When You Are Old

This is one of my favourite poems, with obvious connections to the theme of ‘beauty’. I’ve been told it’s terribly sad, and I suppose it is. But to me it’s more of a recognition of the impermanence of all things – love, beauty, life – and that is not sad, it’s just real.

I hope you enjoy it.

When You Are Old

by William Butler Yeats

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,

And nodding by the fire, take down this book,

And slowly read, and dream of the soft look

Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;


How many loved your moments of glad grace,

And loved your beauty with love false or true,

But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,

And loved the sorrows of your changing face;


And bending down beside the glowing bars,

Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled

And paced upon the mountains overhead

And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.


Frida Kahlo on strangeness and beauty

“I used to think I was the strangest person in the world but then I thought there are so many people in the world, there must be someone just like me who feels bizarre and flawed in the same ways I do.  I would imagine her, and imagine that she must be out there thinking of me too.  Well, I hope that if you are out there and read this and know that, yes, it’s true I’m here, and I’m just as strange as you.”

Frida Kahlo

Beauty and the bullfight

Last night I was reading from Ox Travels, a collection of travel stories given to me at Christmas by a wonderful friend.

When I read these days, my brain is always scanning for ideas on beauty, and a couple came up in the chapters I read last night, but none were more provocative than in Jason Webster’s story ‘Rafaelillo’.

Perhaps you are thinking that a bullfight is an odd place to find beauty. Certainly for many of us the bullfight is more about cruelty and man’s assertion of power and dominance over a crippled beast. But for Rafaelillo, a retired bullfighter, there is incomparable beauty to be found in the sacred and noble traditions of the fight.

Extract from ‘Rafaelillo’ by Jason Webster (Ox Travels: Meetings with Remarkable Travel Writers, Profile Books, 2011)

A sharp freezing wind blew through us, ruffling the matador’s cape. ‘That’s bad,’ Rafaelillo said. ‘There’s only one thing worse than windy conditions, and that’s a manso bull, one with no fighting spirit in it.’

I glanced up briefly at the mountains just visible in the distance. through the dark grey cloud it was possible to make out the peaks turning white with snow.

‘Wouldn’t an unaggressive bull be easier?’ I asked.

‘Quite the reverse. A manso bull is the hardest to read. Most of the time it’s trying to get out of the ring, then suddenly it might lift its horns in a way no one expected…’

He tossed his head to one side, as though skewering an invisible matador standing next to him.

‘What you want, what everyone wants, is a truly bravo bull, one that takes the fight to the bullfighter, that never gives up and struggles till the very end. That’s where the real beauty comes. That’s where the art and power is.’

‘You make it sound like a sacred act.’

Still looking down at the ring, he pursed his lips. Then without warning he leant over and pulled open my jacket and lifted my jumper a fraction, then glanced down at my shoes.

‘Leather belt, leather boots,’ he said. ‘I take it you’re not a vegetarian.’


‘I respect vegetarians. I don’t agree with them, but I respect them.’

He rubbed long fingers over his chin.

‘What I can’t abide are those who condemn me as a murderer while eating fillet steak and wearing leather jackets.’

‘Perhaps it’s the public aspect of this they don’t like,’ I said. ‘Turning it into a spectacle.’

‘If you think this is just a spectacle, then you haven’t understood anything about bullfighting.’

He turned his attention back to the events on the sand.

I sat motionless, my eyes fixed on the drama below. Perera seemed to have brought the bull quickly and silently under his command.

Then something extraordinary unfolded, something so strange it was like a kiss, an unexpected yet meaningful kiss from a beautiful woman you thought was unattainable. It was as if the division between matador and bull disappeared, as though for a fleeting instant they became one single being, brought together and unified by their struggle: one entity, not separated by their mutual wish to kill each other, but drawn to each other by a kind of tenderness, a passion. It was as if, for a brief time, they were joined through something that felt almost like love. But it was not any kind of love that I had ever sensed or been aware of before, nothing I had ever known. And yet it was there, bending them and making them one.

It came in a flash, one exceptional moment, and was gone. But the entire crowd had felt it as well, and a roar went up. Many were on their feet, clapping, more shouts of ole echoing around, while at the other side of the arena the band started up on a paso doble.

Rafaelillo turned and looked at me. He could see it in my face: yes, I’d sensed it as well.

‘Do you understand now?’

No need to answer.

‘It can’t be explained. It can only be experienced.’

My gaze returned to the graceful and powerful figure of Perera below.

‘This is what they want to take away from us. They are only capable of seeing a man killing a bull in public. Nothing more. And it shocks them, so they want it to be hidden away.’

He swept an arm through the air.

‘But this is not an unsung, unheroic death along with millions of others in some industrial abattoir. Here we look death in the face, and the bull looks death in the face, and with that we celebrate life. This is not a sport. Nor is it a spectacle. It is a ritual with ancient roots, involving everyone here – bull, bullfighters and audience.’

Beauty as defined by…

We all know the beauty industry is predicated around the idea that we are not good enough as we are and that we must spruce, pluck, tan, nip, tuck, colour and plank ourselves into perfection.

There are lots of videos floating around that challenge this dominant idea, so this morning I’m posting some of them. What I like about all these videos is that they challenge commonly held ideas about beauty.

(I’m sorry about the advertising! Unfortunately all these vids were created by a beauty company…still the ideas are worthwhile.)

Beauty as defined by the beauty industry

The other day I was applying makeup, getting ready to go out. My six-year old daughter was sitting on the vanity cabinet playing with tubes and palettes. She watched me carefully and after a while said to me in a plaintive voice ‘Mumma, you don’t need it. You are already beautiful.’ It made my heart swell with love for her, but also my heart broke a little bit to hear her say that. What message was I sending to her? I don’t wear makeup often these days, but when I do, it’s always for the wrong reasons. I remember watching my mum put makeup on before having dinner guests over. She called it her ‘war paint’, and that’s what it is for me too – a barrier, a kind of protection from the world, a way to feel stronger in situations where I feel out of my depth. It is absurd, when you sit down and think about it.


Beauty as defined by social media

Who knew the selfie could be so powerful? So often we hear about the narcissism of the selfie generation. But in this clip the selfie is reframed, and the generation that created it is also reframed. It is an illusion and deception to think that Gen Y are all narcissists. Actually, they are just like the rest of humanity, they just use different tools to figure out the world.


Beauty as defined by yourself

In this fascinating experiment a forensic artist sketches women as they describe themselves, and as they are described by an acquaintance. The differences are interesting, but in no way surprising.


I think it’s no accident that all these videos feature women. I did try to find beauty related vids that address the way men’s physical beauty is represented in the media. You won’t be surprised that I couldn’t find one. I’m sure they are out there, but clearly this issue of the perverse representation of beauty in the media is almost entirely about women.