Beauty and Vanity
This is an old video but it seems to be making a resurfacing on Facebook, so many of you will have probably seen it:
I’ve been thinking a lot about beauty lately, and I do have three thoughts that I’d like to share with you.
1. You are beautiful
I’ve heard people say, “God made me, and God don’t make junk!” as kind of a playful way to say that their body is beautiful, and they are right. God created us in God’s image, and I doubt any of us would disagree that one of the many things God is is beautiful. We have a bit of God’s nature in us—God’s goodness, God’s love, God’s creativity, God’s passion, God’s beauty, etc. So at this fundamental level, we are creations of The Beautiful One, and therefore by definition we are beautiful.
And yet, the harsh reality is that we do live in a fallen world. We live in a world that is less than perfect, and one of the myriad ways that it is so is that people in general do not see the true beauty created into each of us. Socially we have set up standards to measure what is beautiful. In America that tends to be youth, clear skin, vibrant hair, a look of “whiteness” (though not TOO white—tanned white is best). And of course, a certain waist/hip ratio and all the right bones showing through the skin (but again not TOO many, otherwise you’re TOO skinny).
The video above shows how a whole team of people take an average-looking woman and make her up in a variety of ways, including digital manipulation of the image, to make her more like the cultural beauty ideal. I’m glad the video is out there, because it shows that no one, not even the supermodels, look like the cultural image of beauty all the time. But I thought she was beautiful at the beginning of the video—didn’t you? Because all of us are beautiful. All of us, whether we always, sometimes, or never fit that cultural ideal.
2. Beauty is not tied to your worthiness of love
Beauty is subjective, of course. We often say, “it’s in the eye of the beholder.” I may find a particular person aesthetically pleasing while you may not, and you may look at me and think I am more or less beautiful than I think I am when I look in the mirror. This is all even within that social paradigm of “ideal beauty,” which some people buy into and others don’t. So, given the subjective nature of what is beautiful, what are we really afraid of when we are worried that people don’t think we are beautiful?
We are afraid of being rejected. That somehow our worth as human beings is tied into how beautiful we are. This is much more pronounced for women; for men you could substitute things like wealth or ambition. But women are taught from a very early age that their worth is tied up in their beauty. I received the message loud and clear that it is beautiful (by culture’s definition) women who get jobs, who have friends, who attract husbands,* and who are ultimately happy.
What does it mean if someone doesn’t think you’re beautiful? My deepest fear is that if someone doesn’t think I’m beautiful it means they are not interested in who I am as a person. They don’t care to listen to what I have to say, they don’t want to look at me or engage me at all. It means they won’t love me.
So many of my friends confide in me that they can’t see themselves as beautiful, they can’t accept their bodies, they just aren’t satisfied. They feel ugly, too fat, etc. I’m often lost for words, because invariably I think this woman sharing this with me is nothing short of stunningly gorgeous. And I don’t care that Elle wouldn’t put her on the cover of their magazine or that she isn’t a size 0. My heart breaks hearing her talk about her body—about God’s one-of-a-kind work of art—like this. And while I do think she’s gorgeous, my deep love for her is not contingent upon it.
And this might sound like one of those feel-good cliches, but I really believe it: if someone doesn’t love you because you don’t meet cultural standards of beauty, it is their loss. Truly. All of us are beautiful, and true love will see that. People who judge your personal worth based on whether you meet cultural beauty standards, and people who are unable to see your own unique, intrinsic beauty, are not people who are truly loving you.
3. What is socially defined as beauty is not true beauty.
I’ve gotta be honest, the more I think about this stuff, the less I find the “perfected” images of supermodels beautiful. What do I find beautiful? The embodiment (through facial expressions, body language, etc.) of love. Expressions of joy, laughter, empathy, genuine sadness. For example, I find this much more beautiful than the final image in that Dove video above.
I can’t provide some ultimate definition of “true beauty” because all of us are going to have different views of what that is, and all of us will be right. But what I’m saying is that beauty as a concept, as a characteristic of God, is different from the culturally defined so-called “ideal” physical appearance.
I read Irene Hunt’s Across Five Aprils several years ago and was struck by a quote, a thought had by the main character’s mother after having noticed how beautiful her eldest daughter is getting, and thinking back to the beauty of her own youth. “Even if she had been concerned [about her fading beauty], there were reverberations of Calvinism strong within her which would have protested against the vanity of the regret of her passing beauty.”
We don’t talk much about vanity, or how ugly it is. Vanity gives us an over-exaggerated sense of self-importance when we fit the beauty standards of the world, or it allows us to waste precious time obsessing over how beautiful we wish we were. Ever since I have read this book I can’t get the thought out of my head—I have better things to do than worrying that I could never win a beauty competition! I have better ways to relate to people than hiding my head in case I can see in their eyes that they don’t find me attractive. I have better uses of energy than worrying in the back of my mind what my hair looks like.
Now I do want to say that some people have fun “beautifying” themselves. If you enjoy spending time putting together a fabulous outfit, experimenting with makeup and hair, shopping for the perfect accessories, more power to you. Others of you may feel you have to do these things in order to get (or keep) a job, to avoid discrimination, or other social reasons. I’m not trying to say that none of us should ever put on make-up or spend time beautifying ourselves. But know the reasons you are doing it. And please, just don’t confuse it with your worth as a human being. Don’t confuse it with your worthiness of love. Don’t confuse it with your true, unique, inner beauty.
* yes this is heterocentric—my world as a child was, unfortunately.