Monday, April 22, 2013

The Eye of the Beholder

This is a post with more questions than answers. And it's long. Sorry 'bout that; if I weren't writing it, I'd probably be too lazy to read it.

I've been thinking a lot about beauty lately, prompted by the Dove Real Beauty commercial that's been going around for the last week. The commercial is brilliantly done; it's actually a really interesting study in psychology, and it certainly struck a chord with women everywhere. On the other hand, I saw this blog post making quite a push-back on the ad, mostly because the ad still reinforces the shallow emphasis on physical beauty ("Did you hear that, ladies? How beautiful you are affects everything—from your personal relationships to your career. It could not be more critical to your happiness! are so, so much more than beautiful").

[The other part of the post that was interesting and one that I totally missed is that it reinforced a narrow perception of beauty, "I don’t know if anyone else is picking up on this, but it kinda seems to be enforcing our very narrow cultural perception of “beauty”: young, light-skinned, thin. No real diversity celebrated in race, age, or body shape. So you’re beautiful… if you’re thin, don’t have noticeable wrinkles or scars, and have blue eyes." It's a worthwhile read if you have the time.]

Like the author of the above blog post, the commercial made me a little uncomfortable, but for a different reason. For me, I wanted to know how to address the issue of physical beauty with my little girl from a biblical perspective, rather than an ineffective "No, really, you ARE pretty; I don't care if the little girls at recess said you are ugly, I think you're pretty and that's what counts." It's something I've been thinking about for a while and haven't come to a definitive answer, probably because there isn't a definitive answer other than the typical totally-right-and-absolutely-helpful-but-hard-to-feel-satisfied-about-because-it's-all-about-living-by-faith, God-centered answer.

Now, full-disclosure: I would say that I've probably struggled with body-image and the like less than your average woman. I've always been thin without paying much attention to what I eat or how much I exercise (although an affinity for healthy cooking and a generally active lifestyle don't hurt). I've never considered myself beautiful, but apart from a too-large nose and a tremendous multiplying of chins when I grin, looking ridiculous when I laugh and rarely feeling photogenic, I wouldn't consider myself unattractive. I have gone through periods in my life when I have spent more time than other times thinking about my looks (hello, visiting New York and other places full of women who spend considerably more time and money on their clothes, hair and make-up ... oh, and hello, post-baby body), and so I can only imagine how all-consuming of a struggle this can be for women whose nature and nurture nudge them further in this direction.

All that to say, I'm not even pretending to be an expert here. Just somebody trying to think through this at a deeper level and wondering, above all, how I help my little girl to grow up being impacted as little as possible by the outer and inner voices that tell her, "You must be beautiful, and you are not."

On the other hand, I am a bit of an expert, because I have a heart that struggles with a couple of issues that I think can maybe be traced to the root of this same struggle. Bear with me while I think out loud a bit, but there are three words that I think about a lot, that are all intertwined, and that I think can help me think through the daunting challenge of raising a little girl who isn't obsessed with her looks. Those three words are pride, contentment and identity.

How does pride relate to beauty? There's the obvious bit, that we can be proud when we believe we are beautiful. (Statistics say that only 4% of women worldwide believe they are beautiful; what are those women like, I wonder?) But what about the flip side. Is it pride that makes us obsessed with beauty when we feel that we are not beautiful enough? Why is it important for us to be beautiful? How do we determine that we are beautiful? Isn't a lot of is based on our comparison to others? If I don't feel beautiful (however defined), how does that impact my interactions with others? With God? (I once heard it said that modesty is humility in dress; a good point to ponder on another occasion.)

Contentment. "I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances, whether feeling beautiful or ugly, whether measuring up to the physical standards of beauty and the women around me or not, whether well-dressed or in shoddy, out-of-fashion, or ill-fitting clothes." Contentment with our looks acknowledges the sovereign hand of our Creator in all of our circumstances, including our looks. He numbered the hairs on our head ... don't you think he designed the other aspects of how you would look as well? What would high school be like for a girl who knows she's not in the Top Ten prettiest girls in the class, but who is content with how God made her? What opportunities to love and serve others (not to mention avoiding anguish and petty jealousies). I think true contentment brings you to a place where your lack of beauty isn't just something that you're okay with; it's something that you don't really think about because your heart is so full and content.

In talking about pride and contentment, which are areas where a Christian is clearly called to obedience, I don't want to sound too harsh, because I know how painful this topic can be and is for many people. Body-image, self-perception... that's why the Dove commercial is so powerful. We all long to be beautiful and when our inner voices are telling us otherwise, we long for other voices to affirm us, to tell us, "No, you really are beautiful."

