Women’s Joy Circle: Celebrating Beauty

Henna design at 36 hours

self-decoration with henna

Every Monday, the Greensboro Women’s Joy Circle meets to share stories, sip tea, brag, write, stretch, dance, and meditate…every week it is a different constellation of women, and every week we explore a new theme as we continue to build daring, joyful lives.  On Tuesdays, I share what we’ve learned with you.

Okay, disclaimer:  the women’s joy circle didn’t actually meet this week.  My wonderfully intelligent body kicked the crap out of me because I had decided to take a trip that my spirit, mind, and intuition were all warning me against.  (“Just try to go NOW” purred my body from its supine position, too feverish to allow me even to pick up the phone and cancel my airplane ticket.)  There is a treatment when sickness has progressed this far: it is called SHUT UP AND LISTEN.  As in, put your echinacea tincture down, girl, get some sleep, and next time your intuition kicks in PAY ATTENTION.  All right, all right.  Sheesh.  Anyway, what follows is a description of a women’s circle from last month.

We congregated to celebrate beauty.  We stood in that circle and took each others’ hands and looked in each others’ eyes and decided that we would make our own definitions of beauty that night; that we would love and celebrate and affirm what we saw.  And then I passed out bellydance scarves and put on this song and we were off.  We practiced hip circles, and rib circles; we learned to flutter our bellies and shimmy like fiends.  Some of us had never bellydanced before.  It didn’t matter.  This is a female dance form, sinuous and cyclical.  It comes pretty naturally and feels wonderful.  It is felt beauty, moving like this, letting the body spiral and shake, and laughter bubbled out naturally from all of us.

Bodies warm and loved, hearts full, we sat on the floor and I brought out my little bags of prepared henna I like to soak henna powder in strong coffee or tea overnight when I use it for body decoration, mixing it as thick as toothpaste.  Then I place it in ziplock baggies and cut the tip from one corner, which allows me to squeeze it out in thin lines.  Prepare the skin beforehand with essential oil of lavender, then squeeze the henna paste onto your skin in your desired pattern; there are many possibilities here or you can come up with whatever feels right for you in the moment.

I suggested we celebrate a part of the body that was often derided or neglected, a part of us that we needed to make peace with.  Almost all of us chose our bellies.  The mamas, especially.  This  center of our intuition and instinct, this home for the feeling body, this most vulnerable and tender and resilient home of life,  is treated with such disgust and hatred and contempt.  By US.  But not tonight! The music played on and we sprawled on the floor, decorating each other, filling the air with happy chatter and the scent of lavender.

As the henna paste dried (usually this takes a half an hour at least; don’t remove it until it is crumbling off on its own) we sipped rose petal chai and ate chocolate layer cake from crystal plates.  One by one, we took turns in the center of the circle.  Each woman in the outer circle gave a  sincere compliment to the woman in the center.  To each compliment she could respond only: “Thank you, it’s true.”  Accepting compliments with grace is so very beautiful, and watching it happen so very moving.  (gratitude to Mama Gena for this exercise!)

The music played again as we washed dishes, and gently brushed the dry henna paste from our bellies, blotting the designs with lemon juice and orris root powder to preserve them. We gathered the circle in and held hands once more, replete with appreciation for the beauty that surrounds and fills us always.


I would like to make an observation here about the nature of these circles.  There is a general perception (that has been voiced to me a number of times) that self-care is a self-serving cycle of pedicures and navel gazing and feather boas, that it is a bourgeois indulgence for the pampered upper classes.  Let me share some of my thoughts on this.  I’ve gone into it a bit in this post but I’d like to elaborate a little, because the subject of pleasure has been much on my mind and heart lately.

At this time on Earth, many to most of us are caught in a punishing system that allows little flexibility or possibility for luxury.  There are many demands on our mental and physical energy; systems are collapsing all around us.

Especially insidious among the activist movements I’ve participated in is the idea that to be happy when there is so much suffering in the world, to have enough when others don’t, to even feel joy or pleasure at all when the world still has torture and genocide, is somehow immoral or a betrayal. As a result we activists, feeling the weight of the world on our shoulders, push and push and push ourselves for the changes we believe in…and, ultimately, let our cause down when we invariably self destruct.
This all-too-frequent misconception that self-care is some kind of bourgeois add-on, when really it is an essential, intrinsic approach to life, hurts us.  It weakens our resilience.  Yes, some of us have very few choices, but when making those choices, we should always take our own well being and joy into account. Choosing joy is not selfish because true joy is what lights you up to burn through eight hours of community work, or fuels you to care for others around you, or gives you the extra energy to envision ingenious solutions that you simply couldn’t perceive if you were burning yourself out daily.
Yes, some of us are forced to burn ourselves out daily making ends meet to feed  children, and some of us are caught in torture camps, and some of us do fourteen hours of hard labor every day.  Our women’s circle includes women who fight for immigration reform and farm worker’s rights while raising children on their own, women who comfort the dying and grieving in the emergency ward, women who care for disabled and mentally ill foster children.   In the face of all of this, the broken and torn and impossibly difficult face of life, these women continue to love.  They continue to move forward under the weight of desperately painful burdens.
And in these circumstances, deciding not to take care of themselves would be incredibly selfish.  What happens when we women collapse under our burdens? Everyone around us falls down. This miserable, depleted world needs change, and  we’re not going to bring it about through self-depletion and misery!
For those that fear the pursuit of pleasure is just going to be a perpetual cycle of candlelit baths and boas and trips to Bali: I’ve noticed that once a person feels fulfilled and strong in their joy, the next step is almost invariably to reach out a hand and try to bring as many others along as possible.
I’ve learned in my study of permaculture that the more complex a system is, the more elements are

Backyard Food Forest

Backyard Food Forest (Photo credit: Kirsty S)

designed in to provide shade or warmth or nutrients, the healthier the overall system will be.  I have also learned that an ailing or infected plant lowers the productivity of the entire guild.  We are each of us elements in a system.  The stronger, more radiant, more joyful we are, the higher the yield of our system.  Thank you, it’s true.

If this topic interests you, this article provides an interesting counterargument:


March 5, 2013 · 3:11 am

4 responses to “Women’s Joy Circle: Celebrating Beauty

  1. maureenoleary

    There is essential truth in the counterargument article, but you wouldn’t tell a relief worker in a country wracked with starvation not to eat. I’ve been on the other side of burnout from lack of self care while toiling away at an urban charter high school. My burnout was horrible for my students and my family. And if you think poor people don’t get manicures once in a while too, you’re crazy. Living a life of balance and joy is important no matter who you are or what the circumstances of your life. If we truly mean to live among other people rather than just administer to them, then we are unembarrassed about looking after ourselves and others. If we are truly all one, then neglecting the self isn’t any better than neglecting the other.

  2. it’s so great to hear your perspective on it. I’m reminded of the Howard Thurman quote:

    “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

  3. Pingback: Women’s Joy Circle: Living an Authentic Life | truebeautyalways

  4. Pingback: Women’s Joy Circle: Exorcising ‘Everybody’ | truebeautyalways

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