Zentangle Day One

Banji’s gotten me into a new trend: Zentangle. The basic idea is to use drawing purposeful, repetitive strokes to enter a calm, zen state – what artists tend to call being “in the zone.” I’ve been having a lot of fun flipping through Banji’s Zentangle books for inspiration and trying things as they meet my fancy.

One of the books she has is particularly interesting: One Zentangle a Day by Beckah Krahula. It teaches the Zentangle method over the course of 6 weeks. I like the idea of having a more structured approach to learning an artistic method, and frankly I need the daily zen practice. I’m hoping it will help me to quiet my mind, focus, and be more intentional in my everyday living – and to manage my anxious depression symptoms.

I started out on the kitchen table with just the book, the same sketchbook I drew the dark horse in, a regular ball point pen (black ink), and a mechanical .7 mm pencil.

A table top with the book "One Zentangle a Day," a sketchbook, a green mechanical pencil, a purple pen, and a square piece of white paper.

I was glad I could start out using items I already own.

After practicing today’s tangles a few times in the sketchbook, I started my Zentangle. I took a 3.5″ x 3.5″ piece of acid free drawing paper, used my pencil to draw a dot in each corner and connect them, and drew a couple of lines to separate the drawing area into 5 sections. Then I used my pen to fill each section with one of the 3 tangles I’d just learned.

The process was relaxing and a lot of fun! I love focusing in on one small area, doing the same repetitive motion over and over again, and then zooming back out to see a much more interesting and dynamic whole than I had expected. Happiness rushed through me – not the calm, contented, “zen” happiness I had expected, but an excited, engaged, and active energy. I focused it in on each stroke of my pen and savored the feeling of that energy flowing through me.

In the meantime, my mind would allow only brief moments of silence, when the only thing happening was drawing the Zentangle. I didn’t have any music playing, so it decided to play “Let It Go” from Frozen. I’ve started learning the piano part, so I’ve got the introduction fresh in my mind, playing on repeat, very slowly. It’s in minor, so if you slow it down too much it gets rather depressing. I’ve been trying to nudge my mind into playing the whole song at the correct tempo, with the lyrics in the correct order.

My mind decided that, instead of acquiescing to my request, it was going to play around with the melody and rhythm – essentially, creating its own variations on the opening of “Let It Go.” I grinned. I can totally do that for fun, and I’d love to jot down the melodies as my mind comes up with them. They could make great inspiration for an original composition.

I liked it a lot less when my mind decided to start going into things I need to do in the near future. I told it that this is time to focus on drawing. The redirection was a lot easier than I’d expected. Drawing is fun and relaxing, and my mind likes being creative.

When I finished working in pen, I started to feel anxious and a little angry. I didn’t want to be finished! I wanted to keep Zentangling! But then I realized that I still needed to add shading. “You wanted to keep going. Well, we’re not finished. Help me shade this.” Once again I zoomed in, not worrying about how the gestalt would look, but following the procedure. “You’re supposed to shade this part of the tangle.” I had my own interpretation for one of them, but I was consistent. I relished the new visual textures I was creating.

Then I zoomed out, and wow! My Zentangle looks as good as any of the ones in the various books I’ve had the pleasure of flipping through. I love looking at it as much as I enjoyed drawing it. And I get to make one of these every day! It’s fantastic. I want to share it with everyone.

original artwork by Ziya Tamesis

original artwork by Ziya Tamesis

On the back I wrote: “One Zentangle a Day, Day 1, 3/31/14, [my home address], kitchen table.” I appropriated a plastic storage container for this and any future Zentangles, my remaining 3.5″ x 3.5″ squares, and the cardboard cutouts I have for making new squares and circles. It, unlike far too many items in this house, has a specific home that is easily accessible.

Whose Goals Are These, Anyway?

It’s been four years since I realized the sadness that usually hits mid-January to mid-February wasn’t lifting, and decided to get help. Almost four years – let’s call it 3.5 years – of working with Wakana; in all this time we never discussed my goals. What do I want to get out of therapy? Under what circumstances will I decide I no longer need it?

