Body Narrative: Beauty

beauty column photo


Pretty is something you’re born with.

But beautiful, that’s an equal opportunity adjective.

                                                                    Author unknown


The ancient Greek philosophers spoke at length about beauty. Plato said, “The three wishes of every man are to be healthy, to be rich by honest means, and to be beautiful.” Asked why people desire physical beauty, Aristotle said, “No one that is not blind could ask that question.”[i] Beauty has traditionally been considered an innate human value. Beauty discriminates. Beauty is diverse. Beauty matters. Beauty is the topic of this column.

One beautiful aspect of writing body narrative is visibility on the page and ultimate acceptance of our messy wholeness. Our physical beauty, the body, writing, and acceptance of ourselves are all interconnected.


I want to know if you can see beauty, even when it is not pretty, every day,

and if you can source your own life from its presence.[ii]

                               – Oriah Mountain Dreamer


According to Nancy Etcoff, Harvard Medical School psychologist, practicing psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, and author of Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty, “beauty is a universal part of human experience. It evokes pleasure, rivets attention, and impels actions….”[iii] In the book, she discerns similarities in the ways humans across cultures perceive and respond to beauty. According to a Publisher’s Weekly editorial review, the most important message in this book is that we cannot ignore our evolutionary past when attempting to accept the current norms of beauty.

Socially accepted beauty is like socially accepted final drafts. In first drafts, the beauty is there, but we don’t see it until the piece is polished. Similarly, there is an inner beauty to all of us, even if society doesn’t recognize it. Regardless of outer/published beauty, we need to recognize our ‘messy’ beauty and honor it. It is, after all, the core part of our “outer beauty.”

The media frequently presents the “normal” body as free from fat, wrinkles, physical disabilities, and deformities. This narrow representation led to what is considered a marker of normalcy—which consists of unrealistic expectations. This ultimately leads to dissatisfaction with our bodies. The objectification of beauty in the media reveals a possible neglect of women’s internal beauty.[iv] This, too, is true in writing too. We only see polished writing in most publications, which leads us to a similar disconnect, neglect, and devaluing of the messy writing process.

According to Harris Sockel, author of ebook We Will Never Know What’s Inside Our Bodies, “Writers are at their ugliest when they’re doing their best writing” He also says, “You need to start from ugliness to do this well. Something to fight against. Something to try to change…”[v] Is it possible that the hegemony of beauty prevents us from doing our best (and paradoxically ugliest) writing? Maybe it’s that the obsession with beauty prevents us from trying/failing/trying again. Samuel Beckett said, “the goal is to fail better,” something that’s hard to do if we’re constantly obsessing about perfecting our writing and not allowing ourselves to produce the icky in-between drafts, or “shitty first drafts” as Anne Lamott refers to them.

Don’t hesitate to write a messy first draft, even if it feels ugly. You may stir up something in you that is being seen for the first time or is a work-in-progress. Follow your intuition with what is beautiful. We might love a sentence that others hate, but we should continue to believe in that sentence because we know what it can do. Love the parts of your body the media might say are ugly—you know the strength in them that others may not see. Addressing the ugly parts of your body and embracing the ugly parts of writing as well may be challenging but it may also be liberating and help offer hope for healing.


The bottom line is that I like my first drafts to be blind, unconscious, messy efforts; that’s what gets me the best material .

–Jennifer Egan


Certain people can walk into a room and be noticed immediately. They appear to have an air of confidence, a magnetic quality about them. The same can be said for carefully thought-out characters in our writing.

People who live in a sensually alive body and live with a compassionate and loving heart and peaceful mind are seemingly bold and beautiful. Being sensually alive in the body is about being okay with our flaws and imperfections. It’s about finding sexiness in what is unique and even broken. If we are only showing our perfect drafts to others, perhaps we are not actually experiencing the ecstasy that comes when we can accept ourselves just the way we are.


Exuberance is Beauty.

—  William Blake


Describe a time you were comfortable in your own skin, immersed yourself in the world, inspired others with your words, felt beautiful, passed along a magical spark.


No matter how plain a woman may be, if truth and honesty are written across her face, she will be beautiful.

