Life Lessons from Frida Kahlo

I was so excited when the opportunity arose to travel to Mexico City. Culture! Food! Aztec pyramids! I had visited Mexico before, but only beach resorts so disconnected from real Mexican life they might as well have been on the moon. This was different; this was the chance to get to know a people and a culture so unfairly and wrongfully stigmatized by U.S. media that more than one American wrinkled up their nose when I told them about my upcoming trip.

The details of my (perfectly safe, incredibly fun) visit to central Mexico are for another time, though. Today, I just want to talk about one particularly amazing experience: My visit to the home of Frida Kahlo.

Frida Kahlo is arguably Mexico’s most famous and influential artist. Born just a few years before the Mexican revolution in Coyoacan (a neighborhood in Mexico City), she lived a passionate, colorful life alongside painters, poets, and revolutionaries.

To walk through the home she was raised in, the home she died in, the home she painted her most famous works in, was an experience I’d never thought I’d have and one I’ll never forget. Though she died long before I was born, I feel as though I know her…at least in part. And though she never called herself a teacher, there’s so much we can learn from her.

Embrace what makes you special, even if it’s “odd”

Frida, with her signature unibrow and hairy upper lip, was not “conventionally attractive.” Still, if she was criticized for it, Frida didn’t bat an eye, nor did she ever make an effort to change herself for the benefit of others. Frida painted her thick brow into her own self-portraits, with the understanding that it was part of what made her her. She found power in radical self-acceptance, telling the world it shouldn’t dare try to change her.

Life, however painful, is worth living

Frida lived a difficult life shaped by crippling pain. She suffered from polio as a young girl, leaving one of her legs withered and stunted.

“I am happy to be alive as long as I can paint.”

Then, at 18, Frida was in a horrific trolley-car accident that would force her to wear a corset to support her spine for the rest of her life. After that, not one day of her life was free from pain.

Yet Frida loved to live. For years of her life she was completely bedridden, the view of her home’s courtyard (which she watched from a mirror hung on the wall above her bed) her only real contact with the outside world—and still she did not surrender to pain or to sorrow. “I am not sick. I am broken,” she wrote in her diary.  “But I am happy to be alive as long as I can paint.”

Love where you come from

Frida was born to a German father and a Mexican mother who was of mostly indigenous descent. Her love of these mix of cultures is evident in every aspect of Frida’s life, from her art to her sense of style to the way she decorated her home. Frida proudly dressed in traditional Mexican styles, and her home was teeming with Mexican folk art and pre-hispanic artifacts.

Life is better with color

Frida loved color. Her house, which she shared with famous Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, was a striking royal blue. Reds, oranges, yellows, and greens are found even in the unhappiest of her art. More than that, she dressed in brightly colored clothing and cut flowers fresh from her garden to wear in her hair. Frida’s life, no matter how painful, was vibrant and full of laughter and brightness. We can all learn from the way she chose beauty over sadness and color over pain.

Never apologize for your strength

Frida famously (or perhaps infamously) said, “I was born a bitch. I was born a painter.” This woman was a boss. She endured so much more than I (or any of us) could possibly imagine and yet she still came out swinging.

“I was born a bitch. I was born a painter.”

She was not silent, she was not demure, she did not worry that her strength or power or success might be intimidating to others. Frida never apologized for her strength, her art, her politics, or her sexuality…and she didn’t need to. She simply was who she was.

Frida taught me to love fearlessly. She taught me that pain is inevitable, but it doesn’t have to control me. She taught me to stay passionate, to keep stoking the fire that keeps life worth living.

And for these lessons, I’ll never be able to repay her.