Well, so far I’ve grown a great deal. I’ve learned the importance of setting and enforcing boundaries. I’ve learned that doing so doesn’t mean I don’t love the other person; it can actually help me love them better. I’ve gained more respect for myself, even coming to view myself as inherently worthy of love, boundaries, healing, etc. I’ve gained a stronger sense of my own identity and what I’m passionate about. I’ve reclaimed academic learning/achievement and music making as things I do primarily for myself – well, for the most part. I’m still working on practicing piano and guitar for myself and not to impress my teachers.

I still have some important things to work on. A lot of the emotions and experiences I’d suppressed are coming up again, with the potential to undermine entire days. I’m not sure I ever fully processed my emotions around needing to maintain extremely high levels of academic achievement to keep my parents’ relationship from descending into utter chaos. That seems like something I can let go of, though, especially since now I know that most of their problems had nothing to do with me, and the academic achievement did have some benefits for me. I’ve finally forgiven my father for his mistakes and, more importantly, released myself from the disappointment I felt.

There’s still the matter of my father’s family of origin, whom I’ve been distancing myself from; I haven’t spoken to them in ages and part of why I took Fox’s last name is so I would no longer have the same last name as them. They were horrible to my mom and clearly only pretended to care about me; they abandoned me as soon as I began asserting myself (and my right to receive part of the inheritance from my grandmother).

I’m fine with them not being part of my life anymore, but clearly I’m still angry about what happened. I’m definitely angry at my father’s brother, and I’m not sure if there’s also residual anger at his sister that’s still repressed. She just disappeared – whereas he failed to take on the role my parents had trusted him with when I was born, tried to manipulate me, and had the gall to show up at my uncle’s funeral. I feel threatened by his ability to reappear when I’m at my most vulnerable and remind me of all this shit; I’d much rather just be able to move on with my life.

And then there’s my mom. She’s been providing for my material needs and I’m very grateful for that. She cares and she wants to be supportive but somehow our interactions always become about me tending to her needs at the expense of my own. Even my desire for her to take care of me in my time of illness, to finally be able to open up to her and trust and be nurtured by her… in the end, it just keeps me from becoming self-sufficient and reaching out to others who can help fulfill those needs. At times I feel like an angry baby screaming at the top of my lungs that someone should coordinate all my mental health care for me and bring me to therapy and so on. It would be nice, considering she was willing to temporarily relocate to drive her brother around, if Mom would do something similar for me. Instead I get to be responsible for Dog for at least a few more weeks, and who knows what will come up once she’s home again?

But I’m an adult, and on good days I’m fairly high-functioning. I’d prefer not to have to make certain phone calls, but I can do it. (And I do believe the process should be streamlined to make care more accessible to those who need it the most.) Hopefully my insurance will include someone to coordinate my mental health care, once my coverage starts (in 9 days)… and if it doesn’t I’ll be disappointed but not incapable of figuring that stuff out on my own. I’ve already looked up a primary care provider and psychiatrist, each of whom is part of my plan and within easy driving distance. If they don’t work out for some reason, I’ll just keep looking until I find someone who does. As much as I want support in dealing with this shit, I can’t let lack of support keep me from receiving the care I need. (No, I don’t think I can rely on Fox for help with this.)

As for other goals, I’m at a weird place where everything from my loved ones to Wakana to my own inclinations suggests I need to “get a job” and preferably start my career. Ideally I will complete and perhaps even use my master’s degree. That seems like a – if not the – primary goal of my therapy: rehabilitation, so I can be a productive member of society. Right? Wakana certainly seems to think so.

Yet, every time I get a nudge in that direction, I dig in my heels. It feels like a death sentence. I’d be giving up everything I’ve worked toward these past 4 years, and going back to being a “good little girl” whose work benefits everyone else at the expense of my well-being. I’ve finally learned to put my own needs first, don’t ask me to stop in return for a paycheck… even if it is doing something I find meaningful, something that makes the world a better place. How can you ask me to abandon myself and focus on helping other people? Especially when my mother still hasn’t nurtured me?

