This week, the news media has been abuzz with coverage and analysis of Barack Obama’s first 100 days in office. While that’s traditional, we would like to start a new tradition of feting the First Lady after her first 100 days as the nation’s most visible wife and mother. And who better to start with than Michelle Obama? There’s probably never been a woman in a better position to transform the American image of beauty—on the inside and the outside—than the First Lady.
Let’s break it down according to the four stages of the Beauty-Brain Loop, which we introduced in our book, The Beauty Prescription: Inner Beauty, Health, Outer Beauty and Environment…
Inner Beauty: There has never been a first lady in our lifetimes who has been such a powerful person in her own right. Maybe Eleanor Roosevelt was as strong an influence on culture, but she didn’t have Michelle’s style and grace to go along with the strength and resolve. Ms. Obama exudes confidence and a sense of purpose, but it goes beyond that. Perhaps it’s because of her generation: she’s the first First Lady to come of age in the feminist era when it was no longer acceptable for women to smile in the background while their husbands dominated the podium. Were she not Mrs. Barack Obama, Michelle would still be arresting and no doubt leave a big mark on the world.
But as the wife of the president, she has done more to show her Inner Beauty. She has somehow managed to strike the perfect balance between the brilliant lawyer, the career woman driven to bring positive change to the country, and the wife and mother trying to help her family get through the impossible transition into the White House as easily as possible. As her husband was entering the Oval Office, her focus shifted to her daughters: getting them set up in school, getting them a dog, making sure they had time with their father every day at the breakfast table and doing homework. She was a mother and wife first, a First Lady second. Perhaps that’s why, according to America Online, her approval ratings are higher than the president’s. She knows what matters most to her and gives her joy: her family. That’s where her attention goes. She has already declared that much of her attention will go to helping American families—especially military families. Part of her Inner Beauty is knowing who she is, what she is and what in important to her and apologizing for none of it.
Health: One of the first projects Michelle took on was to plant a “kitchen garden” on the White House lawn with the aid of some DC schoolchildren. She said that its purpose, other than to give her family fresh vegetables to eat, was to promote healthy eating and home gardening. Can you imagine Laura Bush or Hillary Clinton down in the dirt planting carrots? Neither can we. The insistence on being her own person, despite what protocol or tradition might dictate, is as much a part of Michelle’s Inner Beauty as her dedication to Health. And after all, her husband is pretty much shattering tradition as the first African-American president.
The First Lady, because she tends to focus on “soft” issues such as school and healthcare, can have a huge impact on these vital areas of our country. It’s great to see Ms. Obama already working on spreading the gospel of health and living a healthy, balanced lifestyle in what can be the world’s most stressful environment.
Outer Beauty: This is the most obvious difference in Michelle versus past First Ladies. She’s not dainty. She’s bold and beautiful. She’s got curves and she’s not afraid to show them. She’s also got biceps and she’s not afraid to display them, either. And of course, she’s African-American. She is already setting a new beauty standard for black women in this country, a standard that implicity says you can be feminine and stylish but still strong, forceful and proud of your heritage.
Certainly, Michelle has set the fashion world on its ear with her bold style, starting with the still-talked about dress she wore on election night. She’s no wallflower, no Jackie O with pillbox hats. The first Michelle Obama fashion book is about to hit bookstores, and she’s all over the covers of major magazines from Vogue and Ebony to Essence and People. But it’s not just her striking looks or sense of bold style that makes her so magnetic, we think. It’s also that she’s so grounded, so clearly happy. Half of her magazine covers are shots with her family, and she clearly loves being a wife and mother. That makes her gorgeous. There are plenty of women in the world who are more physically stunning than Michelle Obama; there are few if any in the public eye who seem so radiantly happy, balanced and confident in their looks and their lives.
That said, she’s also making it more than OK to be a statuesque, curvaceous, toned, strong-boned lady. She’s taking back some of the territory claimed in recent years by the underfed, size zero waif, and that’s just fine by us.
Environment: What could say more about Michelle’s effect on the Environment than the fact that she still has date nights with her husband, even if they are in Prague? The world’s most powerful man and his wife still find time to snuggle over a romantic bottle of wine? OK, it’s a little less romantic when you add all the Secret Service agents, but that’s not the point. The point is, it sends a message: if the president and First Lady can find time in their schedules for some alone time, can’t the rest of us turn off the TV, quit Twittering and sit down over candlelight with the ones we love?
Michelle Obama seems determined to use her place as an icon for women and African-Americans to make the world a better place. Whether that comes as a result of her total devotion to her family, her dedication to healthful living, her style, her work with families or some other project, she is sending a powerful message to the world through her example: no one can define you but you. It’s an incredibly positive message for self-esteem. During the campaign and after, political pundits have tried to define her as an angry black woman, an America hater, someone who defied protocol and so on. Michelle hasn’t cared, and she hasn’t apologized. She has nothing to apologize for, because no woman should ever apologize for takign on the role and following the path that fills her life with love, purpose and joy.
