Rejecting Society’s Idea of Beauty

I had a revelation today. Thinking, while walking to the supermarket, my world turned upside-down!

I’ve struggled with self-image for a long time. I remember being about twelve and my friends held a voting competition on who had the nicest hair. No-one voted for my hair, which hurt, but what hurt more was that my friends guessed that I’d thought/hoped someone might and laughed at me for it. I didn’t have the kind of hair that my classmates back then thought was “pretty hair”: they were all obsessed with neat, straightened hair, and my hair was very curly and a bit fluffy. (Ironically, nowadays my hair is the feature on which I get the most compliments, which goes to show how subjective perceptions of beauty are!) This set the trend, really, for the future. To sketch just a few of the subsequent episodes:

  • Later on in school, there was a long-standing joke that I looked like a really ugly cartoon character (to this day, I’m too ashamed to say who, in case people see it and laugh at me). There was a picture of this character on our classroom wall for a year, and so the comparisons were frequent. To say it felt terrible is an understatement. I left school feeling that I looked like a repulsive monster. It took a long time to stop feeling like that.
  • Some of my classmates measured the length of my nose in a biology lesson, to prove it was the longest in the class.
  • I’ve always been naturally very slim, but there was a point where I put on a bit of weight, which brought me to a still slim but healthy BMI. Someone told me I looked overweight and that their advice was I lose that weight and I’d look better. I starved myself to a skeleton, until I became terrified about the effects on my health, and (by the grace of God) stopped starving myself and ate normally again.
  • A guy I had a huge crush on told me one in ten guys would find me attractive. He later, reluctantly, amended it to “perhaps one in two”, after he realised that lots of other guys did fancy me.
  • Someone I loved very much told me that they’d prefer it if I had blonde hair, blue eyes, fair skin, and small, neat features. Over a year, they pointed out many of my physical flaws, including ones I’d never noticed before, which gave me new things to be very self-conscious and unhappy about.
  • A guy I dated told me that if we ended up having children he wanted them to look like him, not like me.

What’s the point of this list? I’m sure I’m by far not the only girl out there who has a stack of burningly painful remembered comments and situations relating to her appearance, buried deep inside that she is too ashamed to confess, that shape how she feels about herself. It’s good to be able to say these things – it helps with letting go of them. It helps to get rid of some of the shame, and to recognise that those comments say things about the people who made them, they say nothing about the person they were directed at.

That’s hard to believe, though, when you’ve been on receiving end of comments like that for a long, long time. I’ve had it reinforced again and again and again what beautiful girls look like: “Blonde hair, blue eyes, fair skin, neat and small features, slim but very curvy, very good with make-up, fashionably dressed, good posture, graceful, visibly toned.” I don’t look like that at all. My instinctive conclusion: I’m not beautiful. I’ve tried over recent months to fight that. To remember that God has made everyone with love and care, down to every hair of their heads, and so they are perfect and beautiful. I’ve tried not to believe society’s idea of beauty. But my attempts have been intermittent and my success very limited.

Last night I had a conversation which reinforced many of the old beliefs and hurts. When I woke up this morning, I felt so sad that I cried into my towel for half an hour after my shower (and I don’t cry much!). I asked God why I kept getting hurt like this. Honestly, I just felt totally broke.

And so that’s why what I realised when walking to the shops in the afternoon was a revelation. I feel like God has answered the ‘why’ and given me tools to heal and move forward. If you read this blog regularly, you probably know that I mostly listen to Classical music. But this afternoon it was Kelly Clarkson lyrics that for some reason popped into my head as I was musing on my revelation: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Stand a little taller. Doesn’t mean I’m lonely when I’m alone. What doesn’t kill you makes a fighter, footsteps even lighter.””Thanks to you I got a new things started. Thanks to you I’m not the broken-hearted. Thanks to you I’m finally thinking ’bout me. You know in the end the day you left is just the beginning.”

Kay Bruner says in her autobiography that she thinks she had to be mistreated and let down by a group of people she’d trusted to help and affirm her in order for her finally to take the step to change the way she thought about herself and her life and set new boundaries and approaches for herself. I feel like that. I have been brought so low and so utterly crushed recently by the way someone I love has reinforced societal ideas of beauty and the idea that I don’t match those so I’m not good enough – that there’s something very wrong with the way I look. And that utter misery has finally forced me to confront my attitudes to my body with more honesty and proactivity than I’ve ever done in the past. And this understanding and new attitude does make me stronger, it does make me stand taller, it does make me more of a fighter, with footsteps even lighter. (Yeah, they’re cheesy lyrics, but there’s a certain truth to them all the same.) And so, it’s thanks to all those people and their comments, and especially the most recent situation, that I’ve got a changed and healthier attitude, which will heal my broken-heart, and this is the beginning of a healing process and an attitude which is so much more loving and affirming to me and others.

