About 10 years ago, I stopped getting carded at bars and began hearing “ma’am” more often than “miss.” Though I was in my late 30s, these encounters stung at first. I consoled myself with the fact that I really was too old to be mistaken for an 18-year-old, and “ma’am” is at least a gesture of respect.
I knew lamenting lost youth was, at best, an exercise in futility. I’d watched friends agonize about aging, and I’d never seen the point. But it was still hard to look in the mirror and see the lines beneath my eyes and the pouchiness under my chin without feeling disappointed.
Then I learned about the Japanese notion of wabi-sabi, or “imperfect beauty.” The concept has its roots in the traditional Japanese tea ceremony and is sometimes explained through a well-loved teacup, made by an artist’s hands, cracked or chipped by use. Such traces remind the observer that nothing is permanent — even fixed objects are subject to change.
The classical Greek ideal of beauty, which underpins much of the Western physical aesthetic, celebrates smooth, symmetrical perfection. Wabi-sabi prizes authenticity; the cracks in the old teacup are seen as assets rather than flaws.
“Wabi-sabi is a different kind of looking, a different kind of mindset,” explains Robyn Griggs Lawrence, author of Simply Imperfect: Revisiting the Wabi-Sabi House. “It’s the true acceptance of finding beauty in things as they are.”
Yet wabi-sabi is more than a way of looking at things. It is “a way of life that appreciates and accepts complexity while at the same time values simplicity,” writes Richard Powell in Wabi Sabi Simple. He says it acknowledges three simple realities: “Nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.”
But with that classical-Greek worldview, most Americans resent things — even their bodies — that don’t fit a certain ideal. This is where adopting a wabi-sabi outlook can be eye opening — and mind opening.
By perceiving ourselves through this generous lens, we can stop endlessly striving for the ideal body and focus instead on real physical health. All it takes is a shift in perception.
Moving Beyond Perfection
We all have things we don’t like about ourselves, aspects we may or may not be able to change. It might be a physical attribute like big feet (hi, that would be me) or a habit of heading straight from the gym to a night out with friends to enjoy potent margaritas (hello, again). But apparent imperfections are often our better parts, especially when viewed from a fresh angle.
While it’s not ideal, I know I’m better off having a margarita after the gym than I am if I drink one without working out. And though my big feet have often made me self-conscious at the gym, where my giant sneakers stand out against my skinny calves, they also carry me across New York City on an almost daily basis, and they rarely hurt — even after a night of dancing in 4-inch heels. So though I don’t spotlight my feet, I appreciate them.
Braver souls sometimes turn their “imperfections” into signatures. “Ask yourself, ‘What can I find beautiful about what I’m now calling a flaw?’” suggests Arielle Ford, author of Wabi Sabi Love. “And could you embrace that?” She notes how supermodel Cindy Crawford’s mole above her lips and actress Lauren Hutton’s gap between her teeth became their calling cards. “A lot of people would have had that mole removed, and that gap closed. Instead, they turned those flaws into assets.”
Taking a wabi-sabi perspective doesn’t mean lowering your standards, but it does allow you to see and care for your present self exactly as you are.
Enjoying the Process
“In nature, everything is in a state of process and then eventually a state of decay or death,” says Tony Burris, an acupuncturist in Boise, Idaho, who incorporates wabi-sabi concepts into his practice. “And we’re not excluded from that process. The process is the actual ‘there.’”
For me, respecting the process has meant accepting my relationship to the yoga headstand pose. I’ve been practicing for years, but because of an old neck injury that created nerve pain in my arms and hands, I don’t attempt the pose. It feels too risky. Still, even though I have valid reasons for avoiding it, I used to dread the headstand portion of classes and would find ways to fake my way through it. I’d either assume child’s pose or pretend I was trying to jump up, because I was simply unwilling to accept what my body was telling me.
Looking at my yoga practice through the wabi-sabi lens, and specifically its tenet that everything is unfinished and in process, I have stopped berating myself for not mastering this tricky pose. Now I can relax and enjoy a class.
“When you can accept things as they are, there is no judgment,” Lawrence says. “You’re not saying, ‘I should weigh less, weigh more, not have these wrinkles,’ but instead, ‘This is what’s happening.’ The suffering comes when there’s a craving for it to be different.”
“Beautiful young people are accidents of nature,” said Eleanor Roosevelt, “but beautiful old people are works of art.”
This is good for me to remember, as I note that in addition to the wrinkles around my eyes, aging is also apparent in my hands. The skin is becoming thinner, making the veins and bones more prominent, revealing tiny cracks along the skin’s surface. But I like my hands. Along with my keyboard, they allow me to make a living. So I feel grateful for them and treat them accordingly: I apply lotion, massage them, and give them breaks. I can embrace them easily.
That said, I’m not ready to even imagine not dyeing my hair. Yet many women fearlessly embrace their silver strands. “The day I cut off all my colored hair, a man stopped me on the street and asked me to get a martini with him,” says author Alice Bradley.
“I think beauty, especially as you get older, is so closely tied to the stories you tell yourself,” she continues. “If you believe you’re too old, or you were prettier before, that comes across in your face and your body. On the other hand, you can tell when someone is enjoying life and who they are, no matter what their age. That’s so much more important than a few wrinkles, or sagging, or whatever it is we’re supposed to be worried about.”
I’m also inspired by Jenni Rhodes, who, at 81, became the face of an ad campaign for fashion label Vielma. Her elegantly lined visage appears carved from glass, replete with the sort of jagged edges and splintery lines that naturally accompany a richly lived life. “There are different beauties in this world,” designer Gabriel Vielma explained when asked about his casting decision.
A wabi-sabi view reveals that the belief that our bodies should fit a single, abstract, youthful ideal is actually optional. Perhaps this idea is starting to catch on.
This article first appeared in the January/February 2014 issue of Experience Life.