By Julie Machado
On a recent quest to learn improvisation and jazz piano, I discovered how much effort and practice is needed to make something that requires great skill look effortless. I thought improvisation on the piano, specifically in jazz, was something you closed your eyes and felt your way through, without much thought or preparation. I couldn’t have been further from the truth.
I soon learned improvisation and jazz piano involves not only knowing what key you are playing in but all types of chords related to that key – intervals of fifths, sixths, sevenths, etc. – and countless mathematical details that blew my mind. I asked my teacher, “Do you think Mozart was really thinking about all these numbers? He wasn’t just playing his feelings and it happened to have these cadences?”
My teacher assured me Mozart was indeed thinking about all of the music theory behind the playing when he composed. I have since given up my dream of becoming a jazz pianist.
Some Instagram Wisdom
Much akin to the piano playing example, the Bates sisters, who I follow on Instagram, make looking pretty and having babies look effortless to me. They are an amazing team. Three of the sisters own a boutique and have a comfortable, modest, maternal style which is at the same time completely fashionable and stylish.
Perhaps my sense of effortlessness comes from the fact that one sister owns a makeup and hair company called “Effortless Beauty”!
All of them exercise regularly and have skin care routines. All of them wear makeup, get their nails done and style their hair. They post daily Instagram stories in which they look great and their babies look great, dressed in earth tones from head to toe. Several of them recently had their second and fourth babies, and they still go on Instagram live, looking amazing, their babies dressed up in bows and cute clothes, doing fun things and making it all seem so effortless.
Somehow they make it look like the jazz pianist improvising because anyone who has even had just one baby knows it is not easy.
One thing that I find interesting is that the Bates sisters are focused on the mission that seems specific to them: to look pretty and have babies. They admit they don’t like reading. They don’t write or have full-time careers. One of the sisters doesn’t work outside the home at all and just seems to drink iced coffee all day!
Here where I live in Portugal there are words reserved for women who only “look pretty” and stay at home, and they are not positive. One such word is “dondoca” a term that implies the woman is worthless. Sometimes putting on makeup and putting a lot of care into appearance is associated with having little intellectual life. You seem to only be able to have one or the other: the cult of the mind or the cult of the body. That cultural stigma is enormous and quite unfair.
On the contrary, my belief is that care for personal hygiene and appearance are a sign of mental health and an act of charity for others. It’s been shown that women in nursing homes who wear lipstick are more likely to live longer and happier than women who don’t. A Spanish Catholic psychiatrist, Marian Rojas, says, “Be the best version of yourself.” That is very good advice, echoed by many spiritual and self-help authors nowadays.
When I look at the Bates sisters, I can’t think of a single thing they could do to look better. They experiment with makeup and clothes, but they always inspire me to put more work into my appearance. When I look at some friends, I feel sad that they look like they are aging badly, gaining weight, greying, or wearing ugly clothes. If someone were to ask if they exercise, they would likely say, “I don’t have time for that” with a victimized sigh.
The Iconic Nature of Beauty
There is a theology to this. A woman’s exterior beauty is a symbol of her spiritual and interior beauty, which never fades. In Pope John Paul II’s amazing work, Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, he makes this powerful observation:
The whole exterior constitution of a woman’s body, its particular look, the qualities that stand, with the power of a perennial attraction…are in strict union with motherhood. With the simplicity characteristic of it, the Bible (and the liturgy following it) honors and praises throughout the centuries “the womb that carried you and the breasts at which you nursed” (Lk 11:27). These words are a eulogy of motherhood, of femininity, of the feminine body in its typical expression of creative love. And in the Gospel these words refer to the Mother of Jesus, Mary, the second Eve. (p. 212)
We are all called to “give beauty slowly” as the pope remarks elsewhere, but this is especially true of women. I heard once at a Theology of the Body conference that Industrial Revolution (late 19th century) made us all anxious to get and do things quickly and that the Sexual Revolution made us live for pleasure.
In this way, the world lives by the motto “get pleasure quickly” whereas the Christian should live in the opposite direction by “giving beauty slowly”.
Just as looking pretty is devalued and even disdained, having babies is even more apparently useless to the culture. A friend told me recently that the Church is patriarchal and the “only” thing women can do is procreate. Although this was meant as a criticism, the core of it has a ring of truth. It is woman’s mission to accept, bear, and bring forth life, normally in the natural sense but also and always in the spiritual sense.
Women are life-givers of their very nature. The word “matrimony” means, in essence, the making of a mother, and there can be no greater work or sign in this world than bearing children. Perhaps that is why child-bearing is so reviled and pushed aside as irrelevant today.
What work in our lifetime could be more important and meaningful than co-creating an eternal soul with God? This person will not just outlive us here on earth but will live forever with us and with the communion of saints in heaven. What work could be more important than raising that soul in a godly way and influencing and forming that little soul? It is a work that lasts, literally, forever.
Openness to Life
God does not call everyone to be fruitful in the bodily sense, but He does call all to a particular openness to life, which is of the essence of the Church’s teaching about marriage. This virtue is also a courageous decision in our cultural context that requires overcoming short-term vision and cultural criticism, as well as financial and physical obstacles.