You go, Michelle. We give you an A+ for your first 100 days as one of the defining new icons of beauty. We can’t wait to see what the next three-and-three-quarters (and maybe more) years will bring.
Eva here…I had a delightful encounter that I thought was perfect for the blog, because it says so much about inner beauty and the myths of aging. We spend so much time dreading age and the effects of aging that we forget that age can bring with it so much beauty, wisdom, poise, knowledge, class, and charm. No one dresses with more panache than a woman who came of age in the time when ladies wore minks, pearls and hats to the opera or theatre. No one is more courtly, polite and winning that an older man who grew up in a period when men still held doors for women, called everyone “Ma’am,” and knew that a wink and a smile was infinitely more powerful than a lewd comment. Nothing against feminism or modern culture, but sometimes, I wish we could find a balance between those old ways and today’s society.
A week or so ago, I was at lunch and saw a very handsome, dapper older gentleman. I sat down and we started speaking, and I found out that not only was he 83, but a former mayor of Miami Beach. We chatted for a while and he was very charming and debonaire, and then a beautifully dressed and made-up older woman came along, politely interrupted us, and he excused himself and left with her. Later, I ran into this woman, and out of curiosity (people are my profession, after all), I started talking with her. Not only did I find out that this simply lovely elderly lady was 103 years old (!), but I learned that she lives at The Flamingo, an apartment complex for young singles!
A while later I ran into my older gentleman friend and teased him about abandoning me for this astonishing older woman. He smiled and said, “Sorry, I like older women.” Talk about charming. He was old enough to be my father and she to be my grandmother, yet they were just about the most attractive, fetching people in the restaurant. Age had nothing to do with it, and neither did a sense of curiosity that they were up and around at advanced ages. They were turned out in a way that showed they cared about how they looked and what others thought of them. They were witty, had savoir faire, and a sense of humor about themselves. Talk about inner beauty.
It was wonderful to see that not only could old age (and even extreme old age) come complete with a sense of fun, attractiveness and even playful sexiness, but that a woman of 103 could have the moxie to live in a building with a bunch of twentysomethings and feel right at home. If Debi or I are lucky enough to live that long, I want to be just like the lovely lady who stole the ex-mayor’s heart right out from under me.
In the Beauty-Brain Loop, the interdependent system that connects all aspects of what makes us beautiful, Environment is the most sensitive. Our health, our skin, our inner self—these are all fairly stable, at least, we hope they are. But the environment, which consists of our physical surroundings, our relationships and the way we view others and the world around us, is dynamic and constantly changing in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. We shift our physical surroundings by something as simple as lighting a candle, while relationships can change course with a single sentence. So it is not surprising that during the holiday season, our environment is under assault from a powerful enemy: work.
We’re a work-centric culture, and we two are no different. As physicians, our work is a great part of who we are. It defines us in some very important ways, and other people in other professions, from law to journalism to education, are the same way. Such people are actually quite blessed to be involved in careers that are so engaging and important that they can shape who we are. But…what about when it becomes too much? What about when work follows us home? The home is a vital aspect of holistic beauty; it’s supposed to be the place where we are at peace, where we can enjoy love and music and the smell of food cooking, where we can shape our physical surroundings to appeal to our senses in any way we like. When you come home after leaving your work behind, don’t you breathe a sigh of relief? It’s your space, your sanctuary, where you can nurture the most beautiful aspects of yourself.
In the past, work stayed at work. But in recent years, it’s become culturally OK to be on call 24/7. Cell phones, e-mail, Blackberries and virtual private networks make any of us (unless we commit the societal sin of turning off our electronics) reachable at any time, anywhere. Home has become an extension of the office for many people, and when that happens it loses its peace and serenity. Its rejuvenating power diminishes. When your concern at home is not slipping into a comfy robe, grabbing a favorite book, curling up to read to your kids or just sitting with a cup of tea doing nothing, but dealing with work, you’re not recharging your batteries. You’re not in balance, and the Beauty-Brain Loop is all about balance. You’re not balanced when you are at work even when you’re at home.
So we are issuing a call to arms…actually, to hands. Turn off the devices. Leave work at work. Rebuild the boundary between work and home. If you’ve been feeling stressed out, impatient, sleepless and ragged this holiday season, it may be because your home is not the beautiful environment you need it to be. Fortunately, that has little to do with its decor. It has everything to do with how you feel when you walk across the threshold. In this season of giving, give yourself the gift of a beautiful Environment. Decide that it’s OK not to be at work all the time. Remind yourself that home, aside from being what Robert Frost called the place that “when you go there, they have to take you in,” should also be the place where you heal and revive body and spirit. Try it. You’ll feel—and be—more beautiful.
Let’s face it, the holiday season is unkind to beauty. In almost any part of the country the weather is, well, frightful, which makes skin dry and red and makes us more likely to come down with a cold or flu (interesting note: it’s actually been scientifically proven that cold viruses spread more easily in cold, dry weather). Holiday parties and big family dinners mean tempting calories that can undermine months’ worth of hard work at the gym, in the pool or at the yoga studio. And of course, the travel, relatives coming and going, fighting for the last Elmo toy and worrying about spending during a troubled economy can mean a month’s worth of stress that can cause skin breakouts, suppress the immune system and wreck sleep, leaving us with dark circles under our eyes and a generally non-cheery disposition.
