This is the revised version of something I wrote about a year ago in response to John and Stasi Eldredge's book Captivating: Unveiling the Mystery of a Woman's Soul. As a sufferer of low self esteem, I feel compelled to write to you today about beauty, in relation to my personal experiences, and my faith in a God who loves us all equally.
Beauty: A Virtue of the Past and the Present
I am sure you are just as aware as I am of the emphasis placed on physical appearance. Beauty is a trait that has been elevated and praised, not just in today's world, but for always. If you've read Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, you'll remember Mr Darcy's cutting remark to Mr Bingley, within earshot of Elizabeth Bennett, that he is dancing with 'the only handsome girl in the room'. Of course, this is an example taken from fiction, but I believe Jane Austen very much captured what life was like for a woman of her time.
I read recently about an experience that Charlotte Bronte had at school which seems to have deeply affected the way she perceived herself for the rest of her life. When she was 14, she 'was told by a fellow pupil...that she was very ugly... Certainly she hugged the idea of plainness to her, and all the charitable compliments she received in adult life...seem never to have loosened this fixed idea. The two proposals she received in youth did nothing to build up her confidence' (From Reader I Married Him, by Patricia Beer).
But if you travelled back, even further than that, to the dawn of time I am sure you would see that beauty was still admired, and even worshipped. Beauty is frequently referred to in the Bible. If you read about the life of Abraham in the book of Genesis, you'll know that he had a wife called Sarah, who was stunning even in her old age (she is 90!) There is an incident where Abraham and Sarah go to Egypt, and Abraham is so afraid that he will be murdered for his much coveted wife that he persuades her to pretend she is his sister.
A little further on, we hear very briefly about Leah. Her predicament is not much dwelled upon, but I think it is quite heart breaking. We learn that Leah has weak eyes, and is outshone by her little sister Rachel. When Jacob falls in love with Rachel and asks for her hand in marriage, he is tricked into marrying the older sister first. When Jacob marries Rachel a week later, poor Leah becomes the second-favourite wife. However, God does not forget her, but blesses her with many sons. And unlike Rachel, who dies on the road, Leah is buried beside her husband when she dies.
How it Often is
External beauty is a trait that not everyone is blessed with. So often, it is something we strive for, and when we obtain it, it comes at a cost.
Consider all the beauty products available on the market today. There are enhancing conditioners that claim to give your hair a natural shine; creams that make your skin soft and smooth; make up that can alter your appearance completely... But think also beyond these products. Think about fashion today. We are dictated to by the media. We are told what is 'in' and without it, we have no hope of being beautiful. Think of diets. Think of plastic surgery: the face lifts and the breast implants...
This is where we step into dangerous territory. Sometimes, the pursuit of beauty can cause disease. I'm talking about anorexia and bulimia. We see pictures of models who are size zero. We are told that super-skinny is sexy. We are inadvertently taught to become like skeletons. Or at least some of us are. We can ignore the media, but when you are in the pursuit of beauty, and everyone around you tells you what is beautiful, then it can become very difficult to ignore.
One of the things I rave about is diversity. Don't you just love the difference in each and every person? We weren't made to be the same. We were made to be individuals. If we all conformed to the persistently changing pictures of what beauty really is, then we would all become clones. We would all wear the same sort of outfits. We would all get face lifts. We would all plaster make up over our faces. We would all stop eating. We would all have the same hobbies. Would we even have hobbies? I imagine all our time would be spent beautifying! And even then we would still try to alienate people. We would somehow find the tiniest difference in someone, and think ourselves better than they are.
Am I lovely?
Why is so much importance placed on beauty? Why are we constantly striving for it; constantly evaluating ourselves in relation to the people around us? 'What is she wearing?!' 'I can never be as beautiful as her!' 'Ugh! It's so obvious her face is completely plastered with make up!' I think I know the answer.
In Captivating, John and Stasi Eldredge believe that the question at the core of every woman's heart is 'Am I lovely?' The answer we receive to this question lies in the things people say to us; the way people behave towards us. This answer will ultimately change the way we perceive ourselves for the rest of our lives. Charlotte Bronte had her question answered in the negative, and consequently she never thought of herself as being beautiful. Her publisher thought that 'she would have given all her genius and all her fame to have been beautiful' (Reader I Married Him, Patricia Beer).
I have been blessed with a loving family. My parents have always shown me that I am lovely through the things they say to me, and the way they behaved towards me. My insecurities stemmed from elsewhere, namely, school.