– Eleanor Roosevelt


Henry James met the English novelist George Eliot when she was 49 years old. “She is magnificently ugly,” he wrote to his father. “She has a low forehead, a dull grey eye, a vast pendulous nose, a huge mouth, full of uneven teeth…Now in this vast ugliness resides a most powerful beauty which, in a very few minutes, steals forth and charms the mind, so that you end as I ended, in falling in love with her…Perhaps we are truly human when we come to believe that beauty is not so much in the eye, as in the heart, of the beholder.”[vi]

Embrace strangeness and unconventional beauty in your writing. Celebrate it. Part of the writing process is learning to trust your imagination, quirkiness, fetishes, and complexities. Writing about your body can help you feel and see in new ways—to discover your writing and, ultimately, yourself. What is your perception of the beauty and strangeness of your writing? Let your writing serve as a touchstone to the embracing and loving the body you live in.

For you who don’t believe you are beautiful, write about the blank and full areas between your body and the world, the barriers you create and perceive.  What are you hiding or disguising? In other words, what do you allow yourself to connect to and what do you block yourself from. What do you hide and what do you share? How authentic are you allowing yourself to be in life and in your writing? Are you really letting yourself touch the world around you, giving to that world and allowing yourself to receive from it at the same time?


There is no exquisite beauty…without some strangeness in the proportion.

                                      –Edgar Allen Poe


Write about how you can preserve strangeness and beauty in your writing; yet claim it as yours and own it. Write about the stretch marks or scars that tell the story of who you have been. What do your freckles say about you? What are the parts about you that you know are beautiful?


You do not have to walk on your knees

for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting…

….Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –…

                         –Mary Oliver


Comparing yourself to someone else, you can lose sight of the beauty that you bring to the world, inside and out. What bodies do you find most beautiful?  Which writers, in your opinion, have the most beautiful writing style?


The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills theme with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross


According to T. C. Boyle, “each one [story] is an exploratory journey in search of a reason and a shape.” The same is true for your writing. What makes your writing unique? Do you have a particular style? Have you modified your writing for the sake of submissions guidelines?

Explore your body as a source of empowerment and individuality. Do you express yourself through body art? Write about your body and the thoughts that shape it, the scent of your own skin, the feel of your curves. What image comes to mind that most closely resembles your style of writing, your unique voice.Are you more experimental? Do you consider your writing persuasive?

According to Sockel, “Writers lie on paper, in beautiful ways, naked and ugly, and want the world to love them for that, too. Writers sit down while the rest of us are running. Writers reign over their little piles of papers, making sandcastles out of air and calling it work.”

Becoming more comfortable with things that are labeled “imperfect” about our physical bodies can help us become comfortable with the “imperfect” aspects of our writing processes. Beauty is not fixed; we move in and out of it physically, as does our writing. How do people “become” beautiful? How do writers develop their writing voice? Writing doesn’t have to be cute or polite. Describe a time you, the author, felt beautiful despite not getting affirmation from your readers?

Writer Jeff Goins says, “When you write from your heart, your pain will become someone else’s healing balm.”[vii] During his career, author Brennan Manning learned that there is a world full of desperate, broken people, longing to hear the honest words of another ragamuffin.

A beggar unashamed of his hunger.

A thief unaware of his poverty.

A friend and addict.

A lover, liar, fighter and healer.

A paradox. Like us all.



[i] [i] Etcoff, N. Survival of the Prettiest. Retrieved January 19, 2014 from

[ii] Mountain Dreamer, O. (1999). “The Invitation.” The Invitation, p. 2.

[iii] Etcoff, N. Survival of the Prettiest. Retrieved January 19, 2014 from

[iv] Yeh, J. T. & Lin, C. L. (2013). Beauty and healing: Examining Sociocultural expectations of the embodied goddess. Journal of Religious Health. 52(1): 318-334.

[v] Sockel, H. (2013, April 10). Here’s Why Writers Are Ugly. Retrieved February 7, 2014 from

[vi] Newman, C. (n.d.). Retrieved January 19, 2014 from

[vii] Goins, J. (n.d). “Why You Should Tell the Ugly Parts of Your Story.” Retrieved February 5, 2014 from


Debbie spent 30 years as a registered nurse. She became a certified applied poetry facilitator and journal-writing instructor in 2007. She is currently a student in the Johns Hopkins Science-Medical Writing program. Her publications have appeared in Journal of Poetry Therapy, Studies in Writing: Research on Writing Approaches in Mental Health, Women on Poetry: Tips on Writing, Teaching and Publishing by Successful Women, Statement CLAS Journal, The Journal of the Colorado Language Arts Society, and Red Earth Review.


