The Camouflaged Woman: Celebrating Irreverent Beauty & Natural Expression

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** Re-blogged from Juniper & Crow, my SageWoman channel.

For me, a landscape does not exist in its own right, since its appearance changes at every moment; but the surrounding atmosphere brings it to life – the light and the air which vary continually. For me, it is only the surrounding atmosphere which gives subjects their true value. ~ Claude Monet

I recently made the decision to reduce or eliminate most of the items in my make-up bag and medicine cabinet, and return to my nature girl status – using make-up and other such products minimally. The list of synthetic and chemically derived ingredients in many of the products I was using was astounding and contributing to consumer/identity guilt as well as dry skin. In this process, I explored more natural product lines – especially lipstick, not wanting to give up the occasional sensuality of a raspberry stained pout. In choosing to purge these products, I have considered the myriad reasons women elect to go “au naturel” – to discard products and opt for the glow of a face that is exposed to fresh air, sunlight and heart-pounding rock scrambles. Going through my wardrobe, I noticed how many clothes I never wear – shirts, skirts, dresses, suits… items that were acceptable for the office, but not at all my style or expression.

In the past I have vehemently defended any woman’s choice to call herself a feminist or independent spirit AND wear make-up, shave her legs and change her appearance as often as she pleased to complement certain situations – or, dare I say, to attract a mate. While I was going through the process of discarding those precious and coveted brands: MAC, Mary Kay, Sephora, etc.. I considered the rigid perspective I have held on natural beauty as being, well, natural. Just as natural as appearing bare-faced as I was born, is this urge to be incognito, to use the body and face as an artistic palette – a landscape of one’s deepest beliefs, dreams, culture, age and life changes. Being natural is being in a state of flux, adapting to change. Beauty and self-expression – beyond the scheme of vanity – are indeed statements of being “seen” by one’s community, one’s peers.

To simplify beauty into two fixed categories where one side exalts heavy-blossomed fashionable ladies, dripping cosmetic dew, while the other side is stripped like a winter branch, a very austere interpretation of liberated womanhood, neglects the metaphor, pleasure and ritual alive in adornment. I believe many of the women I admire – the chosen iconoclasts – do not toe the line of beauty standards and definitions. Rather, their beauty rituals are rooted in themes of metamorphosis, camouflage and art. Beauty is found in change. Beauty is transformative, unruly, hidden or explicit… In other words, true self-expression lies in whatever the creator desires.

While there are many examples of cultural beauty rites and practices and articles on such a topic, my focus is on the types of expression not typically found in Revlon ads or feminist journals or anthropological studies. This essay does not seek to illustrate the cultural, societal, religious or commercial standards and challenge these from a political or social platform. What I am interested in, through my own stumbles of interpretation and myth, is the sublime force of physical adornment as ritual, the surreal elements of style and beauty, the wyrd and wonderful archetypes and manifestations.  I hope  all goddess- and empowered women explore their own ecstatic personas: lovely, horrible and unknown.

ImageThe Horned Woman is a persona that resonates deeply with me. I have a secret bond with deer, reindeer and antelope folk. I believe my heart is partially composed of the blood of a doe. Consider, for example, a woman’s response to danger, that alarming moment of stillness and bloodpulse. Imagine your life among a blaze of new prairie grass where you walk into the morning, quietly grazing and nudging the soft tip of your fawn’s nose. Inching into the cobalt horizon, the sun rises with the arc of this dream. Suddenly there is movement. The forest woman becomes the yellow lines, the still brook – her young blends with the creeping wind of grass and snow.  The horned woman’s style is that of hidden danger, of morning – the grey dress made of wool spun in Wales, the shawl of soft ewe wool spun in Lukachukai. The horned woman’s eyes are pools of almond light. She moves unheard in the soft soil – moccasins along sandy washes. Deer women have an aversion to chatter and prefer the silence of the woods. She is used to being uprooted. She will walk away when things get used up, spent.

Horned women are not so unlike reptiles: they are stone observers warmed by the sun.  They are misunderstood arrows soaring across dunes, plains and prairies. The song of the horned woman is the song of the whippoorwill, the song of the rifle. Her hair is often tangled, long and filled with dried leaves. Her dress hems are threadbare. She leaves trails that disappear with thImagee new snow, or with the shifting of sand. She is comfortable with her scars and does not suppose what others make of them. Her breath always shows in the air and her cheeks are ruddy with the autumn wind.