No one ever has enough money, enough time, enough health, or enough energy for one more child. Paradoxically, there is nothing more worth it in this world. This privilege of co-creating an entirely new person with God is stronger than our suffering, more enduring than our circumstances, and even more powerful than death.
Openness to life is very personal for women, in a very direct sense. Pope John Paul makes some observations in his 1995 Letter to Women that are relevant to this truth:
Perhaps more than men, women acknowledge the person, because they see persons with their hearts. They see them independently of various ideological or political systems. They see others in their greatness and limitations; they try to go out to them and help them. In this way the basic plan of the Creator takes flesh in the history of humanity and there is constantly revealed, in the variety of vocations, that beauty-not merely physical, but above all spiritual-which God bestowed from the very beginning on all, and in a particular way on women. (John Paul II, Letter to Women, 12)
Perfect Advent and Christmas Messaging
This Advent let us look to Mary as example and guide on our pilgrimage on this long and dusty road called life. She reminds us that God’s most extraordinary work is done in the most minute, and even at times reviled, ordinary events.
We are called to trust in God’s plan, although our lives may seem meaningless and not what we would’ve chosen for ourselves. A final insight from the greatest Marian pope of our time, John Paul II:
The Church sees in Mary the highest expression of the “feminine genius” and she finds in her a source of constant inspiration. Mary called herself the “handmaid of the Lord” (Lk 1:38). Through obedience to the Word of God she accepted her lofty yet not easy vocation as wife and mother in the family of Nazareth. Putting herself at God’s service, she also put herself at the service of others: a service of love. Precisely through this service Mary was able to experience in her life a mysterious, but authentic “reign”. (John Paul II, Letter to Women, 10 )
After all, what did Mary do that was so important in salvation history? She just looked pretty (the Fatima Shepherd children said she was a “beautiful lady”). And she just had a Baby.
We must all do our part to fight the negative stereotypes of motherhood and childbearing in modern culture. Nowhere have these sacred realities been more reviled and stigmatized than in the paganized world handed to us in the wake of radical feminism.
For those who are still in their childbearing years, pray deeply for the grace to live the beautiful virtue of “openness to life”, which the Church tells us is the essence of God’s Trinitarian love for the world. He had no need at all to give life to anyone else, but His life overflowed into the beauty of creation, and so should ours.
For those who have no chance or vocation to co-create children with God, make sure you defend innocent human life, marriage, motherhood, and family life to the greatest extent in a world that is increasingly hostile to these gifts. All efforts we make to protect and defend these great joyful gifts receive in turn blessings from God.
We have the greatest allies of life on our side: the Mother of Life and her Child, Life Himself.
Julie Machado was born and raised in California, but now lives in Lisbon, Portugal with her husband and five children. She has a master’s in Theology and a special interest in John Paul II and his Theology of the Body. You can find more of her writing at http://martajuliemaria.blogspot.com/p/writing.html
Great article! Your comments about Mary’s ordinary life made me think of the “Mary on the Mantle” alternative to “Elf on the Shelf”…Mary moves around the house preparing for the birth of Christ, making beautiful even the mundane labor (https://beaheart.com/blogs/blog/mary-on-the-mantel).
Thanks for the comment, Katie.
That is a really great quote and point to think about during this season.
I really like this piece. I wonder if you’ve witnessed the same phenomenon in Portugal that I’ve seen in the US—I grew up thinking smarter women shouldn’t invest in appearance and that doing so was below my education/intelligence/social status (manicures, tans, curling irons, gym memberships were for the “Bates” of the world)…but we were still only upper middle class, where there was no upper class, and not in a major metropolis. Now that I live near a major city, I’ve realized the most educated women, even stay at home moms, do invest significant time and energy into their appearances. It’s taken me some time together over my childhood prejudices and accept it’s okay to put some effort into my appearance.
Yes, I see the same phenomenon and stereotype in Portugal. I also live in a big city, Lisbon. Portuguese women don’t usually wear makeup. Spanish women do more often. A lot of Portuguese women study science (there are more female doctors than male) and have social status because of their job or degree. So it seems the less they invest in their appearance (makeup, hair, exercise), the more they seem intellectual and to be investing in their job/degree. “I don’t have time for that,” they usually say.
Beautiful article, Julie. You bring together ourdays culture with everlasting truths in a very elegant fashion.
I don’t want to nitpick, but would like to mention one line which me made me pause:
“When I look at some friends, I feel sad that they look like they are aging badly, gaining weight, greying, or wearing ugly clothes.”
Those words increase stereotypical and outdated notions about aging or “looking old.”
There are a great number of women nowadays who are aging gracefully, and embrace this part of life while looking radiant and fabulous with their natural grey/silver/white hair.
There are more than a few FB groups which can attest to the power of embracing one’s graying hair, instead of using hair dye which oftentimes looks unnatural, brassy, and much too dark. Such women are usually tune with their skincare needs as well as what’s required in their wardrobe and makeup palette to accommodate the changes in the mirror.
Gray hair should not be interpreted as a sign that one has “given up,” on her appearance and needs to be pitied.
Again, I enjoyed this article, and treasured my years of being at home raising our children, all of whom are now young adults. I miss those days!
“ The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world “