Grandmothers and tutus


My grandmother was a small, quiet woman. Almost waif-like. She seemed to move through the world like light. Everything around her seemed weightless somehow. Light. The way she sat, as though sitting was an art and she had mastered it. The way she walked, her steps delicate and silent. And the way she was in her body, like it was the best place to be.

“Do you see this plant?” she would say calmly as we took walks in the forest near our home, “It is good for toothache”

We as kids would gather around her and blink our curious eyes at the star of the show – a plant we had passed a thousand times in our little lifetimes.

My grandmother. She died in 1998.

I often wonder about the life she lived before I knew her. Before I was born into the world as her granddaughter. How she had come to raise 8 children in a time when women didn’t amount to very much in the order of things. Not really. Her fulfilment was in her home and family. This was all that defined her. It is a beautiful definition but it left out so much else too. It said nothing about her incredible knowledge of plants and trees. And how she would take the leaves in her hands and with her fingers sense their healing properties.

I watched those dainty fingers of hers many times. They always mades things better. Her back rubs, her touch, her grasp. Firm and always pulling close.

It was those fingers that taught me how to knit. “Knit over, purl under, yarn across.” It was a rhythm I came to feel deep within my soul. To this day, I cannot pick up my knitting needles and not think of gramps.

I was comfortable in my femininity sitting next to her, our needles clicking together, making a melody that was as soothing as it was exciting. I leaned closer into my body and I knew then that it was right and perfect in all its parts. How could it not be when gramps said it was so? Beauty was not a question. It was a known fact imprinted on my skin.

And then one day I woke up and wanted to be a ballerina (every girl’s dream at some point). Maybe it was Lionel Richie’s fault. But I wanted a tutu. I wanted to twirl and twirl. And to please with my twirls. But somewhere along the way I learned that my legs were apparently too short and too thick. And my toes wouldn’t let me stand on them. The little betrayers.

Walking in the streets of Dehli earlier this year made me realise how much baggage I had collected over the years about what it means to be beautiful in this world. You need to fill a tutu in all the right dimensions to measure up. These ideas float around us in the air and we breathe them in on a daily basis. Is it any wonder then that we can act as the world’s beauty police when we see what does not fit the criteria? We look away. We frown. We look down. We shame. And sometimes we even kill. We have been schooled in this.

So India powerfully reminded me of this while she was breaking my heart on the side. I listened to the shivers that went down my spine. And the sounds my skin made as it grew taut over my bones. There was no denying that I was sitting uncomfortably within my own body.

I know what my grandmother would do. She would take my hands into hers and look me straight in the eye:

What are you doing? Your body is your home. If you do not feel at home in it where will you live?

Maybe the question of beauty is one we will come up against time and time again. As long as the world is broken, something will always try to break us too. My prayer is that it will stop being each other. Beauty matters because while we were not looking and while we were hurling unkind words at each other it became intricately tied to worth.

To talk about beauty is to talk about something that is flesh and real in people’s souls. We should get it right. It is important that we do. My grandmother would be proud of us.


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