Beautiful never mattered to me. It just wasn’t on my radar. Useful, kind, strong, faithful, disciplined, imaginative, bold, funny- these things were. They were the things I wanted to be. Of course, true beauty is comprised of these things, but when I was a child, “beauty” was a term that described pageant queens, girls who couldn’t run, and a mole on Ginger’s face. It wasn’t a word I felt comfortable with until adulthood.
When Libby, of TrulyMyrtle, tagged me in 20 beautiful women on instagram, I began to consider where my ideas of true feminine beauty came from. Then, I had the craziest week ever, so I’m just now getting back to it. It reminded me how blessed I am to have a mother who looked further into people and who taught me I was “made” by Someone.
I thought everyone thought the way we did. I was in my twenties when I began to realize that the women fixated on beauty as appearance, a number on a scale, or a hair color were not an anomaly. They were my peers- the norm. As I worked with children in my church and spent time with my daughter’s friends, I cannot say how many little girls I’ve heard talk about beauty as only a surface feature. Almost every single time, they spoke in quiet reverence of a form of beauty, in some other girl, that they didn’t feel they had, personally. As a girl, it never occurred to me to classify women as pretty, not pretty, thin, fat, smart, dumb, etc. I tended to see genuine personalities and vibrance as attractive. I rolled my eyes at the thought of someone wanting to be beautiful.
I remember the first time I heard a grown woman call another woman ugly. I was in shock. I remember the first time I saw a grown woman consumed with jealousy over another woman’s weight. Then there was the first times I heard a Christian woman call another woman bland and another say something like, “She’s really beautiful … for a black woman.”
In the Christian church we hear that “beauty is vain, but a woman that fears the Lord- she shall be praised.” We read that true charm is an inward beauty, where a woman wears the “ornament of a meek and quiet spirit, which in the sight of the Lord is of great price.” It is supposed to be enough to save a family. Seriously. ( 1 Peter 3:3-5). As Christians we are told that God looks on the heart (1 Samuel 16:7), then we go home fretting about this stuff?
We teach our little kids that Jesus loves us just as we are in Sunday School, but then they see us walk out the doors of the church and still strive for something more. We may seem irritable because we aren’t what we want to be, we may whisper about women who are, we carry a cloud of inadequacy over our heads, that is surely felt by our children. Some of us punish our bodies into submission, fretting over every change, or the lack of it. There’s often some bitterness there. Are we confused? Are we listening to what we say that we believe? I think the question is, do we really, truly believe it?
I just wasn’t aware of what anyone thought of my appearance as a girl. I mean, I was clean, what else was there to think about? Maybe I lived in a little, idyllic bubble. My mother may have curled my hair and tried to get me to sit up straight, but she didn’t seem hung up on appearance. She said things like, ” Pretty is as pretty does.” And I never heard her berate herself. Just as she shielded me from ugly thoughts about skin color, as I grew up in the deep south, she also protected me from the self-destructive comparisons women make about bodies. I looked around me and just saw people, like she did.
Then, I had the unique experience of seeing my mother’s ideals tested. I watched her lose her hair, more than once, during chemo. I watched her seem to lose height and her back develop Cushing’s hump, due to prednisone, when she was just 40. I never once felt a tinge of bitterness coming from her. She went to one of my volleyball games so swollen with fluid that she was barely recognizable. Some of the other girls were staring and wondering. She came home after a mastectomy surgery with her head held high. She was so very much a beautiful woman. Never once did we see her confidence in that waver. Never once did ours.
One time, a girl in school tried to shame me by telling the other children my mom was bald. I was a very stoic child, friends, but that… that hurt. She was being mean to my mother. When I got home, off the bus, my mom asked how my day had been. No matter how sick she was, even when dragging an IV tower around behind her, she was as involved as possible with my life. I tried to act fine, but melted into tears. Eventually, my desire to be comforted by her outweighed my desire to protect her from the hurtful comments, so I told her what that girl had said. Her reaction surprised me. She laughed. Then, she said I should try to sell tickets. That the kids could get off the bus and line up at the door. For a dollar, she could pull of her wig for a moment. We ended up laughing and I felt so much better to know that she was unmoved by someone’s opinion of her. The differences between her appearance and other moms’ just didn’t matter to her.
Her attitudes just seeped into me during those years. I am the Queen of Awkwardness. You may have noticed this, but this is mostly due to things I can control. If ever I feel less pretty than another woman, it is usually from something like their gentle character convicting me of my own brashness.
So now my own test has come. My body began changing in my thirties- no, not the usual changes- but a weakening. My shape changed some, but mostly my hair began to thin and my face began breaking out with bad, cystic acne. Add to that exhaustion, lots of migraines, and fuzzy thinking and you have a picture of me for ten years. Though my doctor has a treatment for me now, it was ten years of feeling yuck. Even when you’re not “into appearance,” scars, sores, thinning hair, and general malaise can work on your confidence. Remember, I was the girl who wanted vibrance over beauty, and I felt like it was slipping away.
Should I have stayed at home until I was better? Should I be ashamed that I looked different from the other moms? Should I wait to try things until I had more energy? That would’ve been a long wait. I had to really think about the way I looked at other people and apply it to myself. For me and for my children.
So when I told my teenagers, worried about their own blemishes, “It’s just skin.” Did I mean it? Was I living it? I put my beliefs to the test every time I went to a soccer game or met my daughter for lunch with 30 cysts on my face that makeup would not cover, feeling exhausted though I had done every, single thing I knew to do to care for my body that day. I have to admit it was hard sometimes. Some days the best I could do was just joke about it. When I felt self-condemnation start up in my head, I’d fight it with what I really believe: we are beautiful for how we behave. Pretty is as pretty does, right? I never came home from one of those outings wishing I’d stayed home. I never regretted living as without shame about my appearance. I thought I was confident before, but I’ve seen my self-esteem rise like crazy in the last few years. And it wasn’t from getting to any point of perfection. It was from living without it.
Here is the crux – When He says we were “beautifully and wonderfully made,” did He mean it? When He said His “grace is sufficient for you, His strength is made perfect in weakness.” did He mean it? Do I really believe this stuff? Would doing everything “right” but not getting the healthy feeling, “the look”, the approval change what I believed?
Nah. I’m 41. I’m covered in scars that I sometimes edit out of photos and I am in no way ashamed of that. I may be healing now. But if I never healed and die tired and weak, like my mother, I would never be ashamed for believing in a God who loves me just as I am and allows me to be frustrated for reasons I’ll never understand. Now, I know. I won’t be embarrassed of the life I lived in this body, or the body, itself. I really do believe all that feel-good stuff about inner beauty. I am beautiful because He made me so, particularly when I act like the person He made me to be.
Okay, group hug, everybody.