Have you ever seen (and drooled over) gorgeous henna painted on someone’s pregnant belly? It’s actually part of a blessingway, the focus of this week’s feature.
Meet Victoria Welch of Blurberry Buzz Body Art, an expert in blessingways. Henna is not just her business – she lives it. She arrives at my studio with beautiful auburn hennaed hair flowing down her back, her hands and even fingernails adorned with traditional inks. She is about to open my eyes to the world of henna, a world she has inhabited for 20 years.
More than Mehndi
One of the first topics we square away is a common misconception – that henna is strictly a spiritual tool. “People think that henna is religious,” says Welch. “Henna is used by religious people, it is used in religious celebrations, but it doesn’t have a religious tie per se.”
Faiths around the world have used the ink, including Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, and Pagans. Yet henna itself predates all of these religions. We have discovered evidence of its use over 5,500 years ago in North Africa – actual henna molecules found in human hair. Welch likens it to buying a new outfit for Christmas Eve or Eid. “Is that outfit religious? No, it’s not religious regalia, but you do it to celebrate and respect and honor that faith-based celebration.”
“That’s something that crosses all faiths – we put on our makeup, we do our hair, we get new lipstick, we pull out jewelry that’s special. We have these rituals in order to honor our faith and whatever path we are walking, and henna is part of that for billions of people.”
Welch explains that henna has been used for thousands of years to temporarily mark states of transition. You may be transitioning from “unmarried girl” to “wife”, or “not a mother” to “mother”, or even (in modern use) marking the start of a new school year.
“They are acknowledging the changing of their bodies,” says Welch. Henna helps people make peace with stretch marks, scars, and other parts of their body that they may not be used to yet. “It’s a way to say, ‘That’s the journey and I am who I am, and I love myself.'”
A blessingway for a pregnant woman marks a very significant change in her life. Welch describes it as a ritual and a community gathering to support that woman and lift her up. While henna has been used to celebrate pregnancy throughout history, this direct application to the pregnant belly is largely a Western adaptation of Native American ceremonies.
“It’s a blessing, and it’s luck, and it’s joy, and it’s happiness, and it’s hope, and it’s all of these things, wrapped up into one thing.”
It can be part of a traditional baby shower, which tends to focus heavily on the baby and preparations for the coming child. But Welch prefers a more spiritual take that focuses on the mother herself, asking her, “How are you on your journey? How can we support you through this journey?” as opposed to “What have you bought for the baby?”
She recommends hiring a ritual facilitator for a blessingway in the second style, someone who knows the rhythms of the ritual and can explain the meanings and goals. Welch herself also plays this role at times.
When to Book
A blessingway can happen at any point in your pregnancy, although 36-38 weeks is a common choice, since the larger bellies maximize beautiful curves in the design. Henna applications are seasonal, with Welch’s busiest months being in July and August. No matter who you hire, plan ahead, warns Welch, because “somebody who knows what they’re doing, somebody who carries insurance and uses safe products on you, is more than likely going to be booked.”
While you can grow henna as a houseplant, climates in the United States are not conducive to growing the quality needed for good dye content. Hot, arid climates, such as Pakistan’s, are better suited to growing the plant. The leaves are then picked, dried, milled, and exported. Welch makes her own henna herself to ensure high quality. Poor quality henna may not even contain henna at all! Just industrial dyes and other dangerous chemicals. Plus, says Welch, “it holds nothing of the traditions. It doesn’t carry that thread from the stories of mothers and daughters and aunts and cousins from all those centuries ago.”
Should you bring the design you want to the henna artist?
No, says Welch, who likens the art of henna application to handwriting. As a child, you may practice writing the letter “C” over and over, on sheet after sheet, before you’re able to write whole words and sentences and put them together seamlessly. “When you come to a proficient artist with a picture of somebody else’s work,” warns Welch, “it’s asking them to sit and draw a page of C’s.”
Individual components of the designs do not usually have specific meanings (“leaf” does not represent a specific concept), and everyone has their own styles. Welch prefers to have conversations with her clients, learn about their passions, their fashion preferences, even the jewelry they like to wear. Then she is able to create custom designs for them.
Other Words of Wisdom
If a woman is considering a blessingway, who else should she talk to? “Hire a doula!” recommends Welch. “Find someone who will support you in being the best you, strongest you, most confident you.”
A birth photographer is next on her list. “I didn’t know my husband looked at me this way!” says Welch of her own birth experience. “I didn’t know how much he loved me in that moment, and how much he saw my strength, until she snapped that picture and I saw it.”
Finally, who you don’t invite to your birth is as important as who you do. Surround yourself only with those people who you know will support you and bring positive energy to the room.
In the End
“Having a blessingway for me was really enriching, and being able to give that to other women is also enriching,” says Welch. While there are many entries on a pregnant woman’s To-Do list, if you haven’t considered a blessingway, it might be worth adding one more line.
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