A couple of weeks ago I started working at a domestic violence shelter. I have been working with survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault for a while now. Since I have been doing this my perceptions of strength and beauty have been changing. I see women come from absolutely horrifying situations, leaving behind everything and everyone they have ever known, and start completely new lives. They literally have to start over: making new friends, finding a new job, a new home…a new everything. Where they shop has to change, their babysitter has to change, their bank has to change, and often they have to move to a completely different part of the country. This is not all true for everyone and of course there are varying degrees of lethality. Either way, it takes incredible strength to leave someone, often who you love, and start over. I’ve listened to these women tell me about their children and how they try so hard to keep their sons from turning out like the father. This is the kind of strength only a survivor can truly understand. This kind of strength gives these women a different kind of beauty.
Today my boss invited me to come work at an event for the ladies hosted by Mary Kay. Getting ready I did not know what a big deal it was going to be. I thought it was going to be a bunch of women from Mary Kay coming to give the ladies a make over. With this in mind I wore my standard dressed up jeans with a nice jacket and cute flats. I got there and quickly realized my mistake. Luckily there were about three other women in jeans so I felt slightly less self-conscious. But as I looked around there was also a very “boss” looking man, more than a handful of women dressed in black skirts and purple jackets (the Mary Kay consultants), and a lot of volunteers. There was a catering company that had brought really fancy looking food and there was a lot of make up. Everywhere. A photographer walked around snapping pictures and right as the event was starting a local news crew arrived. I tell you all of this so you realize, as I did, what a big deal it was.
As the women arrived I helped pin ribbons on them, pink for okay to be photographed, and purple for not. When working with domestic violence survivors their safety, and piece of mind about their safety, is a top priority. After we all arrived and had sat down the man, who I still am not really sure who he was, got up and introduced the event. He also introduced my boss, who is the shelter manager and head of the domestic violence unit, she got up and exclaimed how excited she was for the event and that the ladies could be provided with such a wonderful day of pampering, especially near mothers day. Prizes were given out, raffle tickets handed out for more prizes, and a Mariachi band showed up as a surprise. Of course there was free make up for the women and about five of them got a full make over from a celebrity makeup artist from New York.
At first I felt like the whole thing was a little silly. As a woman who can pretty much count on one hand the number of times I’ve worn make up all I could think about was how cultural expectations for women were being perpetuated by this event. The consultants kept exclaiming how beautiful the ladies were, the man asked things like, “who’s feeling beautiful today?!” and “who’s ready to feel as beautiful on the outside as they are on the inside?!” etc. Just another example of the focus being put on a woman’s body, right? A woman is nothing more than the sum of her parts. A woman can only be truly beautiful and sexy while wearing makeup. These are all things that were running through my head as I sat there eating my food with more than a little cynicism.
But then something happened as I started to look around. I noticed the women. They were laughing, smiling, and having a great time. They were having a moment where the entire attention of the room was on them; on making them feel good, and beautiful. In that moment they did not have to worry about what tomorrow would be like or even what after lunch would be like. They were surrounded by women pampering them, doting on them, and telling them they were beautiful.
I got to thinking, so what if societal standards of beauty were being perpetuated, these women didn’t care about that. So, why did I? Why couldn’t I just let it go and be happy for them? And that is what I decided to do. I let go, laughed with them, complimented them on their looks and focused on not feeling hypocritical about it. Sometimes a woman needs to hear that she is beautiful. Especially when she’s gone through all kinds of awfulness where her looks were probably degraded and sex was used as a tool for retaining power and control over her.
Turns out Mary Kay has taken up domestic violence as their social initiative project. I have my cynical thoughts about this as well, but for now I’m going to continue along the train of thought of letting it go and compliment them on what they are doing. They have donated thousands of products to shelters, and thrown more than one “beauty party” for survivors. So, thank you Mary Kay for bringing some light and beauty into the lives of my clients today. And here’s to my “growing pains.”