I am heartened
in this vast lonely land
by the room for affection.
~ Harney County Lessons, Angela AllenImage

Deer women adorn their bodies not with the palette of cosmetics, but the moss and hanging gardens of the forest and the gauze and cotton of sunbaked sand. She dreams her surroundings. If you personify the beauty of the deer, you are drawn to muted tones that allow you to dream and dance unencumbered. The musky smells of sex and earth are your perfumes. You stay close to the fire and polish your rifle. You don’t mess with the naïve love of starlets and do not comprehend being unprepared. Your expression is the bucolic longing of a country home in the moors, or a teepee in snow, or simply moving. You have the sharp gaze of a thorn in skin.

The horned lady loves changing in subtle and calculated ways. She is the mysterious portrait of trees and a beating heart no one can see or pierce.

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Water women choose their colors as the tides move under La Luna. There is an erratic and sometimes tsunami rhythm to what they wear and how they work the energy around them. The mermaid is the embodiment of a love that moves close and the enticing danger of a rocky island when she is adrift. She is Collette, the independent yet romantic women who raises the bar on sensuality. She is turquoise and azure, yes, but also fuchsia, hot pink, lime green lightning bolts across cheekbones. She holds prized dyed silk in one hand and ambrosia in the other.  In recent years, Disney has capitalized on the young girl’s fascination with color and water, of romance and the seashell-covered underwater princess. This is a diminishment of the oceanic force of the water woman’s abilities and intuition. The expression of this woman is psychic – sound is felt not heard. She is the first to dance in sequins and boa on the bar. She is the teal-draped siren of a Waterhouse painting.

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“I must be a mermaid, Rango. I have no fear of depths and a great fear of shallow living.”
~ Anaïs Nin

Rather than moor inland for her rescuer, fairytales and folklore paint this bejeweled woman as the enticer – the temptress to crash ships and lure men away from safe harbor – hardly the innocent sea nymph. Still, the water woman is no shallow girl to be labeled meek or cruel. To embody the ocean, a woman must be able to walk along the shore with the haunting shipwrecks and cliff-thrown bodies, with the whalesongs of dying sea life.

For the love of all sea creatures, the water woman is an advocate, a protector – and often her love of environmental activism defines her. She is frequently seen in t-shirts with statements that exemplify her beliefs, or in waders collecting samples of water. She is the soft-eyed seal and the mother orca.

Her expression of style is never mired in trends and never limited by ready-made fashions. She is often creative and makes her own garments. Gold is her metal and she forges the tides with orange and teal locks curled around her waist.  She is at home in her skin. Nude is her favorite state with the occasional coat of moonlight as she strolls among the lilies and beaver ponds, along the basalt cliffs of the Atlantic.

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“The Mountain teaches the dreaming…” Unknown

The Sorceress, The Steppe Witch – I have met very few women who embody the nebulous and sometimes frightening qualities of these mistresses of mountains, caves and mazes. What is most lovely about this woman is perhaps her rare character, her ability to be a map of storylines and ancestry. She is unafraid to be fierce. She is the Voodoo Priestess, Kali Ma, Oya – keeper of the cemetery.  In her, the sands shift as she wanders the dreamtime in search of lizards, spirals, dance. Hers is the darkness. Her color is yellow – the bee mistress concealed in the bud. Her stone is obsidian with which she cuts the patterns of her skin, strips the hides for her dress.
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Because of her fearless and healing abilities, her focus on dress and appearance is limited to the truest expression of magic and ritual. She is the La Loba on the bajadas. She is the thousand stars shining for spells and mirrors.

yes sir friends
sour is sweet things break
the yearning returns home
and abroad hungry is hungry.
~ Gary Gildner

The steppe witch is a spell caster, a bone reader. Her home is filled with mirrors and roots, black lace and red light. She is the one you see after taking a long journey, and in her courtyard she invites you in to be among her chickens and goats, to wait beneath a gnarled old tree for her clients to leave. She always seems older than her age, although she retains a youthful vibrancy in her smile. She is the song of a New Orleans jazz band and the funeral mass. More than her appearance, you will never forget the perfume of her – something like lingering smImageoke and rum.

“Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.”
~ Thomas Hardy, Tess of the d’Urbervilles

The mistress of mountains is gauze – white knuckle, brilliant in the glow of a candle. She is always hungry and makes no shame in this. She wears aprons and collects a chicken for the pot. The stones that line her path and her pocket tell stories. She is perhaps less interested in attracting a mate with her physical attire because she has come to rely on the pulse of sensuality in her power.