Well, it seems obvious now, but that’s only because I allowed myself to have this gut reaction, to feel it, and to give it words. It’s out in the open, where it needs to be. My biggest fear: that if I move on with my life – starting my career, having a family, etc. – I have to stop taking care of myself. Like some authority will decide I don’t need (or deserve) mental health care anymore. I’m afraid what supports I do have will fall out from under me. That I’ll focus all my attention on taking care of others at the expense of myself.

That doesn’t have to be true. I can keep seeing Wakana; having a job might just mean we need to adjust our schedule a bit. I can certainly receive health care, even if it means having to take time off from work every once in a while. (The doctors I found work exclusively during normal business hours, when I imagine most employed people are at work.) If I do find medications that help manage my symptoms, there is nothing to keep me from taking them before, after, or even during work. I might even make better use of my free time because my life will be more structured; I won’t have the whole day to think “I’ll get to that later.” I might make friends. I might feel better about myself because I’ll see the difference I make in other people’s lives, even if it’s just helping them feel better while I’m interacting with them.

As for deciding I no longer need therapy… I don’t really know when I’ll decide I no longer need it – maybe never! I obviously don’t want to decide I no longer need it once I’ve started working again. In the past I’ve terminated therapy prematurely, in part because of problems with my therapist. So right now I don’t really trust myself to be able to tell when I’m ready to leave therapy, but that’s okay. There’s still time to figure it out.

And this blog will be here for as long as I need it. If I can’t write in this blog for some reason, I can start a new one or just journal privately. My demons will see daylight. And maybe some of them – like the fear that I’ll stop taking care of myself if I start working – will become allies.

Attempt Botched

Yesterday was one of those days a “good depressive citizen” (see last post) just doesn’t talk about. I’d wanted to visit with 2 friends in the early afternoon and overslept. I went online without thinking about it or having breakfast first like a sane person and got eaten by Facebook. Dog started barking at me; my friend texted asking for an ETA. I thought, “shit, I’d intended to get some things done before leaving today.”

I wanted to email my academic adviser but couldn’t figure out what to say. My situation isn’t the kind of thing that can be addressed in a 30-minute advising meeting; those are intended for students who pretty much just need to verify which courses they should take. It’s also not something that can’t wait a week or two – after all, it’s waited this long. I thought (based on his email, which directed students with an urgent concern that needs to be addressed this week to email him) that I’d have to commit to a meeting this week. Trying to think of a time that might work and how to juggle it with my other commitments on the same day was just too stressful.

Dog is medium sized and has a super-sized bark. It makes the oversized wind chimes I have hanging from the ceiling resonate. I’m not afraid of Dog, but when he’s standing right in front of me the bark rattles me. It certainly makes it harder to think straight; I become overwhelmed by anger and an urgent need to shut him up.

I felt guilty about being late but too frazzled to determine and communicate a realistic ETA. I underestimated the time I would need and started trying to get ready. A hasty snack, a much-needed shower, my mind racing with thoughts that had nothing to do with the task I was trying to accomplish. I always seem to think about the stuff I’ve been putting off when I need to go somewhere and can’t do anything about it.

For some reason I thought about my father’s brother, whom my parents had selected to be my godfather. He was supposed to take my father’s place if anything happened to him. Well, my father died, and for a short time it seemed like his brother might at least be able to put a band-aid on the wound. But then I realized he was trying to manipulate me and the shit hit the fan. The closest he’s come to acknowledging my existence since was leaning away from me when I was greeting people at my uncle’s funeral last year.

The anger I feel when Dog barks at me is a drop in the bucket compared to the raging storm that erupted in response to my memory of this old betrayal. I tried to file it away under “things to address with Wakana” – in a red envelope with the word “URGENT” in white letters across the front. But the damage had been done.

