
People might discriminate, but beauty doesn’t.
So what is beauty for you? What are the things that make you smile and the tension in your shoulders fall away? Life can be crazy, but I’ve learned that if I don’t make room in my life for beauty, then the world can start to look a bit grey. When I feel that pressure starting to build on my chest, I know I need to pause and focus on something lovely; I do a quick self-evaluation to find out what that is.
Here are some questions I’ve found helpful:
– What is making me feel like this right now?
– What do I need to take care of: my body, my mind or my soul?
– What areas of beauty are easily accessible to me? Some ideas could be an art gallery, a garden, live music, an at-home spa day or the simple act of swiping on some red lipstick and getting out of the house.
Whatever you find beautiful in your life, treasure that. And, like Fariba, share it freely with those around you. The world needs your beauty now more than ever.
What forms of beauty inspire you?
Images via Beth Cath