BUT, what does being told that we are beautiful do for us? I think it's something a little bit different for each person. Does beauty mean that I'm somehow better than other people? Does it increase my likelihood of being accepted into a certain group or by a spouse? Does it make me feel like I have something to contribute to the world, to my family, to my friends, to God? I don't think we can get past the self-esteem stumbling block until we examine the "why."

Because quoting 1 Peter 3:3-4 (however true) isn't going to do anything for my little girl until we answer those questions. It's kind of like throwing Romans 8:28 at someone who is suffering (again, true, but not necessarily helpful under certain circumstances).

Which leads to the final word, identity. I could go on and on here, but the gist of my thoughts can be summarized (much better than I could write them) in this most excellent of essays by Andre Seu. Key quote: "Now when your lover leaves you, and you have a strong sense of your value in Christ, it hurts a lot. When your lover leaves you and you have a shaky sense of your value in Christ, you suffer identity destruction." I think you could substitute a lot of things for "lover," like "Beauty." So that, "When you do not feel beautiful and you have a strong sense of your value in Christ, it hurts. When you do not feel beautiful and you have a shaky sense of your value in Christ, you suffer identity destruction." Go forth and ponder.

Okay, once we have deconstructed this obsession with beauty, let us reconstruct, because our God is a God of beauty, is he not? Let us acknowledge his love of creating, his love of beauty, the proclamation once he had created that it was very good. That God created sunsets and beautiful animals and colors and (yes) the beauty of women for his own joy and satisfaction. Let's celebrate beauty an expression of God's joy in his creation and of his image in us that appreciates beauty. Let's celebrate how we reflect our Creator when we ourselves make or enhance beauty, through sculpture or painting or photography or (yes) an appropriately-directed enjoyment of make-up and doing our hair and clothes. We do honor to our Creator when we rejoice in the beauty of what he has made.

Back to the Dove commercial: maybe its value is in the eye of the viewer. On the one hand, it can be an instrument of common grace, encouraging a woman to appreciate the sovereign hand of an expert Creator, who crafted her hair and eyes and nose and chin and mouth exactly like he wanted them to be; denigrate the creation and you denigrate the Creator. On the other hand, it could be an instrument of evil, reinforcing a cultural fascination with the external and a culturally-conditioned view of beauty that taps into our sinful self-centeredness, an already inward focus that is a bottomless pit of "me, me, me," and definitions of shallow beauty (however expansive) continue to draw our eyes down from the Creator and onto ourselves.

So, it's up to the viewer if the commercial helps or harms.

You know the saying that "beauty is in the eye of the beholder." Dove is telling us that we need to trust other beholders because we have a damaged perception of self. But they miss that the ultimate solution can only be in the ultimate Beholder.  Let him tell us what and how to behold, and then rest in the way that he beholds us.

PS - This needs to be a conversation, between ourselves (women to women, women and men and parents to daughters and sons), and between ourselves and God. Chime in wherever you fit!


Unknown said...

Molly! I appreciate this post and I especially resonate with the pride thing. Anyway, I remember once David Powlison talked about how we compare our differences (say, for example, your skin is more beautiful than mine or I'm smarter at math than you or I'm married and you're not) and we put them on a hierarchy of worth, deciding I'm better or you're better. But when God sees those things, he turns that hierarchy into just a horizontal spectrum - as in, we have valid differences but one's not better than the other because our identity is wholly separate from these physical or mental attributes. That was a really helpful illustration for me.

When I interact with other women and hear their self-perceptions, I think I often go in the opposite direction - sometimes I struggle with feeling ugly but in generaI I live in a world where my perception of myself is exaggerated to the positive - I assume I'm more beautiful, intelligent, etc. than I probably really am. I don't know what this means.

Molly said...

Lynne, I love the "horizontal spectrum" illustration, too. I was running long on words anyway, but that is a good way of putting something that I couldn't say well. I appreciate that the Dove commercials try to broaden our view of beauty to include ourselves, but as long as we're still focused on beauty, a) we're still comparing ourselves to others and b) we're potentially focused on the wrong thing (ie ourselves). Dove wants us to grade on a curve but God uses a totally differently-oriented measuring stick.

Melodee Skiles said...

I LOVE that last comment: "Dove wants us to grade on a curve but God uses a totally differently-oriented measuring stick." That is perfect. Is it true that we shouldn't be so self-critical about our physical flaws? Yes. But not because we're "more beautiful than we think," but because God wants our hearts and minds captured by his beauty, not our own.

Your comment about pride makes me think of C.S. Lewis's definition of humility: "Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less." It seems to relate here. It is not humble to focus on our lack of beauty (as you said, that can be a form of pride), but it is humble to stop obsessing about your appearance and look in love toward others.

Molly said...

Melodee, you hit such an important point - "God wants our hearts and minds to be captured by his beauty, not our own." Yes, yes and yes.

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