There are many issues at the root of a body image disorder. Like peeling back the layers of an onion, I had to deal with them one at a time. One particular recurring theme was my desire for (and complete misunderstanding of) beauty. I had to unpack this concept for myself in order to recover. Even if body image isn’t a daily struggle for you, most people find themselves critical of their reflection in the mirror at some point in their lives. Often, this kind of discontentment has to do with a distorted definition of beauty. Allow me to show you my re-framing process:
My knee-jerk definition of beauty comes from the world around me, as it does for most of us. I don’t think I have to spend too much time describing how our culture places appearance expectations on women. Beauty is often praised over brains: shiny hair, straight white teeth, glowing skin, tiny waist, slender legs, firm bottom, large chest, to name a few. These qualities beget acceptance from others. Many times women are the worst at criticizing and nit-picking these qualities…not only in themselves, but in other women. We are incredibly competitive when it comes to appearance. What a pain! It’s exhausting, quite frankly. No matter how hard I try, I can’t get there under these standards. Believe me, I’ve achieved a flat stomach at various times in my life and I can tell you that it is fleeting –affected by SO many factors, and definitely stressful to maintain if that is my only standard for beauty and worth. So that’s it, isn’t it? I’ve been equating beauty with worth because that is what I’ve learned from this world.
Clearly this definition hasn’t worked well for me, so I wonder what the Bible says about beauty. My first stop is the Old Testament. At first glance, I’m drawn to stories about Queen Esther, Rebekah, and Rachel. Esther’s appearance was described as “a beautiful figure and lovely to look at” (Esther 2:7), Rebekah was “very attractive in appearance” (Gen 24:16), and Rachel was “beautiful in form and appearance” (Gen 30:17). Great, this isn’t helping my cause –yet. With further reading, I learn that Esther’s appearance positioned her to use her intellect to ultimately save her people, while God used Rebekah and Rachel to grow a chosen nation.
At this point, I’m not fully content with what I found. I need to dig deeper.
Enter the Proverbs 31 rockstar-of-a-woman. Most scholars understand that this is a compilation of ideal qualities in a woman, rather than one specific person. She is wise, trustworthy, virtuous, supportive, highly skilled, diligent, business savvy, charitable, caring, strong, kind in words and deeds, and blessed. Some pretty amazing qualities, right? Would you believe that, of the 22 verses dedicated to her description, not one of them refers to her appearance? The only mention of beauty is in verse 30: charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised. Now we’re getting somewhere!
Beauty has more to do with brains and inner virtues than this world would have us believe. To further make my point, 1 Peter 3:3-4 says, Do not let your adorning be external –the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear –but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious. Now, it isn’t saying, “just let your appearance go to pot and stop taking care of yourself.” We certainly should take care of ourselves, but our external appearance isn’t what gives us worth. In fact, our external becomes radiant when the internal is in order…no matter what we look like or weigh!
Let’s be careful not to let perfectionism and pride sneak in. The mystery is that we can’t achieve inner radiance or the qualities of the Proverbs 31 rockstar gal on our own. We need God’s help. Remember, I tried to achieve what the world said I needed to be, and repeatedly came up empty and exhausted. Trying to strive for these biblical virtues on our own (apart from God) will eventually frustrate us as well. We can’t achieve perfection!
Putting all of this together, let me paint a picture of what I learned about God-inspired beauty: a person who exudes love for others -no matter who they are and what they believe; one who is peaceful and not stirring up trouble with their words or actions; a person who is generous with their time and resources with no strings attached; one who you enjoy being around because they are joyous, uplifting, and inspiring; someone who would never divulge your innermost secrets, a loyal friend, who puts others before themselves. These qualities are what Peter describes as “imperishable.” They endure, grow, and ultimately change the world around us. THAT’s the beauty that I desire! I hope you do too.
P.S. You can find the above qualities listed as fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22.