Body Narrative: Clothing

writer284Do you notice what other people wear? Do you ever feel self-conscious about your own clothes? Although we may dismiss clothing as surface-level compared to the body and personality, clothes are central to ways our bodies are experienced, presented, and understood within culture. Clothes mediate between the naked body and the social world, the self and society. Every day, we experience the bodies of others—and conceive of our own—through the medium of dress.1

We wear clothes not only as protection from the elements of nature, but also as a way to express our individuality or to shield ourselves from other people’s opinions. This column will offer exercises for how to use clothing to inform your writing.

Poet, Pablo Neruda writes with devotion about his clothes and his relationship with them in his poem, Ode to Clothes.


Every morning you wait,

clothes, over a chair,

to fill yourself with

my vanity, my love,

my hope, my body.


risen from sleep,

I relinquish the water,

enter your sleeves,

my legs look for

the hollows of your legs,

and so embraced

by your indefatigable faithfulness

I rise, to tread the grass,

enter poetry,

consider through the windows,

the things,

the men, the women,

the deeds and the fights

go on forming me,

go on making me face things

working my hands,

opening my eyes,

using my mouth,

and so,


I too go forming you,

extending your elbows,

snapping your threads,

and so your life expands

in the image of my life.

In the wind

you billow and snap

as if you were my soul,

at bad times

you cling

to my bones,

vacant, for the night,

darkness, sleep

populate with their phantoms

your wings and mine.

I wonder

if one day

a bullet

from the enemy

will leave you stained with my blood

and then

you will die with me

or one day

not quite

so dramatic

but simple,

you will fall ill,


with me,

grow old

with me, with my body

and joined

we will enter

the earth.

Because of this

each day

I greet you with reverence and then

you embrace me and I forget you,

because we are one

and we will go on

facing the wind, in the night,

the streets or the fight,

a single body,

one day, one day, some day, still.2


The personification of clothes in this poem brings to life items—seemingly simple things–that we often take for granted or consider utilitarian. Through the poetic eye, Neruda sees clothing as a loyal friend. While he puts on his clothes in the morning, he notices how his clothes take on the mold and contour of his body. Neruda writes of admirable qualities, shared experiences, and reverent regard for his clothes.


Jac Jemc wrote about the character, “my wife” in her novel My Only Wife. Notice what is observed and the deeper implications of acceptance in what you wear.3


“She wore trousers, never wore skirts. Her clothing complemented her, it seemed integral to her personality. She filled her clothes the way one fills one’s skin: exactly. It was as difficult to imagine her without skin as it was to imagine her undressed…There was a theatricality to her way of dressing that made heads turn…These pants my wife wore had very wide legs. She liked to wear many layers to bulk up her frame. She liked structure in her clothing…She liked angles and excess fabric in unexpected places. She liked frayed edges and thinned spots…My wife could have a sense of humor, too. She would pull on opera-length satin gloves, a tiara, pearls, sunglasses, all very Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but combined with her wide-legged pants and her gamut of worn-thin tee shirts, she was often eyed as being a bit off. I adored her oddities. My wife was magnificent and content in her whimsy.”


What is your relationship with your clothes? What does the world observe in what you wear? What are the deeper implications for acceptance?

Describe your favorite outfit. How does it make you feel to wear it? Describe an item in your closet that you never wear. Why not? How does it make you feel to wear it? Write about a time you dressed in clothes that made you feel striking despite graceful form or clumsy movements.

Our clothing carries histories, memories, and meaning, and can serve as a jumping-off point for a piece of writing. Write an ode to your belt, a pair of shoes, or a favorite piece of clothing.

Both clothing and writing are external to us and yet deeply connected to us. How do you describe your style? How do you describe your personality? What style of clothing compliments you — expresses your personality? How do your clothes tell the world a bit of your story? How does your writing say something about how you dress? Do you consider what you wear analogous to your writing style? What details will your reader’s pick up on?

