“Beware, so long as you live, of judging men by their outward appearance.”~ Jean de La Fontaine.
Sometimes it is hard to imagine how far we have traveled in the past 60 years. Even less than that. Nowadays you can tell the age of a movie from the presence (or absence) of cell phones, and if one is present – by the cell phone itself. I was a child in England at a time when we had a rotary dial telephone. It took forever to wait for that dial to return to baseline, before you could put your finger in the next hole. And if you made a mistake you would have to start all over again!
I also grew up with certain expected levels of behavior; in social settings, among elders, speaking when spoken to. It only took a glance at a parent’s face to know whether you had drifted out of your lane. Even the clothes we wore had to be appropriate. As a little girl, the first time I wore a pair of long pants in the winter, a church member was quite tickled, and called me ‘Mrs. Jones’s little boy!’. In Jamaica, girls did not wear shorts outside of their home, they were definitely inappropriate attire on the street. And speaking of long pants, it was dresses only for females when we went to church. Our wardrobes were very much categorized: church clothes; school uniforms; play (or yard) clothes; and if we had a special occasion to go to, we usually had to have a dress made by a local dressmaker.
Last weekend I had the privilege of attending a fund-raising event put on by a chapter of my high school’s past students’ association. The guest of honor was Ms. Jamaica Universe (and second runner up in the Miss Universe pageant), Davina Bennett. She is an alumna of the same high school, and you can imagine how proud we are of her, with her attention grabbing defiantly proud natural afro. But apart from her poised dignity and patient beauty, it was the performance of a young dancer that had a huge impact on me. During the evening’s program (a formal gala event which ended as all such Jamaican affairs do, with joyful music and energetic dancing), onto the dance floor marched a tiny eight-year-old girl. The music started (‘I’m a lady’ by Meghan Trainor) and this young performer demanded our attention with her foot stomping, arm waving, body twisting moves. She pranced across the floor, energetically using every part of her being to emphasize the message: “I’m a lady”. There were no delicate, ladylike moves, contrary to how we might think a lady should act. Unlike some dances which are oversexualized, this was pure power; a girl in charge of her body, a girl joyously demanding that we embrace whoever she is and may become. I have no idea whether her dance was choreographed for the occasion, or whether others may know the dance and wonder why I don’t. To be honest my comfort zone when it comes to music is the 70’s! In fact I had to use the google just to identify the singer of the song!
As I watched and admired the way she owned the floor, I realized that this solo performer was doing what you are never supposed to do: she had her back to the audience. She was dancing for the Queen: for Ms. Davina Bennett who sat at the head table on the stage. Whether by design or not, it seemed perfectly natural. This little girl with her afro puff hairdo was paying tribute to a young woman who could have tamed her tresses and conformed to the approved beauty queen model. She could have looked like any of the other queens, been indistinguishable from beauties from South America or India, she could have blended into the crowd. She was dancing for the Queen of ‘Fros herself!
It is hard to be yourself when others are constantly judging you. And those who dare to be different, to put themselves in the public eye have to be immune to the constant stream of criticism which may drown out messages of support and love. It appears to be human nature to automatically judge, to decide what behavior is acceptable, and what is beyond the pale. But trendsetters are always going to buck the norm. What is commonplace today (eating in public, talking on the phone at dinner, females with tattoos) was frowned upon in the past.
As I enjoyed the little girl’s demand to be respected on her own terms, I reflected that I could imagine my mother being quite perplexed. She would be puzzled by the contradiction between how she had been taught that a ‘lady’ should behave, and the kick-ass moves of this tiny young female. I must confess that I often see things through the filter of my mother – who knew she could still speak so loudly inside my head! Even from the grave I can see her furrowed brow. I remember my own daughter (at about the age of 5) once entertaining us with her own dance creation, modeled after the videos on MTV, and seeing my mother’s face. It was a picture of conflict: disapproval and confusion fighting with the knowledge that she was supposed to be supportive and admiring of her granddaughter’s life affirming moves.
It is hard to approve and applaud someone when you are judging them, when you are applying outdated mores and tired societal rules. When you start by allowing someone to be who they are, when you suspend judgment, it is possible to instead appreciate and embrace change and diversity. The only way we grow is by challenging ourselves to change our viewpoint, to enlarge our horizons.
On this Friday morning I hope you will try to see something from another’s point of view before being quick to condemn. I hope you will embrace the differences in our society, rather than wanting everyone to conform to one set of values and ideals. And I hope you get an opportunity to wear your hair au natural, stomp your feet and declare yourself to be a lady! Or a man! Or whoever you wish to be!
Have a wonderful weekend Family!