Me and henna, we go way back. I think I started hennaing my hair when I was in college, continued on and off over the years, with perhaps a long stretch when I lived near a store in the East Village that had the best henna ever, sold loose in large glass jars. I haven’t used it in awhile, other than to celebrate a wedding or a holiday (where it is applied just to my hands, although I’d love some day to have hennaed feet), but I am still in love with its magic.
I remember the way it feels, the way its scent lingered on my scalp, on my pillow, like that of fresh-cut hay. I loved mixing it with warm water it and smearing it over my hair like mud, letting it dry, then washing it off to discover its ever so subtle tint which made my already reddish-blondish-brownish hair a bit brighter, redder.
When I read today on Boing-Boing about a woman named Sara in Hong Kong who used henna to decorate children’s chemo-bald heads, a “dress-up” of sorts for the Muslim Eid holiday, I thought it was one of the most beautiful things ever. Surely anyone with a heart would agree.
The little girl’s joyful smile is framed by the swirls and sparkles painted on her smooth head. You can tell that she felt special, magical, beautiful, even fortunate, a rare thing to feel when the world seems to be plotting against you.
The organization which served as inspiration to the Sara was Henna Heals whose site includes very moving and beautiful photos and stories of women facing similar challenges.
Beauty is a strangely subjective and elusive thing, isn’t it?
I’ve had conversations recently with my older daughter about beauty, and one thing she often repeats is that she doesn’t understand why people care what they look like when they are “old” (which to her most likely means over 30). I know that she is referring to the liberation that she imagines comes with age, one which she certainly sees evidence of in my worldview, when one can settle into one’s self without the pressure of a perfection whose definition gradually broadens and grows more forgiving with each year passed, each crisis survived.
I suppose you could replace “old” with “ill” or any other word that represents a diversion from the traditional ideals of beauty, and her question might be the same. What I tried to express to her is that looking beautiful is something we all wish for, yet in different ways and on different levels. Everyone cares how they look, if only in our own eyes when we catch a glimpse in the mirror. We feel better when our faces and bodies reflect the best image we have of ourselves, even if that image is on hiatus, due to illness, or fading, due to growing older.
The lovely children in the chemo ward were thrilled with their own beauty, savoring no doubt the way they were pampered, the way they were admired for the colorful flowers and shimmers on their heads. The dying woman in the hospice feels comforted by a spot of lipstick on her parched lips, by a comb run through her hair and a clean robe. Beauty can be as simple as it can be complex and this story reminded me that it is something we can offer another, freely and generously. Helping someone to feel beautiful is one of the most joyful, loving ways we can show how much we care, and often it involves just a kind word, a simple gesture or offer of assistance.
Genevieve Levin is a henna artist who paints on bodies. Catherine Musinsky describes in this inspiring short film by Brynmore Williams what it felt to have her breast, the one she lost to breast cancer, painted with henna.
Every single time I had been in that position, with my arms open, my shirt off, being treated in some way, it was invasive, painful, and sad. And for the first time I’m in the same position, but people are walking by and telling me how beautiful I am. And this was like the… putting an end, it was like closing off that experience and saying “OK, now we’ll bring beauty and health to whatever was there before. Ritual transformation of one energy into the next, it changed my whole way of seeing that it has its own unique kind of beauty.