Look back on your experience with clothing during your youth. How did you prefer to dress as a kid? Write about a time you had no choice in what you wore. What did it feel like to be forced to dress differently from what felt good and right to you?

Write about what your clothes reveal or conceal physically, emotionally.


Curie quote


Both writing and clothing can be textured and colorful. Describe your writing texture. Compare it to your favorite article of clothing for the textual/textural similarities. Write about your tendency to adorn your words, over accessorize with ancillary words, use sensory imagery? What have you written lately that is woven in rich texture?

We layer and deepen our stories using vivid language, strong emotion, dynamic characters, and plot lines that build one conflict or point on another. Texture is meant to be felt and building texture into a story can help create unique characters that have dimension.

What words that describe fabric correspond to your writing style? Are your words silky, woolly or more like burlap or corduroy?

Think about your raw material. Are your handcrafted words tailored to best suit your style? Is your style eloquent, dark, economical, formal, clean, business-like, crisp, flowery, balanced, comfortable? Or is the body of your work clothed in chaos? Cloaked to conceal your essence, your voice? What would your innermost garments tell the reader about you?

Wearing a different type of clothing can oftentimes be a nice break in our established habits. The same is true for writing. Think about your clothing and writing. How does your body look in differently shaped clothes? Have you ever crossed genres? Been keen on experimenting? Wore/wrote something unfamiliar? Have resisted ‘genre’ in clothing or writing in an effort to be innovative? Describe a time you communicated resistance, a new interpretation or redefinition. What topics have you most explored, inhabited in your writing? Describe your best-layered body of work.

What are you holding onto in excess words? Are you slowly wiping away traces of the past? Are answers hidden in the seams? What holds your writing together?


The person we believe ourselves to be will always act in a manner consistent with our self-image.

–Brian Tracy


Dress yourself in the expectation of new possibilities.


  1. Twigg, J. (2007). “Clothing, age and the body: A critical review.” Ageing & Society, Cambridge University Press. 27: 285-305.
  2. After the poem Neruda, P. (n.d.). “Ode to Clothes.” Retrieved from
  3. After the mention of the novel Jemc, Jac. (2012). My Only Wife. Chapter three. Dzanc Books. pp. 7-9.

Debbie spent 30 years as a registered nurse. She became a certified applied poetry facilitator and journal-writing instructor in 2007. She is currently a student in the Johns Hopkins Science-Medical Writing program. Her publications have appeared in Journal of Poetry TherapyStudies in Writing: Research on Writing Approaches in Mental HealthWomen on Poetry: Tips on Writing, Teaching and Publishing by Successful WomenStatement CLAS Journal, The Journal of the Colorado Language Arts Society, and Red Earth Review.


Body Narrative: Feet

feet284All writers are the same. We all have lungs and wrists and feet. Sylvia Plath had a belly button. Jane Austen had knees. Having this awareness embodiment makes the writers we admire more human. “Sharon Olds mentioned that after hearing a talk about Emily Dickinson, she suddenly flashed upon a vision of Dickinson’s naked foot. It was the first time it occurred to her that Dickinson had soles, toes, and ankles.”[i] It’s difficult to imagine the mundane facts of our literary heroes, to remember that they, too, are just human—with hands and elbows and fingernails, as well. Feet, specifically, are a profoundly human characteristic—they’re humble, they’re close to the ground. Think of some of your favorite writers. Imagine their toenails, their feet. How does it feel in your body to imagine these beloved writers in such a human light?

Our feet ground us to the earth. They help us balance and stand firm. The Persian poet Kabir invites us to seriously consider the task of thinking about your body and being grounded:


Be strong then, and enter into our own body;

there you have a solid place for your feet.

Think about it carefully!

Don’t go off somewhere else!

Kabir says this: just throw away all thoughts of imaginary things,

and stand firm in that which you are.[ii]


Write about a time you stood firm.


The human foot is a masterpiece of engineering and a work of art.

–Leonardo Da Vinci


Consider the art and science of your feet.