I sat on my bed and pulled the last pair of clean sweatpants out of my dresser. I’d decided to wear a T-shirt and throw a sweatshirt over it – nothing fancy, just warm and comfortable. But getting the clothes out of the drawer and onto my body was terrifying. My heart was pounding, all my muscles were tense, my breathing rapid and shallow. I couldn’t move.

I tried to push it all down. I threw my clothes on. I searched for my hairbrush, Dog meandering in front of me when I needed to move quickly and somehow being right behind me when I turned around.

I was about a third of the way through brushing my hair in the bathroom when I realized that I felt like I was running away from a horrible monster. I looked the part, too, except that I wasn’t sprawled on the ground from trying to run in high heels. The tears overwhelmed me; I just couldn’t take it anymore. I sat down on the toilet and cried, angry loud sobs echoing through the room.

My arms brushed my hair, I glanced in the mirror, gave my stamp of approval, and rushed out the door. Both friends were understanding, but one was very loud and that just rattled me even more. We had gathered to play a board game that took several hours the last time we played it, so we set it up as soon and as efficiently as possible.

Fox has a shirt that says “The dice are trying to kill me.” I should have been wearing that shirt, except that it’s an understatement. They were succeeding. I was miserable, but I still wanted to have a chance at winning so I kept taking bigger risks than I should have – and suffering the consequences. It was a gamer’s nightmare.

All the while the loud friend was trying to push the game along. He lectured me for paying attention to what was happening around me instead of planning my next turn – not out of any attempt to help me do better, but because he wanted me to get my turn over with so he could go. At one point he accused the other friend and me of being grumpy. We just looked at each other.

I realized too late that I was starving. Hunger, one of the things I’m supposed to stop and do something about, had gone unchecked for too long. It was almost time for dinner so I decided to wait it out. The not-loud friend won the game. Dinner was delicious and helped me to feel human again.

I got home a bit late but really wanted to watch Frozen, which had arrived in the middle of my efforts to get ready earlier. I didn’t get to go see it in theaters – another thing I’m angry about because it looks like it would be worth seeing in 3D.

I don’t want to give any spoilers, but I will say that I was very angry about how the protagonists’ parents handled the situation and could relate to Elsa all too well. Hide the most powerful and dangerous part of yourself, be a good girl, and learn to control something you don’t understand without any guidance or support. They could have at least given her a realistic definition of the word “control.”

I had 5 mostly good days in a row, and that’s incredible. They involved a lot of socializing. Yesterday, I’m not sure to what extent the weather contributed, but I really needed to spend the day in my ice palace. NOT playing games that take me out of reality, but having some space to explore and express my reality. I could have taken the time to write a very different blog post. I could have found some other way to express my emotions, perhaps through art and/or music. I could have called Wakana.

Which leaves me with today. I’m so tired, all I want to do is sleep and be close to Fox. I have two music lessons scheduled for this afternoon; my thoughts about them are a bundle of contradictions. I want to have the lessons, if nothing else because if I cancel a the last minute I can’t make them up (school policy). I also feel unprepared, guilty about not practicing and embarrassed because I know I won’t be able to play with the level of control I would like to develop. But hiding until I have it won’t work; I need my teachers to help me develop it. I’m so exhausted, all I want to do is sleep – if my mind (and Dog) will let me. It’s so tempting to go ahead and do that, then see how I feel about going to my lessons. The ice palace might build itself today, whether I want it to or not.

I Aim to Misbehave

I recently read 2 great articles about depression that I’d like to share. In Miles and Miles of No-Man’s Land, Libba Bray presents an extremely accurate depiction of what it’s like to have depression. I really love the imagery Bray uses and the recognition that depression “is not a consistent state. […] it has its manageable days and its acute, life-threatening flare-ups.” I’d recommend the article to anyone who wants a better understanding of what depression is like, or who is having depression symptoms and feels isolated. Sometimes it can feel like you’re the only one who’s ever had these terrible thoughts and feelings, and it helps to know that others have been through it too; they know what it can be like. (This is my opinion based on my own experiences.)

