It might seem like the perfect plot to a Disney film, but that seven-year-old girl from Hawaii did go on to become a National Geographic Explorer, setting out on expeditions to the remotest regions of the world, documenting and raising awareness of indigenous people, their traditions and wisdom, through a global media platform. You would think Lindsey’s prophecy has been fulfilled, but as I find out through our conversation, her augury is still in the making. At 63, the Hawaiian is preparing to launch Well and Clean, a global initiative that promises to shake up the beauty industry: “I thought that I could explore the whole scope of my life’s work and bring it into modernity, in a more relevant way,” she explains.
Even before her life as an explorer began, Lindsey was already uncovering the nuances in the concept of beauty. She is a woman of radiant looks, with a glowing complexion and silky, long, black hair — it is unsurprising to hear that at 21 she competed in the Miss America pageant. Shortly after, she was living in Los Angeles, amongst actors and actresses for whom beauty is a highly valued asset. “At that point, I was straddling two very different worlds: one that pays so much attention to the external, and one, with the indigenous tribes in which I was raised, which cares very little about external pretense,” she reminisces. Those contrasting experiences of beauty would only be amplified after Lindsey obtained her PhD in cultural anthropology and as she traveled the world to study the incredible cultural variation amongst human beings.
When I say Lindsey has travelled to remote areas, I really mean far flung. She has followed navigator-priests who sail thousands of miles without the use of maps or instruments in Micronesia, solely guided by the clouds, stars and rhythms of the waves. She documented the astute survival skills of Moken sea nomads in the Andaman Sea, who averted danger during the 2004 tsunami by observing the behaviour of the animals around them. Lindsey has spent time with New Zealand’s Māori elders, Q’ero priests of Peru, and chi kung masters in China’s temple caves. Her focus was always on being with, and learning from, elders worldwide before they died, aware of the vast amounts of knowledge and wisdom that would die with them if no one was there to record it all: “In many cultures the older you are, the wealthier and richer you are in life experiences and wisdom. It’s so different than the western experience that values youth,” she says. “ I love being with these cultures because it is a reminder to us to perceive our worth as we grow older.”
At 50, Lindsey embarked on her most ambitious expedition. She set out to the tiny island of Satawal in Micronesia, following her mentor Pius “Mau” Piailug as he conducted his last initiation ceremony for the island’s young non-instrument navigators. “I had just lost my husband the year before and I was leading a very grueling expedition. To this day I think it is the most courageous thing I’ve ever done,” she reminisces. Her courage didn’t go unnoticed; the expedition caught the attention of the folks at National Geographic, who decided to bring her on board as the society’s first female fellow, and first Polynesian explorer. It was also at Satawal that Lindsey had a profoundly humbling experience with local women upon realizing none of them had ever seen a mirror: “Many of these women had no teeth and breasts down to their waist, but they had no shame. They would be laughing and flirting with my crew. They really celebrated their beauty beyond looks. That was profound teaching to me.”
Lindsey’s expeditions have been turned into articles and documentaries, her reports on ancient customs, spiritual ceremonies, and native wisdom shown at schools and read by millions worldwide. “Anthropology, for me, is very simple: it’s bearing witness to the world with a nonjudgmental heart,” she says. But at 60, listening to her own wisdom of the years, she decided she wanted to do more than bearing witness. “I understand this deeper definition of anthropology, but what do you do with it? I continued to pay attention to my prophecy and I kept thinking, ‘What is my service?’ ” That’s when Well and Clean started to take shape.
If you take Lindsey the former Miss Hawaii beauty, and Lindsey the anthropologist and explorer and mix them up into one initiative you basically get Well and Clean. It’s about putting together all this wisdom she gained from around the world, with the support of the leading media and scientific institutions, into one index which helps us navigate the world of beauty products. Much of it is still under wraps ahead of the big launch next year, but Lindsey does tell me the index will inform customers on hundreds of products’ (at different price points) chemical composition, effects on our health and the environment as well as the company’s practices when it comes to management and sourcing of materials: “What we are doing is not creating a product, we are providing data, a neutral index which simply informs consumers,” she says. “It’s aimed at protecting women, children and our planet from the current toxic beauty environment,” she explains. And it’s not just chemical toxicity, in doing her research Lindsey also noticed the unrealistic beauty ideals and standards promoted by many brands: “A lot of companies advertise products for us to make us look younger, and the paradigm should be about the quality of life, health, strength and vitality rather than how we simply appear,” she says. “I’m 63 years old and I love every single part of my age. I simply celebrate it because there is not enough of that celebration going round and the more we do it, the more we invite other people to do the same!”
In an age where the world seems divided between a glorification of external beauty versus a need to take a stance against it, the spiritual and the scientific, what’s old and what’s new, it’s refreshing to see businesses that offer us a middle way. “This is me recalibrating my focus as an anthropologist and businesswoman, and moving on from being in the field with these elders to carrying their wisdom forward,” says Lindsey. As for the seven-year-old girl with a prophecy, it seems she is on the path to becoming one of the wise women that guided her.