Julie sits and stares. Then she stands and stares. She tries the light to her left, then to her right. Close up, then from a distance. Something is happening inside her that, for the time being, apparently makes blinking unnecessary. Or breathing, for that matter.
Julie is pondering two paintings. She’s the subject in both. The quite naked subject.
Julie is 48. She’s a size 6. She’s 5’6.” The mother of four children. Hers is a classic feminine form. Which is a poetic way of saying that she’s not on the cover of this year’s Sports Illustrated Swimsuit edition. Which is an ironic way of saying that she doesn’t look like a size 0 airbrushed praying mantis.
Finally, air moves again across her vocal chords. She shakes her head slowly, and in a near whisper says, “I’m beautiful.”
Make no mistake: she is. Julie’s hot.
See, I think most women spend years trying to think through and fight through being beautiful. We raise women, of course, with a large handful of contradictory messages about beauty, no two of which can rationally coabide:
Be beautiful. But set for yourself standards and measures of beauty that maybe .002% of the women on planet earth can achieve.
Pretend you’re not trying to be beautiful. If you succeed, then pretend you don’t know. Be humble. Which means never let anyone catch you enjoying being beautiful.
If we find out that you’re trying to be beautiful, we’ll call you vain. If we discover that you know you are beautiful, we’ll call you conceited. If your beauty causes a man to desire you, then you’ve done something wrong, for which you can either owe the man sex, in which case we’ll call you ‘loose,’ or refuse him sex, and then we’ll flip a coin to decide whether you’re uptight or a tease.
You can see why a lot of women might just give up on this quest altogether.
“I’m beautiful,” Julie says again, like she’s practicing the concept.
And Carol smiles. Carol is the artist. Carol has witnessed these moments before, but somehow it’s never routine. It’s just plain fun to be in the company of a woman who knows she’s beautiful and enjoys that. But to be present when a woman sees that she’s beautiful in some way she’s never seen before? Or maybe even for the first time? Well, it’s a powerful moment. Like a birth. A giving birth to self.
This is Carol’s genius. Her gift and her calling. Her paintings are a window through which brave women gaze and behold beauty. Their own beauty. Carol arranges light and lines and color and movement, and suddenly it’s just there. It’s like focusing a lens. Or dialing in a radio frequency. Beauty emerges.
“People are beautiful,” Carol tells me. “I have the opportunity to show them that.”
Women – and the occasional man – come to Carol so they can see what Carol sees. “Interpreting the human form on canvas is so very, very personal,” Carol says, “so, for this to work, the subject and I have to meet and get to know one another.”
It begins with a photo shoot. If a glass of wine helps, Carol will pour you one. Or two, even. 30, 40, maybe 50 shots. Carol is happy to take direction from the subject, but I’m here to tell you that when you meet Carol, you’ll quickly see the wisdom of surrendering yourself to her direction. The whole point of giving Carol your money is to let her see you in a way that you cannot see yourself.
Carol’s paintings have a paradoxical anonymity. I’m saying that, when the painting is finished, it would not be obvious to just anyone who the subject is. The subject is free, then, to hang the painting above the fire place and tend the joyous secret in her heart. She is likewise free to reveal her identity as she sees fit.
I like that. Because I think that’s the nature of the authentic life. The beautiful self that we most truly are is best beheld when we are at once revealed yet veiled.
Yes, most men would be more than flattered, not to mention overwhelmed to receive a painting like this of their beloved. And certainly that is why some women come to Carol – as an intimate gift to their mate.
But I suspect that many women come to Carol for the reason Julie is here.
Enjoying being beautiful is ultimately a gift a woman gives to herself.
(Steven Kalas is a Nevada author, therapist and Episcopal priest. He writes a weekly column for the Sparks Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)