The other article, How to Be a Good Depressive Citizen by Ferrett Steinmetz, calls authors out on the tendency to write about depression after the fact in carefully-worded posts (like Libba Bray’s) that describe – but don’t directly express – the pain. It’s a double-edged sword: someone with depression doesn’t want to be That Person causing all this Drama on social media sites, possibly saying horrible things about their loved ones, and making everyone else feel bad. There are real risks involved in being too open online. But there’s also a need to be honest about one’s experiences while suffering from depression, to express the raw overwhelming emotions and insecurities as they happen. Believing one is not allowed to do so can make the depression worse by reinforcing the underlying assumptions that fuel it.

Being a “good depressive citizen” can also perpetuate the stigma associated with depression and other mental illnesses. It keeps controlled, “sane” descriptions of a phenomenon as the norm, the actual experience and expression of mental illness as “other,” “crazy,” “insane,” and unacceptable. It makes us invisible when we most need to be seen, incomprehensible when we most need to be understood. It invites judgment when we need empathy. It creates the illusion that depression is something that belongs in one’s past, an obstacle to overcome, and that someone who’s not actively recovering from it – showing steady improvement – is lazy or manipulative or taking advantage of someone or otherwise being bad. That illusion interferes with people’s ability to show each other – and themselves – much-needed compassion.

I found the comment by “NotDepressed” on Steinmetz’s article to be quite upsetting. I considered quoting it here, but I don’t want that kind of toxicity on my blog. There is one sentence that I will quote because it’s a great summary of the stigma we face: “I have sympathy for your plight, but not for the mindset that it should be ok.” Based on the rest of the comment, I take that to mean this person would feel bad for me because I have depression, but wouldn’t tolerate my emotions, perspectives, or behavior. They wouldn’t consider me worthy of employment – or their time. They would want me to “go get help” and come back when I can be “up-beat.”

Well, sorry, but there isn’t a magic pill I can take to make everything better. “Help” isn’t a makeover. It’s not like I forgot to brush my teeth. Recovery from mental illness (to the degree it’s even possible) is a process that takes time. And while it’s happening I still need to live my life. With all my imperfections, thanks. We all have them. And no one is up-beat all the time. (No, not even Kaylee from Firefly.)

I’m so glad this is some random stranger on the internet responding to someone else’s blog post, and not someone I actually know in real life. But I do wonder if there are people in my life who would respond that way if they found out about this part of me; I also wonder how many people with mental illness have a person like this in their life. I find these thoughts very scary and painful – even though the people I have opened up to have been accepting and supportive.

I’m also very angry that this person posted something so potentially hurtful in response to an article that people with depression are likely to read, particularly because they used second person (“you”) throughout the whole thing. When I read things written in second person, I feel like the author is “talking” to me specifically and I take their message more personally. I imagine this is likely a common response, considering how second person is most commonly used in everyday speech. Songwriters intentionally use second person to make their songs more intimate.

How dare some random stranger who has no idea what I’m experiencing tell me that expressing my emotions, thoughts, and otherwise existing as a depressed person is not okay?! How dare they say I’m wrong for accepting myself and asking others to accept me as I currently am?!

The central theme in all of my efforts to “recover” from anxious depression has been a movement toward perceiving myself as a person who has inherent worth that can’t be measured, earned, or diminished. When I perceive myself as worthwhile, I am more capable of taking care of myself, reaching out for help, taking risks, challenging destructive thought patterns, and trying the healthy behaviors people keep suggesting. I’m open to growth and new possibilities.

It’s when I doubt my worth that the worst of my symptoms flare up. Now, it’s not some random person on the internet’s responsibility to make sure that everything I read when I go online affirms my worth. From what I can tell, it’s usually my own thoughts that cause me to doubt my worth – automatic thoughts in response to triggers such as failing to do something I’d considered important. I need to address those thoughts, challenge the underlying assumptions, and sort through my emotional clutter. I also need to accept those parts of myself that I’ve rejected – and nurture the ones I’ve neglected – so I can be whole again.

