12 March 2012

standards? [part I]

I don't need to tell you that I criticize myself in the mirror. You already know that because you know that I am a woman! My skin is terrible. If only I were taller. What a wide, ugly face. I'm fat. All of those complaints, exaggerated by self-pity, eventually boil down to this: I am not perfect.

A few weeks ago, though, I finally had a follow-up realization: neither is anyone else. I had just browsed through some pictures of actresses at the Oscars, an exercise you might think would send me into a spiral of discontent, but it had the opposite effect. Instead of bemoaning how short I fall of celebrity beauty, I had been noticing how far from "ideal" many of those women looked. There was Meryl Streep with her long nose and wrinkles; there was Octavia Spencer with her ample curves; there was Angelina Jolie, whom some call too skinny. And they were still gorgeous.

I bet my Brie that even Natalie Portman, whose "flaws" aren't evident in that particular photograph, complains at her reflection. It's inevitable. We humans live in a fallen world, waiting for the day when creation will be renewed. Until then all our best efforts fall short of perfection, stylists and couture gowns notwithstanding.

Many of us weep and wail before our mirrors, wishing we were different, that we were somehow "closer to the ideal." But as I realized while flipping through Oscars photographs, even our much-exalted celebrities miss the mark, and paradoxically, they look beautiful despite that supposed failure. Wait a minute. If that's the case, what ideal are we trying to achieve anyway, and why?


Personally, when I judge myself in terms of appearance, I subconsciously try to live up to the standards of the AMA. "In fashion modelling, girls should be at least 5ft 8ins tall and more or less 34-24-34." I have a feeling that many of us do the same, and alas, our body types just don't match those numbers, even if we are fit and healthy. By that tyrannical yardstick, therefore, the vast majority of women would be labeled imperfect or even ugly. Yet somehow I know a multitude of very pretty women . . . who manage to be so despite the obvious fact that they do not match those measurements. Hmm. Something has gone wrong here.

"The Milkmaid" by Johannes Vermeer
A proposition: there is something inherently ridiculous about enslaving oneself to a standard of beauty that so few can ever achieve. Do we honestly think that 99% of the population must be consigned to the ugly pile on the basis of genetics, or because we like an occasional bowl of ice cream? :) Quite the opposite. It seems to me that every woman God ever created has the potential for great beauty . . . if we can get our heads out of the modelling paradigm in order to recognize what real beauty is.

I am fairly sure the stuff that makes up a truly lovely woman is accessible to anyone. Much of it deals with the inside, such as a joyful countenance, kindness and compassion, serene faith in God, a gentle and quiet spirit; as Louisa May Alcott writes in Little Women, "Love is a great beautifier." I know many loving and lovely women who over the course of time have become radiant from within, irrespective of what they happen to look like on the outside.

And of course some of it is also physical. After all, the Bible talks about inner beauty but it never pretends that outward beauty is to be sneezed at. :) Here I'm thinking of healthy eating, which mind you, doesn't have to be 100% organic and homemade; exercise, which doesn't mean running three hours on the treadmill every day; or just buying clothes that fit, which don't have to be designer label.

These things do not guarantee a transformation into Gisele Bundchen, but then, that's the problem. My generation of American women struggles with constant dissatisfaction because we are obsessed with youth and slenderness. We think that the ideal woman must be tall, toned, the possessor of thick blond hair and long eyelashes. False. God is not in the business of turning out clones. He loves beauty and he also loves creativity, uniqueness. Though Gisele Bundchen is lovely, she is ultimately no more pleasing to God than the rest of the women He has made.

"The Prairie is My Garden" by Harvey Dunn
I think our Creator has a much bigger imagination than we do. Did you ever notice how even in heaven, there are many tribes and tongues and nations before His throne? Or how back in Genesis, God crafts a wildly varied universe and pronounces it very good? He has never intended for everything to look the same, and He still seems quite pleased with that state of affairs. Our definition of beauty is way too limited. We complain because we don't look a certain way, but fail to express wonder and thanks to God for what he has created in us.

(Also, we live in a fallen world. That means we have to accept imperfections and inequalities. The most attractive woman alive will struggle with flaws, and nobody is going to look exactly the same.)

I don't believe that "anything goes" or that morbid obesity is A-OK. Yes, you should take care of yourself. Exercising self-control in order to lose weight can be a perfectly legitimate endeavor. I'm going to keep brushing my hair and avoiding trans fats. :) However, neither freckles nor scars nor jiggly upper arms make you ugly. By so drastically narrowing our concept of beauty, we're made it nearly impossible for women to fit.

Audrey Hepburn
Here's something I have become convicted of through thinking about this matter of appearance: I am not allowed to complain about how God made me. I can put on makeup, choose my clothing carefully, eat right, play tennis with my husband, go for long hikes. And that is enough. I want to be able to look in the mirror and smile with gratitude at what God has given me, not mentally dissect myself.

Audrey Hepburn was slim and graceful. She looked lovely that way and I certainly admire her style of beauty. At the same time, though, I'm coming to realize that I can look my own way and be totally content with that. After all, trite as it sounds . . . I'm not Audrey Hepburn.

Many of these thoughts inspired by this post at In Other Words. This post at Lexie's Kitchen, while making no claims to a Biblical basis, had some good insights too.


I'm not stopping here. As I was writing this, a major matter of the heart surfaced: why am I so stuck on appearance in the first place? Why is it so important to me that a bad hair day can make me into a total crank? 

I don't think that beauty is utterly vain, but for goodness' sakes, I would like to be more conscious of God's glories and of others' needs than of my dress size! So . . . Part II coming next week.

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