Mikaya Heart is an award-winning author and a coach in the art of being
fully alive. www.mikayaheart.org
I am a 59-year-old woman. As a teenager, growing up in Scotland, I wore make-up, dressed up, and worried constantly about looking good. Then when I was 19, in the seventies, I became a hippie and overnight I stopped spending so much energy on how I looked, wandering around happily in an old jacket and worn jeans. It was a great relief not to be spending so much time, energy and money on my appearance, particularly since it had generated a lot of attention from men, which was frequently difficult to handle. Interestingly, I found that men were still attracted to me when I ceased to obsess about my looks; and they were much more the kind of men I liked, men who were actually interested in me, rather than just wanting to have sex.
A few years later, I started making love with women and came out as a lesbian. I identified as a butch dyke, which meant I usually wore my hair very short, and never wore a skirt. Nowadays I sometimes feel like that is a dress code to which I don’t want to adhere but in the eighties it was great. Within the lesbian community I really claimed my body as my own and completely stopped worrying what other people thought of my looks. I just embraced myself the way I was, and I am really grateful I was able to do that. I escaped the beauty trap, accepting that beauty is an inside job. I don’t know that I would have been able to do any of this, though, if I were not naturally self-confident. I wouldn’t wish it to be any other way, but over the years it has certainly required courage to be so nakedly myself in a world that has a limited view of how women should look.
Strangers often assume (without thinking about it) that I am a man and although I really don’t care, it tends to be difficult because other people are so embarrassed by their mistake. Don’t get me wrong: I like being a woman, I just can’t see why it matters if I am not immediately recognized as female, and I don’t consider society’s obsession with gender as my problem. The severity of the issue and how much I am affected by it varies geographically. It’s easiest in the San Francisco Bay Area, where many women look like me. In other places, particularly in Brazil, I’ve been harassed going into women’s toilets and I’ve had very unpleasant experiences on public transport in Muslim countries where women are afraid of sitting next to someone whom they perceive as male.
In the US, my apparent age is more of an issue for me. My hair is gray and I have spent many years working outdoors, without taking good care of my skin, so my face is very wrinkled—‘weathered’ is what people say when they want to be polite. Since most women of my age are trying hard to look younger and I am not, people tend to assume I am in my sixties. It’s a problem when I am kitesurfing, which is my favorite pastime, because the other kitesurfers on the beach think that I’m going to be a liability. Once they see me out on the water, jumping higher than they can and making it look easy, they treat me very respectfully. I am always torn between wishing they had treated me respectfully to start with and delighting in the fact that I have blown their stereotypes to smithereens.
Although I am not into being traditionally attractive according to media standards, I do enjoy playing around with the way my body looks. I have tattoos—a dragon on my arm and a snake on my back—and I love to use henna to create red stripes in my gray hair, so those factors mitigate being seen as an older person (and therefore infirm, although of course no one would say that to my face and would certainly never say it if they knew me). When I am traveling alone, which I do a great deal, the tattoos and the hair say something like: here is an interesting and different woman who can take care of herself. The people who are intrigued are the kind I will probably get along with; those who dismiss me as weird are exactly the ones I don’t want to know. Nevertheless, although I can rarely be bothered to work at changing my appearance in order to ‘fit in,’ I am aware that how I look sometimes alarms people. But how we actually look is only one aspect of what we are projecting. There is the physical body and then there is the energetic body, which people pick up on without even realizing what they are doing. I am a peace-loving person, with benevolent energy, and that makes me acceptable in places where I might not otherwise be welcome. That is not just a matter of luck—it’s a character trait I have deliberately developed because life would be lonely if I scared everyone away.
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