And I need to be more selective about my media consumption. As I told Wakana, “I was looking for myself on Facebook, but I ended up getting lost instead.” There’s a lot of hurtful messages out there, a lot of people like “NotDepressed” thinking they can tell marginalized groups what is and isn’t acceptable behavior, or even that they just don’t deserve to exist. It’s very difficult to avoid internalizing those messages, especially if you’re constantly bombarded by them from a young age. I’d like to see less hurtful messages and more people supporting each other, using their privilege to defend marginalized groups, working together, etc. It’s there and I think it’s growing, but it’s not necessarily going to be the first thing that shows up. I need to actively seek it out.

Going back to the title of this post: The purpose of this blog is for me to write about depression as I’m experiencing it. To be honest, I find being a “good depressive citizen” much easier than expressing my deepest darkest emotions as I feel them, especially in writing. The main reason why I’ve been posting so sporadically the past few months is because my symptoms were quite severe. I was spending a lot of time playing The Sims 3 and otherwise avoiding reality. (I have to admit it: I have an addiction. A very serious, even life-threatening one.) It wasn’t that I wanted to hide what I was experiencing and be a “good depressive citizen,” but that I didn’t know how to express what I was feeling; I often felt like I didn’t really have anything to express. When I wasn’t playing The Sims 3 I was oversleeping, spending too much time on Facebook, and trying to keep up with life. There wasn’t any energy left for blogging.

Then this past week or so, something changed. We set the clocks an hour ahead. The days have been getting longer. We had a couple days that really felt like spring. I’ve been knitting and reading fiction novels. I became very angry about the way Fox and I have been living and made some efforts to clean. I actually met with Wakana in person for the first time in weeks. I had a fantastic weekend that included a visit from Banji and didn’t crash afterward. Sometimes I even feel happy for no apparent reason.

A huge part of it is that people I love and respect went out of their way to show they care about me; Fox’s immediate family even came to visit and cooked for me. I was able to talk about my feelings and concerns, feel listened to and understood, and even consider my situation from a different perspective. And I was able to reciprocate without feeling overwhelmed. That felt very good.

Another part of it is that Fox went away for the weekend to spend some time with his friends; I needed to stay home to take care of the dog. I knew I would need to get through the weekend without him so I reached out to others for help, and the result was fantastic. I got to spend time with other people I care about and found that I do quite well – possibly even better! – when I have the house to myself. I feel like my brain is working differently, and it probably is. Like a fog has been lifted and a weight has come off my shoulders. (Now, if only I could go somewhere without people I’ve known for over a decade asking me where he is!)

It’s not that I don’t love him or that I don’t want to live with him, but the way we’ve been living together really isn’t healthy for me and is probably just as bad for him. At the very least, we need to find things to get each of us out of the house interacting with other people; the times can overlap but should also provide each of us some time home alone. I’m working on asserting myself, but for the time being (and possibly forever) the only time I can really make my own decisions is when I’m alone.

So I had a great weekend and I’m feeling a lot better than I had been. I’m starting to get into my old interests again and actually do things that are meaningful to me. I want to do something to celebrate the Spring Equinox. I want to get back into focusing on my life, my career, who and what I want to be.

I want to walk away from the depression and never look back. But I know from experience that that’s not how it works. Depression is episodic; some people might be fortunate enough to only experience one episode, but it’s common for a person to experience several episodes over the course of their life. This is at least my third, it’s kind of hard to say. I still have symptoms: I’m tired and achy and grumpy (especially in the morning) and sad for no reason and anxious about leaving the house. In the middle of the awesome weekend I had to tell the Critic to stop berating me and instead help me play the passage I was sight-reading on viola. The symptoms are just less severe, and for me that feels wonderful. Miraculous.

I’m afraid it won’t last. The severity of my symptoms will fluctuate; I really hope I won’t be suicidal or inclined toward self-harm again. I do believe that I’ve grown a lot in terms of being less co-dependent, perceiving myself as a person with inherent worth, asserting myself and enforcing much-needed boundaries. I also have a lot more to learn.

