Wabi-sabi and Body Image


“Perfection is poverty.”-Ryan Drum

I have a tea cup that someone I love gave me for Christmas a few years ago.  One day, when I was moving some things around in the cabin, my table fell over and everything on it broke.  The tea cup lost most of its handle.  It’s still the cup I use almost daily.  It is just the right size to have a large cup of tea and I can still cradle it comfortable in one hand.

Even longer ago, during a particularly strong Japanophilic phase I was going through (Kurasowa films, language classes, matcha tea with the little whisk, learning the proper way to wear a kimono) I came across the concept of Wabi-sabi.  It was like all great discoveries.  It seemed new but it just reinforced something I had decided was part of my identity anyway.

Since I was little, I loved old things.  I loved the cracked, the weathered, and the worn.  The patched jean was so much more pleasing to me than the stiff denim of the new.  Clothes that were new to me would sit in my closet to “age” until they took on my smell, relaxed their starchy posture, and felt like they belonged to me.  I preferred dishes that had been used for a long time by others and furniture that knew things.  

My father was 48 when I was born.  His friends with their lines and their graying temples were robust laughers, image-rich story tellers and could walk up and down hills with a sprightliness that I though all people of their age had.  And they were infinitely more interesting than people who had not yet LIVED.

When I was sitting in a classroom at the Southeastern Herbal conference six or seven years ago, Ryan Drum, forager, seaweed collector, white haired wild man, started his lecture with the quote above.  “Perfection is poverty.”  It got me sit ramrod straight as I had somehow lost my way.  Perfection was what I wanted so badly then.  

I had forgotten all that was truly important to me.  And, my body was suffering.  I wasn’t the one who came from a place of ill health or weight problems.  I just thought I did.  It wasn’t until I really devoted myself to perfect health and perfect body that both fell promptly to pieces.

Wabi-sabi is an acceptance and reverence for the impermanence of things, for the imperfection of things.  The hair thin fissures in a pot make it exquisite.  The fraying shoulder of the gray cardigan that I wear is what makes it special.  The new holes that need to be patched in my jeans are what make them mine.  The pot, the cardigan, the jeans…my tea cup: they are not beautiful to me in spite of these things.  They are beautiful to me BECAUSE of those things.

The current constructed cultural idea of beauty is a certain type of perfection.  It is a perfection that 97% of people can never achieve except through starvation, Draconian exercise regimes, and plastic surgery.  Not to mention chemical hair dyes.  It is the denial of age.  The shunning of the body itself.  It is rooted in deception.  It is impossible without deception.  Now that photoshop is used without impunity, even the 3% look more perfect than they already are.  In other words, the examples of the ideal that we uphold don’t even look like that.

But, the thing that I find the most sad is that the stories are all gone.  We are being taught to appreciate the uniform, blank, scar-less, line-less, age-less ideal.  It is nothing more than a blank page.  There is no story.  We have fetishized the absent.

My pinky toe is about half the length of my others.  I get that from my dad.  I have been graying for years, at before the age of 40, I’m about 25% there.  My legs are strong.  My belly is soft.  I just learned that I can carry a tune.  I can dance.  My right shoulder hunches forward a little and my neck needs special care since an auto accident.  I am short and round.  Curvy, low-rise.  I have 4 large tattoos.  I am not beautiful in spite of all these things but beautiful because of them.  

My body holds my story.  You can see what my story is if you look at my with attention.  When I look at you, I see your story, too.  You don’t have to say a word.  

The story is always being told and can be taken in any direction that you want.  Time, nourishment, movement, rest…so many other things are all the contributing characters in your story.  Your body is the story, itself: its beauty, its tragedy, its comedy, its poignancy.  There can be that humbling moment of breath-taking expansion of the incredible chance that that story gets to be told at all.  Tell the story truthfully.  The details matter.  



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