ImageThe most tender place in my heart is for strangers.
I know it’s unkind but my own love is much too dangerous…
~ Hold On, Hold On, Hold On, Neko Case

The Ethereal Woman – She is the temporary fix. She is the weekend in Miami, front row seats, pink bubblegum gloss. The ethereal woman makes you believe in her fairytales. She is the embroidered pillowcases of her farmland. She stands on porches and gazes Imageout at the places she might one day see. The ethereal woman is  the ticking grandfather clock. Her colors are baby blues and dewy mauves, peppermints, lemony yellows. She is the woman in a 1950’s Comet cruising Route 66. While she seeks independence, she always stops for love (at least, temporarily). She believes the stories told by the women in her family and looks like her mother.

She is Ferris wheels and lights blazing up, the stuffed animals on a young girl’s bed. She has dreams that include you – the man who would love her, but she is as light as a feather for your promise.

The ethereal is the dove, the bird girl. She is the cheerleader uniform and the prom dress, but only on the surface. Under her soft façade, there is the metallic composure of lessons learned.
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The ethereal woman wears chiffon and walks with her head tilted back in a permanent laugh. She is not the tomboy and doesn’t pretend to be, but her strength resides in the heritage of the needle dropping on old records and the tractor’s morning hum. She learns her grandmother’s recipes. She is the first crush, the last to leave.

Like this I love you,
as you dress
and how your hair lifts up
and how your mouth smiles,
light as the water
of the spring upon the pure stones,
Like this I love you, beloved.
~ And because love battles, Neruda

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The Heroine is essential to the story of womanhood. Who better to defeat the myth of girlishness?  I have included the heroine because – just as her male counterpart – the female overachiever appears more frequently in social roles and styles now than ever before.  She is the anime girl with a sword and wolf companion. She wears the stiletto heels of a financial district entrepreneur. She kills it. Everything is in her control. The heroine is not Mother Theresa or Florence Nightingale; she is the hit woman for justice. She Imagewon’t change or soften – don’t try. She is the calculation of prison girls who use the perfume of shadows to seduce cell mates – her cohorts. She can enlist troupes, lead nations. Her world is spinning between her fingers.  She is neither good nor bad but finds the dirty work of protection and rebellion necessary and within her domain of skill and talent.

The heroine will choose her work over everything. She has the searing insight and dedication to achieve more than most, and she is likely adept in metal crafts and other forms of visual arts. She is the eco warrior, the desert dweller. She gives up children in order to have her wild roaming and access to the road. She is leather and tobacco. She smokes, cusses, drinks and gambles. She is unafraid to run with the boys and takes the miles under her belt like a trucker. Under her prowess and tough exterior, she cares for her people, her community and her traditions. She will fight for her land. She is not afraid of death or displacement, but possession is her nemesis.
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I have ridden in your cart, driver,
waved my nude arms at villages going by,
learning the last bright routes, survivor
where your flames still bite my thigh
and my ribs crack where your wheels wind.
A woman like that is not ashamed to die.
~ Her Kind, Anne Sexton

The modern heroine is incense and badger. Her sign is made of crossbones. She can be a trickster when she needs to be, but abhors false fronts and pretenses. She takes what she needs, but does not fall to trivialities and indulgences. She is latex and Outback. Tattoos are her make-up and she usually has several by the time she’s 21. Sharp-witted and skilled, be wary of challenging her. She will win.

These are but five examples of women and their mythologies. There are important rituals and practices that live through beauty and self-adornment. Modern cosmetics are but a trivial matter in the larger meaning of body worship and shapeshifting, of embodiment and metaphor. A woman will use the magic of her surroundings to express deep connection to the land, tradition, womanhood, heritage, motherhood and all other roles she chooses for herself. The masks we exhibit are not necessarily means of camouflaging our true natures but rather illustrate the complex and multifaceted personalities and idiosyncrasies alive in each of us. We are several composites of the roles we walk into and with during a lifetime. These are to be celebrated as the manifestations of our very nature, our stories as shown to the world within and without.