I’m clinging to every good moment, especially when I feel happy for no reason. I’m also trying to let myself feel whatever I’m feeling and do something to improve my mood if necessary. Today Wakana taught me HALT: Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired. If I feel any of these I’m supposed to stop and do something about it. Maybe that will help me maintain and improve upon my current level of functioning. Even if all it does is deter the next time my symptoms become more severe, I’ll have a time when I can live life more fully. Isn’t that what this is all supposed to be about?

Whatever happens, I’ll do my best to portray it honestly.

Redefining Beauty

I’ve been seeing a lot of great articles and videos redefining beauty – the means by which we measure a woman’s worth. The new definitions make it more inclusive: you don’t have to be extremely thin, you don’t have to have perfect skin, you don’t have to be white, you don’t have to be able-bodied. You don’t have to measure your worth based purely on physical appearance. You can include attributes such as compassion, intelligence, determination, physical & emotional strength, etc. – basically, any characteristic one may find desirable in a human being can be included in the definition of beauty. They’re all valid ways to measure a woman’s worth.

One thing I find especially beautiful – or, to be more specific, inspiring – about women is their ability to redefine ideas in their culture that, to an outsider, appear to be oppressive (and may be, at least the way they are defined by the mainstream of the culture). It is an indispensable means of self empowerment in a world where a select minority are far too keen on keeping all the power for themselves. I want to applaud the people (men included) who are working so hard to redefine beauty to the point where they’re essentially telling all of us: You have worth. Whatever characteristics you have, something in there is of value to society. Be proud of who you are. Nurture and love yourself. I hope people will continue to do this because it’s a message we all need to hear, as frequently as possible. You don’t have to conform to the standards of beauty you see in the mainstream media. You have worth.

I can think of 2 lines to complete that message. The more commonly accepted one is probably: You’re already beautiful. The one I resonate with, though, is: You don’t have to be beautiful.

In other words, you don’t have to measure your worth, and you don’t have to prove it to others. You can just be yourself. You may have characteristics that are undervalued by our society, or things you’re not so good at, or even things you want to change about yourself… and that’s okay. You can still be fully who and what you are in this moment – and hold yourself in high esteem. No one has the right to treat you as anything less than their equal. (You don’t have the right to look down on anyone else, either.)

Using the words “beauty” and “beautiful” oversimplifies the way we talk to and about women. It limits our ability to acknowledge the impact women have on ourselves and on society. If I call Lupita Nyong’o’s speech “beautiful,” all I’m saying is that there was something I liked about it – for all you know, it could be the sound and rhythm of her voice or even just her physical appearance. But what if I said she made me more aware of a privilege I have as someone with light skin, because that aspect of my appearance is held as a standard she – an Academy Award-winning actress! – could never hope to attain? What if I said she is encouraging girls of color to focus more on being compassionate than on their physical appearance, particularly the darkness of their skin? What if I called her someone to look up to? An inspiration.

We don’t have a nice convenient word like “beauty” to use when talking about men. We have to be more specific. He is very charismatic. He knows everything there is to know about computers. He’s a firm but compassionate leader. He knows a lot of good jokes and is great at delivering them. He is very dedicated to his family and takes excellent care of his children. He’s the best composer/musician/writer/artist/etc. that ever lived. He’s an openly gay professional football player.

By describing specific characteristics of a person, we acknowledge their ability to influence us, and by extension to shape social ideals. We make them the acting subject who can change the world.

In contrast, all calling someone “beautiful” does is let others know we have a generally positive attitude toward them. It objectifies the person; this vibrant, complex, active human being becomes the object of our evaluation… and all we have to say is that they do indeed have worth.

So I’m going to ask people to take the redefining of beauty a step further, to make the most of an awesome thing women around the world have been doing to empower themselves for centuries. Let’s define beauty as a means of evaluating objects – art, music, architecture, machines, etc. – and not people. Let’s make a commitment to describing specific characteristics of and actions by women whom we admire. And more importantly, let’s collectively decide that everyone has inherent worth and treat each other with compassion.