Call it “Bah Humbug Beauty Syndrome.” It’s what can make us, at a time of the year when we’re supposed to be taking joy in family, friends, winter’s beauty and festivity, feel and look less than our best. We just don’t think that’s fair, so we’re here with some suggestions. Not so much for your waistline or your skin; those are easy to find from many sources. You know the usual advice: skip the potluck meals, eat light, drink in moderation, keep working out, moisturize, and so on. No, our advice relates more to the stress component of the holiday season, the part that sometimes keeps us from seeing the beauty around us because we’re so busy trying to keep up with what the holidays are supposed to be.
Well, as we point out in The Beauty Prescription, part of being beautiful is seeing and appreciating beauty in others and having the air of joy and peace that comes with that beauty. So some of the best beauty advice these two docs can provide is medicine that you make yourself with your mind, eyes and heart:
Stop during your running and look around. See the decorations, the people dressed for the holidays, the delight on childrens’ faces. Listen to the music and carols. Appreciate it for what it means: everyone coming together to celebrate life, regardless of their religious beliefs.
Quit trying to find the perfect gift for certain people and focus on something meaningful to the values of each person on your list.
Spend more time on the simple, healing aspects of the holidays: songs, tree decorating, deep conversations with family. Slow down.
Think back on the blessings of the last year and take time to really appreciate and find the meaning in each one. You might find you have more to be thankful for than you realized.
Do something kind for someone else, whether it’s serving food at a soup kitchen or donating canned goods to charity. It feels wonderful.
Yes, you should take care of your skin, eat right and all the rest. But true beauty comes from within, and if you live in a frigid climate nobody can see your perfect complexion under all those layers of outerwear anyway. But a beautiful disposition always shines through.
Back in 2007, Dawn Vandehey was six months pregnant with their second child. Dawn was running errands and walking through a parking lot to her bank when a woman she had never seen before stuck her head out of her car window and said to Dawn, “I just want to tell you that you look beautiful.” As you can imagine, Dawn was walking on air the rest of the day because of that unsolicited and very sweet compliment, especially at a time when she, as she says, “Had a belly like the Buddha.”
Now, Dawn is a tall, athletic-looking, beautiful redhead with bright green eyes. Men notice her when she walks down the street. But this wasn’t a man. It was a woman and a stranger, and people as a rule in our society don’t pay others compliments out of the clear blue sky. Also, Dawn didn’t have her usual sleek figure; she was sporting what’s commonly called “the waddle”: that very pregnant walk where women in their third trimester jut their hips out in front of the rest of them in order to reduce some of the pressure on their back. It’s functional, but lacking in the come-hither department. Yet in spite of this, someone was moved to favor her with a spontaneous bit of recognition of her unique beauty. Why?
In great part, it was because Dawn loved being pregnant. She handled it with incredible poise and grace and joy. She enjoyed every aspect of it as much as she had enjoyed carrying their first daughter. She was serene and happy and felt the most beautiful she had ever felt. In other words, the Inner Beauty stage of Dawn’s Beauty-Brain Loop was in overdrive. Her self-esteem and contentment shone from her like a beacon, encouraging her to take care of her body and dress well and look as great as she could in spite of her pregnancy. Inner Beauty also gave her a radiant self-confidence, and it was this that we believe the unknown woman in the parking lot responded to.
Inner Beauty has the power to do that for all of us. It’s the place where true, lasting beauty begins, beauty that transcends time and trends and the inevitable changes that come with aging. Some women, regardless of their age or station in life, are always beautiful and magnetic: Catherine Deneuve, Jane Seymour, Tina Turner, Bette Midler. What do they have in common? They are carrying on a passionate love affair with themselves and their lives; they adore who and what they are and enjoy lives filled with meaning, purpose and challenge. Because of this they are driven to stay fit and healthy and care for their skin. Most importantly, they give off a contagious energy and fire, a hunger for living that makes us feel better about being part of the human race. Because if they can be so amazing at 50 or 60 or 70, maybe we can, too.
This might be the secret behind Inner Beauty’s power to make others see us as beautiful. When we feel that we’re the best we can be, others look at us and think, “Maybe I can be that fabulous someday, too.” Try some of these to capture that beauty:
Reflecting on the good you have done for other people
Looking at what you have achieved in your life rather than where you have failed
Giving yourself one moment each day to think about your blessings
Setting aside some time each week for quiet contemplation
Finding ways to improve the lives of others, especially those less fortunate
Taking optimal care of your health through diet and exercise
Finding healthy ways to release stress—mediation, walking, prayer
Making the physical space you inhabit the most beautiful it can be
Inner Beauty inspires and elevates. And you don’t have to be pregnant to have it. You just have to be happy.