The human foot contains 26 small bones in total; each has a specific job to do. The 52 bones in your feet make up about one quarter of all the bones in your body. When walking, the pressure on your feet exceeds your body weight, when running, it that pressure can be three to four times your weight. The American Podiatric Medical Association says the average person walks about four miles every day, about 115,000 miles in a lifetime. Describe how you think your feet support you. Write about where your feet have taken you and where you hope they will take you in the future.

Do you like the way your feet are long and narrow, or wide and arched, or fan-like and flat? How would you describe their shapes and curves? They’re smell?


He who has imagination without learning has wings but not feet.

–Joseph Joubert


Grounding with the energy of the earth can help your writing, whether it is with your feet, forehead, or whole body, crutches or wheelchair that touches the earth. Practice grounding your body prior to writing, connecting yourself with the earth for when your writing gets intense. In Writing Begins with the Breath: Embodying Your Authentic Voice, author Laraine Herring focuses on the interface between writing and the body and how each informs and supports the other. She addresses how grounding in the body helps quiet and center the mind, allowing your authentic writing to flow from that place. She writes, “Standing in your own body helps open up the throat” so you can speak with your own voice. “It also helps move you out of your thinking center and into a place of feeling and sensation…The foundation of your writing is your practice, your consistent showing up to the page, your awareness of your relationship with your words and language. The stronger that foundation, the more forms of life it can sustain.”[iii]

Get yourself grounded through touching the earth or the roots that dangle beneath your desire to write. Feel your center. Stand up, feet shoulder-width apart. Keep your knees soft and slightly bent. Rock your hips back and forth; then swing side to side. Now move your hips in several big circles, first in one direction and then the other. Return to standing still.


This year I have planted my feet

on this ground


and am practicing

growing out of my legs

like a tree.

Linda Lancione Moyer (Listen, lines 13-17)[iv]


Write about a snowy night’s walk, an early morning walk on the beach, waves lapping at your feet, or walking barefoot in the rain.

Is there a difference in writing barefoot, versus wearing dress shoes, sneakers, or boots?  Write about how it feels to run barefoot in the grass, scuffle your feet or wobble in heels? What is foundational to your writing? What is artistic? What is mechanical? What stinks?


“Planting Initiation Song an Osage Women’s Initiation Song”

I have made a footprint, a sacred one.
I have made a footprint, through it the blades push upward.
I have made a footprint, through it the blades radiate.
I have made a footprint, over it the blades float in the wind.
I have made a footprint, over it I bend the stalk to pluck the ears.
I have made a footprint, over it the blossoms lie gray.
I have made a footprint, smoke arises from my house.
I have made a footprint, there is cheer in my house.
I have made a footprint, I live in the light of day.[v]

-– Jane Hirshfield


What types of footprints have you made in your writing life? What type of footprints do you want to make in the future?

Write about shuffling through a crowded aisle, strangers touching the length of their bodies, ignoring each other. When your dog sits at your feet or dancing into the wee hours of the night.[vi]

Describe what it feels like when someone touches your toes or rubs lotion on your feet.  Write about your first experience of getting your feet wet, getting cold feet, or putting your best foot forward literally or metaphorically.



[i]  Brandeis, G.  (2002). Fruitflesh: Seeds of inspiration for women who write. pp. 45-46.

[ii] From “#14” in the Kabir Book translated by Robert Bly p. 2 Writing from the Body John Lee

[iii] Herring, L. (2007). Writing Begins with the Breath: Embodying Your Authentic Voice. Boston: Massachusetts: Shambhala Publications, p. 23.

[iv] “Listen” by Linda Lancione Moyer. Retrieved June 5, 2014 from

[v] Women in Praise of the Sacred:43 Centuries of Spiritual Poetry by Women,

p. 198.

[vi]  Brandies, G. (2002). Fruitflesh: Seeds of inspiration for women who write.p. 122.


Debbie spent 30 years as a registered nurse. She became a certified applied poetry facilitator and journal-writing instructor in 2007. She is currently a student in the Johns Hopkins Science-Medical Writing program. Her publications have appeared in Journal of Poetry TherapyStudies in Writing: Research on Writing Approaches in Mental HealthWomen on Poetry: Tips on Writing, Teaching and Publishing by Successful WomenStatement CLAS Journal, The Journal of the Colorado Language Arts Society, and Red Earth Review.