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On Adornment and Female Beauty and International Women's Day



I have been meaning to write more about politics, but I find myself waiting for something to happen.  Some resolution on the campaign trail . . . some result.  So, while I hold my political breath, an article "Do not go gentle into that Eileen Fisher" caught my eye on Salon.com the other day about a book called "How Not to Look Old".  The book and the reaction were somewhat interesting.  I like to see how women are responding and addressing the issues of beauty and female objectification.   What really interested me, and so often does in these days of blogging and news articles with comment sections, were the responses from the readers.  Most of the women hated the idea of the book.  One woman pointed with pride that it was her financial resources built up over a lifetime of work and a healthy retirement fund as the thing that made her feel good about herself--not a facelift.  One woman lamented the author's demand that women throw out "grandchildren" necklaces because it made a woman look old.  These necklaces she pointed out are generally given to the woman by her family and represents the love and esteem they have for her.  I found the book's focus on youth predictable and really just missing the point.  This commercialized, "Madison Avenue" attitude towards beauty is so at odds with the Navajo concept of the intrinsic sacredness of the human act of self-adornment that I had to comment on it myself.  A Navajo prayer kept coming back to me as I read through the women's responses.

I am half-Navajo through my mother.  The Navajo or Dineh people, as they call themselves, are matrilineal, so I have a clan, Kinyaani or the Towering House people.  My mother would often talk to me about Navajo concepts of beauty or Hozhoni.  She had under her bed a treasure-load of turquoise jewelry and old family photos.  On days when we children were stuck inside because it was too hot to go out and play she would take these out and let us look at the old photos of her family.  Elders in their traditional garb, she and her siblings in 1960's and 1970's fashions.  Then we would get to look at the jewelry and she would let us wear some of it.  She would tell us what meaning the turquoise, the red coral, the white shell had--even the humble cedar bead that could ward off ghosts.  We would sit there on her bed and look at the pictures then look at ourselves reflected in her mirrored closet doors.  Our small, brown faces and black hair dripping in strands of turquoise and red coral, silver and cedar.  To us, little girls, this act of adornment by our mother would make us feel special and, yes, sacred in those afternoons in the cool, air-conditioned house with the sweltering desert heat outside kept at bay.

When the Navajo goddess Changing Woman, Adzaa Nadleehe was given her home, a hooghan, by her husband the Sun, he adorned it in this way with all the sacred things and in this way made it a beautiful and good place to live.  In this way, I saw the older woman in my family, my grandmother and great-aunts, adorn themselves.  They were lovely women until the day they died.  Upright and strong after years of herding sheep and weaving rugs, their hair long and hardly touched with gray.  They wore their long beautiful hair tied back with white carded wool in knots called tsiilyeel and adorned themselves everyday with elaborate turquoise jewelry and clothing made of velvet and satin.  They were very elegant-looking, perhaps, more so than my mom and her generation in their utilitarian t-shirts and jeans and sneakers.  Traditional people all over the world take personal adornment very seriously.  Adornment is a defining aspect of humanness.  Sometimes, I find the take on beauty in this culture is so different that it is difficult to make the connection between the two.  I am beginning to realize that in some ways as a multi-cultural person, I have this Navajo lense and use it exclusively in some cases, despite my American upbringing--despite, even Madison Avenue and all the money they spent trying to make me see it another way.  It is this alternate space inside me that was given to me by my mother and my grandmothers that I find myself retreating to almost reflexively.  It is is hozho, beautiful.  Just what I'm thinking about with International Women's Day coming up tomorrow.

Jacqueline Keeler
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