Beasts we Know

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“Even if she be not harmed, her heart may fail her in so much and so many horrors; and hereafter she may suffer–both in waking, from her nerves, and in sleep, from her dreams.”
― Bram Stoker, Dracula

“The beast in me
Is caged by frail and fragile bars
Restless by day
And by night rants and rages at the stars
God help the beast in me”
― Johnny Cash

In the story, the girl with blue eyes saves the terrible beast with love. The two are separate: the beauty and the beast, lightness and darkness. On polar ends we place them. We grow up believing this pair of opposites exists outside – we paint ourselves with those blue eyes, with that saving, sacrificing heart…

And watch those other beasts, and wait for love…

Both men and women grow up believing in the myth of the good rescuer: the one to subterfuge, to tame the mean beasts of the world. From the time we are able to understand words, the concept of “good” and “bad” – “yes” and “no” – are firmly reinforced through language and consequential behavior. Sometimes we ascribe the light and dark to genders, particularly when we are raised in a family where strict gender roles are performed – mommy is good and daddy is bad, for example, or where parents refrain from sharing the role of disciplinarian.

For those of us who grew up on farms or in very rural environments, nature provided more of a balance between a life of two extremes – in the wild, joy and pain intermingle. Animals are born and die. The spring brings new growth and winter brings closure. The injured and sick suffer, yet they continue to struggle to live and to heal. There is no such thing as mercy, or mercy killing. Death doesn’t always come swiftly or easily. Predators sometimes make it quick – sometimes drag out the suffering. Our humanity wants to intervene of course, label life with all sorts of adjectives. But it is only in us that these two separate entities: good and bad, grapple. Fundamentally, life is at work – opening and closing; opening and closing. There is an incredible teacher in this – beyond the use of words or written curricula.

For many of us, and especially as we become more and more urban, those original teachers become human and manmade. And, as we know, people experience the world through the lens of perceived reason, categorizing experience and inviting pleasure/avoiding pain. Our images of Self and Other are wrought with positive and negative narratives where the internal, or the core, is frightening, devouring… we avoid the internal discomfort of our realities, the multilayers of happenings and stimuli that cannot be understood but through the poorly formed, receptive external Self. When we cannot bear to even look at our external Self, we focus on others.

When pain comes to us, do we meet it? Or, do we chase it away and hope to deceive others or ourselves?

I’m okay, we say… while in the dark, in our hearts, we are not. We continue our hard bargains and distance from anyone and anything that might know or expose these deceits.

I have noticed the most critical among us will neurotically focus on the shortcomings (hypercriticism) and victories (envy) of those around them. Their beast becomes the external world. His or her “faults” are always theOld Woman_jpg result of what is wrong with someone else or the world. They cannot love and accept what they see in the mirror, and do not even know the core Self.

There are those, too, whose sense of self becomes so integrated in saving the beast, they no longer exist except within the boundaries of the beast and his/her recovery. They are the pop-psych co-dependents. They love the prisoners, the addicts, the abusers… they hang on the dear thread of hope until there is no fiber of happiness. And yet, they would be… so happy, so happy… if they could only get the other to be free….

Then there are the submerged – the ones who dance with the inner beast and rarely come up to surface. They are the true loners, the shape shifters, the shamans. They are the rare. Even when we believe ourselves to be them, we are likely but a glimpse. The submerged are antithetical to humanity and are but a minute percentage of those who walk between the veil of here and elsewhere.

In the end story, the girl with the hopeful hold … and beast with the seething ache…

One of the preeminent challenges we face is self-awareness. Beyond present moment awareness, true self-awareness is perhaps more important. Self awareness doesn’t just end with the touchy-feely aspects of our current state, but reaches into our ugliest selves, the pimpled, scarred, wounded, raging, abusive aspects of us and says, “Yes, there you are.” If done with humility,this exploration may even inspire change, but only when these aspects are truly acknowledged and welcomed.

monster

There is a monologue I return to in a movie called The Big Kahuna (screenplay by Roger Rueff), when Phil Cooper, played by Danny DeVito, has a candid conversation with another up-and-coming, ambitious sales rep about facing oneself, totally….

“I’m saying you’ve already done plenty of things to regret, you just don’t know what they are. It’s when you discover them, when you see the folly in something you’ve done and you wish that you had it to do over, but it’s too late. So you pick that thing up and carry it with you to remind you that life goes on, the world will spin without you, you really don’t matter in the end. Then you will gain character because honesty will reach out from inside and tattoo itself across your face.”

The reality is, the process of facing our “beast” is lifelong. Each time we believe we have etched his face in our mirror, new images manifest in the fog. Truth telling is a lifelong endeavor. It does not end with one story, one beast saved. It reaches into us, again and again, and calls out yet another monster until we learn that both beasts and beauties make good and necessary bedfellows.