But what was this revelation?

Like I said, I’ve been trying for a while to reject society’s ideas of beauty in my thoughts. But I hadn’t realised until today that that’s not enough. I need to reject it in my behaviour too. In every single one of those scenarios above, do you know how I responded? I was passive. I stayed silent, or I laughed along hoping that would make it different to being laughed at, or pretended it didn’t hurt. I let those people say and do the things they did. I didn’t set boundaries and didn’t challenge their beliefs and behaviour.

That does not mean they did not do wrong. I’m not saying for a moment that sinning against someone is justified if the victim doesn’t protest: of course it’s not! They did do wrong – simple as that – and I can forgive them precisely because I recognise that there is something to forgive. But I enabled those people to get away with treating me like that with no consequences. My behaviour said “It’s okay to treat me like this. It’s okay to hold the views that you do.”

My behaviour has to change. I have to refuse the damaging ideas of beauty our society is trying to impose on all of us not just by refusing to believe them in my head, but by refusing to accept them in my behaviour. If people criticise the way my body looks, explicitly or implicitly, I need to challenge that: I need to tell them that that is not acceptable and why and what the consequences of doing that are. I need not to say things that subscribe to and reinforce societal ideas of beauty, such as that there are “pretty girls” and by implication not pretty girls, that there are particular features that make people beautiful or not, that attractive people look a certain way, that beauty is more on the outside than the inside, that women are sexual objects whose worth is determined by men.

I don’t think I can challenge everyone who holds the damaging and false ideas above. But I can do this in relationships with family, romantic relationships, close friendships, and with all Christians I know (since the Bible lays out very clearly for them a rejection of this perspective and an alternative perspective that affirms true beauty). And sometimes this does involve setting out ultimatums that because such attitudes and behaviour are unacceptable and deeply damaging “you can’t be in a relationship with me/continue to be friends with me, and treat me in this way.”

I was a sassy, feisty child. I’ve lost a lot of that. I’ve become very passive. And there seems to be a too common implicit belief in the Christian world, especially among men, that women are supposed to be passive doormats who submit to objectification and mistreatment by men quietly and uncomplainingly. (No, I definitely don’t think the vast majority of Christian men think this – nowhere near – and clearly it’s preached against everywhere so often, but I have come across some Christian men who affirm this, worryingly mistaking it for “traditional gender value”.)

A while back my priest, while talking to me about what traditional (and true) Christian gender roles really are, gestured to an icon in my church which is a life-size cross with Christ hanging on it suffering for the salvation of the world: “That’s how a husband should love his wife,” my priest said.

I stand open to correct here if I’m wrong, but I don’t think anymore that being Christian means we should accept mistreatment in all circumstances without pointing out the wrong. Doesn’t St Paul say somewhere (can anyone remind me where?) that a Christian should reprimand his brother if he has sinned against him? Surely we are encouraging someone in their sin if we do not point out to them that they are doing wrong to us, if we think they are unaware of it? Surely this is not incompatible with turning the other cheek?

I have realised too that the Bible is full of strong Christian women. So is the tradition of the Church and the congregation of saints. It is possible to be holy, humble, obedient to authority, loving, gentle, and yet a strong, distinctive, vibrant, proactive, brave personality.

Nor does Christianity endorse the objectification or sexualisation of women. It does not endorse the image of beauty our society has. It is utterly opposed to these things. It rejects the world conjured up by pornography. It rejects the images of women and gender roles and human sexuality suggested by adverts. It does not encourage the objectification of human beings and the cheapening of their dignity encouraged by modern clothing and “fashion”. It does not endorse the conception of beauty and personal value depicted by our media. It condemns the crude and cruel comments of men in “lads’ chat” about women, and the likewise crude and cruel comments of women in “girls’ gossip” about men. It reveals that the contemporary world of make-up, fashion, accessories, and cosmetic surgery is redundant and damaging.

As Christians, we are called to reject the false mentalities of the world and witness through our lives to the Truth. This includes rejecting society’s notion of beauty, and affirms the real beauty and value and dignity of every individual because they are created by God, and affirming that beauty above all lies on the inside. Who is the most beautiful woman who has ever lived? The Mother of God, because of the incomparable beauty of her soul, she who said “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.” I realise now that part of that witness is in challenging the behaviour and mentalities of those I’m close to and other Christians when they evaluate or criticise my appearance, or that of others, in relation to the world’s standards of beauty. Passively accepting this treatment is not witnessing to the truth, and not helping myself or others to heal from a damaging mentality. Proactivity is needed!

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