My oldest daughter and I have been recently discussing the concept of beauty. She is 13, a dangerous age for girls in our society. In a time when age is dismissed and everyone visibly "famous" is cutting, shaving, dieting, dying, painting, and otherwise distorting themselves (and if they can't do it in real life they can photo shop their images later) trying to convey the concept of true beauty can be a daunting task.
As my daughter and I have been discussing, debating, and generally hashing over this topic I began to remember a story I had read once "The most beautiful woman in the world". I couldn't find the version I read years ago, the closest I came was a version from Russia, but that wasn't what I remembered. So I decided to write what I could remember. And here it is.
Once upon a time, in ancient China, there lived a woman and her little son. One morning after breakfast she and her child set out to go work in the fields. As the woman had no husband she was forced to do the heavy work herself. As she began working she cautioned her son to stay close where she could see him. The son, being an adventurous, curious child, soon found himself hopelessly lost and began to cry.
A wealthy eunuch came hurrying by on his way to the palace. "My dear little boy!" he said "why are you crying on such a beautiful day?"
"I have lost my mother," the little boy wailed "can you help me find her?"
"Of course I will help you," the old man replied "what is her name and what does she look like?"
"Her name is Mother, and she is the most beautiful woman in the world" was the answer.
The eunuch only had to think a short moment before he exclaimed "The most beautiful woman in the world is our beloved Empress Wu, you must come with me right away." He grabbed the little boys hand and led him swiftly into a large city.
After several hours of meeting one fancily dressed man after another the little boy was becoming tired, hungry, and cranky. He missed his nap, he missed his afternoon bowl of rice, and most of all he missed his mother. Finally, after being dragged into yet another bewilderingly ornate room with yet another important looking man he sat down on the floor and began to sob. As the men wrangled in the corner (it was not easy to get an audience with the empress), his sobs grew louder and louder. So loud, in fact that the Empress Wu herself heard him and came to investigate.
"Empress!" the men in the room gasped, and immediately threw themselves face down on the floor.
"Little boy why are you crying here in my palace?" the empress asked.
"Great lady I'm looking for my mother," the boy hiccuped, "can you help me find her?"
The great Empress Wu smiled gently "what is her name and what does she look like?"
"Her name is Mother, and she is the most beautiful woman in the world" again was the answer.
The overly dressed eunuch in the corner began to babble "You see? You see why I brought him here? Of course you, our Empress, is the most beautiful woman in the world!"
The Empress sighed, dried the little boys tears, and gently set him on his feet. Turning to her adviser she demanded "Where did you find him?"
So the little parade set off from the palace. First the Empress with the little, lost boy hanging on to her hand, next her ladies and attendants, and finally a tense cluster of male advisers. On the outskirts of the city they came upon a wild eyed, tear streaked woman who was running up the road, calling in a desperate voice for her lost, precious child. Instantly the boy let go of the Empress hand. "Mother, Mother!!" he shrieked and ran straight into her arms. After a moment of kisses and crying the little boy grabbed his mother by the hand and led her proudly to the Empress Wu. "This is my mother," he exclaimed "isn't she the most beautiful woman in the world?"
The enraged Eunuch pushed to the front of the pack. He stared, incredulous, at the filthy, exhausted peasant woman. She was wearing rags, her hair was uncombed and wild from her frantic search, her bare legs and HUGE! feet were streaked with mud, and her face was wrinkled and brown. He turned to his Empress, her face pale and shaded by a dainty parasol, lightly powdered with precious pearls, her dainty hands and TINY! feet, her silk kimono and delicately embroidered slippers. Furious he turned back to the child nestled against his mother bosom. "You lied to me! You made me look like a fool!" he shouted. The Empress Wu laid a firm hand on his arm. She turned her gaze to the mother kneeling in the street.
The empress did not see the rags and dirt, the wrinkles or the large feet. She saw the dust of honest labor, the lines of the sun, laughter, sorrow, and well earned wisdom engraved on the weary face. She saw a sturdy body well suited to bear children and labor in the fields, and the rags were the proper attire for wading in the muddy rice patties. "Child," she said "you are very wise for one so young, and you see beyond the surface of things. I need advisers with your special eyes. And you, woman, are also special to have raised such a child. I could use a lady with such wisdom."
The empress led the boy and his mother back to her palace to live in comfort and safety for the rest of their days.
I am not beautiful in the classic sense. I am overweight, have frizzy hair, glasses, rarely wear make-up, and have the appalling tendency to throw on sweats most days. I think my appearance has a lot less to do with my family loving me than my actions, and I like who I am so I am content with what I look like (most days!). I hope as time goes on I can make my daughters (and sons) understand that who and what they are matters far more than what they look like. And I hope that my baby daughter, who is fond of stripping and running around the house shrieking "I'm naked! I'm pretty!!" can hang on to just a tiny portion of that free spirit I love so much.
naked and pretty