As a member of Bottoms Up Burlesque in Indianapolis, I spend a lot of time with my friends coming up with ideas for performances and costumes that we consider "hot." We define that word broadly, using it to describe a woman with a perfect body in a gorgeous corset and heels, a dancer in pasties and an elaborate hairstyle or fabulous makeup, or a performer using comedy to celebrate her sexuality. Outside the world of burlesque, women (and men, although to a completely different degree) are faced daily with images that seek to set a standard of beauty. Advertisements for various weight-loss products, beauty treatments, and clothing use models that look nothing like the average woman and lead us to believe that if we do not look like them, we somehow fall short. One of the things I've loved most about my experience with burlesque is that we defy these standards. We celebrate a form of beauty based on confidence and personality. Being physically fit and having fun with costumes, hair and make-up are a key part of taking the stage, but getting up there without the personality to back it up would be unthinkable.
As we enter the Oscar season of Hollywood films, we see an increase in the types of beauty represented on film. During the summer season, blockbusters like Transformers give us Megan Fox and perpetuate the images of uncreative beauty we see on advertisements every day. I look forward to Oscar season when women take on more challenging roles and stretch themselves, often "getting ugly" in an effort to win the Academy's approval. However, to be succesful in Hollywood, most actresses still fit a fairly standard defination of beauty. From Audrey Hepburn to Grace Kelly to Halle Berry to Angelina, women who have found success in Hollywood usually have the "looks" category fairly well covered.
However, I saw a film last week that still, a week later, has me unable to get images of the lead actress out of my head. In Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire, Gabourey "Gabby" Sidibe in her first film role, sears herself into your heart in a way you are not quite prepared for. Set in 1980s Harlem, Gabby plays Precious, an illiterate, morbidly-obese 16-year old, pregnant for the second time by her abusive father, living a nightmare life trapped with an abusive mother who blames Precious for "stealing her man." Not until Precious signs up for an alternative learning program under the teaching of Blu Rain (played by an also unforgettable Paula Patton), does Precious start to imagine a life outside the hell she is in, and begins to stand up for herself and claw her way towards a future. Mo'Nique, as the abusive mother, is getting all the Oscar talk, and in all honesty, deserves the Oscar she will be accepting in a few months. Mariah Carey as an out-of-her-league social worker also raises eyes, and I personally welcomed the opportunity to experience Miriah minus the diva. But this is Gabby's movie. She wedged into my heart and has not let go. I cried many times during the movie, and many times since have teared up thinking about the challenges I face in relation to her.
But, is she beautiful? From a physical perspective, absolutely not. She is morbidly-obese and rarely smiles. Her life does not afford her the time to care about fashion, make-up or any of the traditional trappings of beauty. And most importantly, when we first meet her, she has zero confidence, the number one most important thing required to be "hot." However, as the film progresses, her inner beauty seeps to the outside, and you realize that you cannot take your eyes off her. The strength she needs to simply make it through the day is more than most of us will possess in our entire lifetime, and during a scene where she breaks down and asks "why me?", you realize it is shocking because that level of weakness is something she rarely shows. It literally made me ashamed to ever feel sorry for myself or question the things I struggle with, and to wish that I could be half as strong and beauty as Precious.
I left the movie looking up to Precious and her inner beauty and strength the way I hope women leave a Bottoms Up Burlesque show looking up to the confidence we display on stage. I hope they take the example we set as women who do not have perfect bodies and go home to bring out that inner beauty in themselves. For me, spending time with the non-traditional inner beauty shown in Precious, where a woman who is difficult to physically look at transforms one of the most beautiful spirits I've ever seen. I wish there were a way to market her characteristics....strength, perserverance, loyalty, and hope. Those are worth more than a thousand hair gels, eyebrow waxing products, or diet pills. Precious exemplies the type of beauty that transcends the best of us all.
"The greatest treasures are those invisible to the eye but found by the heart." Unknown.