Un-Schooled: Valuing What No One Else Can Tell You

The teacher who is indeed wise does not bid you to enter the house of his wisdom but rather leads you to the threshold of your mind.  ~Kahlil Gibran 

We are a society that values academia but questions knowledge. Education that does not come with an invoice is overlooked or deemed suspect. Students are funneled through grad schools, seminaries, mail-order certification courses, and retreats aimed to connect student with guru/teacher/master, the one who claims to have “the word”. There’s no end to the deluge of purchased thought and those willing to sell. Those who question this blind system of organized education are simply labeled uneducated, outlaw, savage, unenlightened, or delinquent. When education is criticized, said criticism pertains to problems in public schools, lack of funding for educators and low-income students, and failing state colleges. Rarely, does one read an article about the problems inherent in the institutionalization of learning. 

Quite possibly, the biggest challenge to learning in our purchased degree-driven society is though the discernment of both teacher and idea. Ours is a culture addicted to efficiency and immediacy. Where these addictions have grown something positive, there are numerous examples of technological and scientific advances. I need not go into the benefits in any great detail; modern man boasts on these accomplishments fervently. However, where we are left anemic is in the area of critical thinking. Independent thought, mastery of problem solving, and old-fashioned “gut smarts” are seldom encouraged when dealing with standards and benchmarks. These rare talents have resulted in a collective gullibility that has the United States as a whole susceptible to blind party allegiance, thoughtless to laws that are – peering in from outside – verging on fascist, and ever so willing to demonize other cultures, races, anyone who does not align with the dogma of the day. Riding the forefront of this wave are the educated and successful, those who believe they’ve done the right thing, deserve their spoils. These entitled souls are perhaps the least discerning among us, for they have built their lives around the system of principles that supports this grand illusion of deserved property and prestige.

On the flip-side of the madness of politics and corporate corruption, class war and hierarchy, we have emerging from the vindicated mists of spiritual liberation, survivalists, militants, cult heads, and new age teachers willing to pander their own spoiled salvation. Countless smart, enlightened folks have flocked to the deviant savior who offers respite from the modern machine. Never a unique proposition or creation, these gurus sell Native American or early Americana, Paganism or Buddhism, or any form of “authentic” knowledge born from those who came before.

In our quest for answers to life’s most important questions, we have grown subservient to the knowledge of others, while forgetting our own sense of truth, awareness, and perception. To make matters worse, we are pushing willful ignorance, entrenched educational systems, and academic debt onto future generations. Many of us, both young and old, now skip problem solving entirely in an immediate Google search frenzy for quick solutions. One common complaint I hear from teachers, is that their students no longer want to think through a problem to arrive at an answer; they simply want the answer. That’s what they are paying for, after all.

Far from luddite, self-exploration and independent learning are paramount to discovery and to re/evolution. The best thing we can hope for as lifelong students is to connect with the teacher whose response is “What do you think?” in lieu of the one with a costly answer. We hope to find the teacher who understands that his/her job is to merely crack open the door with infectious enthusiasm and experience-driven joy, imploring the student to enter in, not through ego and economics, but through a sheer happiness and authenticity in the delights of life’s lessons.

Nothing changes in an institutionalized system of processes and input/output function. This approach simply rewards worker bees with increasing debt and a head-full of “must do-s” for a mandated American life. And, how shall this logjam be moved? Through radical thinkers, the rebels, the revolutionary women and men willing to move away from the norm. Thanks to them, some of our most ingenious discoveries, inspiring art, and necessary social movements have been created.

Let us not forget that access to learning is within each of us. Academia provides the baseline and the all-important paper needed to obtain that insidious career, but learning is everyone’s right and responsibility. Questioning basic assumption becomes second nature when flexing the muscle of critical thought. It is in the wisdom of a grandfather who allows his granddaughter to make a mistake or two (or three) while learning how to fix a problem under the hood. It is with the mother who listens intently to her son’s struggles with self-esteem and encourages him to listen to his feelings and adjust his actions based on the lessons these feelings convey. And, it is with the professor who instills a deep love of questioning – moving beyond textbook to exploration and challenging his own concepts and ideas. It is in each of us who are brave enough to say “no” when something feels wrong, or “yes” when the path before us is too compelling to stay comfortably seated at home.

With all of the information now literally at our fingertips, it becomes ever more crucial to problem solve, deeply consider, and weigh outcome against proposition. Employing this level of inquiry and intuition will certainly bring you to a deeper understanding of your talents and abilities and will lead you to the teacher or academic path best suited to your style of learning and the true heart of knowledge.