I spent my high school years feeling completely alien. I was bullied in the sense that there were antagonists in my life then, who would deal metaphorical blows to my confidence and my self-esteem. I'm not sure that bullying is a term that really applies to what I experienced, which I don't perceive as being all that severe, but I was made to feel small and insignificant, so maybe that is what it was after all. Thankfully I had a small handful of friends who helped me through.
At school, my question was answered in the negative sense, mostly. Obviously, I'm not implying that I went around asking everyone 'Am I lovely? Am I lovely?' Being quiet and timid, I felt I was virtually invisible to my peers (there's proof of this in that both my first name and my surname were spelt incorrectly in my high school year book!) and if I was noticed, it was often for the wrong reasons. And so my question was answered: 'No, you are not lovely. You are not beautiful and you never will be. You are nothing special. You are plain and awkward...' Once I had broken free from the confines of school, and I began to come out of my shell and experience new things, my self-perceptions began to change...
You are the Missing Link
Here is something I've realised over time. Each and every one of us was intentionally and lovingly created for a bigger purpose. You were no accident! You were carefully shaped; built to fit the purpose you have been given; the purpose that each one of us is waiting to discover. When a new baby is born, it is common for relatives to try and identify whose features the little one has inherited. Let me share something with you. The Bible says:
'God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them... God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.'
Genesis 1.27, 31 (NIV Study Bible)
You might think I am spouting rubbish at you, but take it from me. You were made in the image of God, and he is very pleased with you! He has also given us the authority to rule over the land he has given us, and all other things: birds, fish, and beasts. Don't you think this is a big clue as to what he thinks of you? He really thinks you're something!
When I was living in halls, I placed the above verse beside my mirror, so that each morning, when I was brushing my hair and cleaning my teeth, I would be reminded of just how much God loves me. It was a real boost to my self esteem.
Beauty isn't Everything
Beauty is just a temporary virtue. Depressing as it may sound, we're all going to become grey and wrinkly in a short space of time. And personally, I don't think external beauty is something a person will be remembered for when they're done with this life. I think people are far more likely to be remembered for their conduct in life: the things they have done for other people, and positive difference they have made to the world. The Bible says:
'Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears God is to be praised'
The Bible also says:
'Your beauty should not come from outward adornment... Instead it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit'
1 Peter 3.3-4
The Bible doesn't condemn beauty. Esther is an example of how God used the beauty of one woman to prevent a holocaust! God doesn't give external beauty to everyone, and if he has given beauty to you, it might be that there is a purpose behind it!
I know it's a big cliché, but what's on the outside doesn't really matter. It's what's on the inside that counts.
Behind this Smile
I do not perceive myself as being outwardly beautiful, although I have learnt to overcome my insecurities. They might return from time to time, but they have faded, and are no longer what they used to be. There was a time when I could not look in the mirror because I only saw ugliness.
Instead, I have learned to behold the other gifts that God has given me, and not all of those are internal. I am often told that my smile is my best feature; that I have a beautiful smile. I smile at everyone, even at strangers that I pass on my day to day smile, as I feel that God gave me this feature to benefit others. Personally, whenever anyone smiles at me, I am always warmed, and it makes a small difference to my day. I think smiling naturally makes others feel that they can approach you. I also read somewhere that the more you smile, the more you feel like smiling.
When I was younger, I wanted to be stunningly beautiful; to be noticed by all the boys, and admired by all the girls. Now that I realise that I never have been and never will be, I believe that what God had given me personally is beyond all that. If I had been stunningly beautiful I might also have been proud and rude. I might have become the bully rather than the victim. If I had been stunningly beautiful and known it, then I doubt I would have been able to write this blog, as I wouldn't be able to emphasise with people who, like me, suffer from low self esteem. I believe God has given me a very special spiritual gift that I am learning to use. Perhaps that's what lies behind my smile that makes it so likeable. I am trying to see beauty in everyone, whether that beauty is external or internal.
I would like to conclude with an important message for you, a message that I want you to heed, even if you don't think it plausible. You are extremely beautiful. You were made by an all-loving God who knows everything about you. He knows and loves you like an only child. He gave you every single one of your traits and features. 'If He'd a wallet, your photo would be in it. He sends you flowers every spring and a sunrise every morning. Whenever you want to talk, He'll listen. He can live anywhere in the universe, but He chose your heart. And what about the Christmas gift He sent you at Bethlehem? Not to mention that Friday at Calvary. Face it, He's crazy about you!' (Max Lucado).
God was pleased with you; more than pleased. He adores you. He is 'rejoicing in his whole world and delighting in mankind' (Proverbs 8.31). You are no exception.