When I was first asked to write about beauty, I didn’t want to. Sticking my head over the parapet isn’t a favourite pastime of mine. But I said yes. Then I panicked and, in the name of research, mercilessly interrogated anyone luckless enough to cross my path. If I have anything to offer this conversation, I can truthfully say it is has been plagiarised from my long-suffering friends.
My uneasy relationship with beauty stems from the fact that growing up, I didn’t feel beautiful. You know the term ‘awkward adolescence’? Well that’s really doing me a kindness. I’m occasionally told I have ‘personality’; well, take it from me, growing up I had to have personality. Where I’m from, they run people out of town for far lesser social crimes than being homely.
I grew up in a family of beautiful women. With sisters who have taken up careers in personal training and modelling, it was hard to figure out where my more awkward looks had their place. My ‘winning personality’ was mentioned quite a lot. Also the possibility, usually suggested by my older brother, that I was adopted and had fallen off a gypsy caravan.
It didn’t help my body-consciousness that I come from an über-athletic, Australian family; though I always participated in the daily ritual of sport in the backyard, it was usually with a book in one hand, which I would insist on keeping on my person at all times (not so easy during rugby or mud-wrestling, but marginally more comfortable when playing cricket). Occasionally I would stop games from deep in left field to make everyone listen to snatches of Austen or sentimental poetry of my own composition.
Such behaviour usually resulted in team huddles on the pitch, where the practicalities of looking after me into my spinsterly old age were fleshed out: ‘Well, you could have her for December, at least! That seems only fair!’
Then I grew up and lost the bad haircut and the glasses. Adulthood seemed thrust upon me, even though I still felt like the same person inside. Beauty became a thorny issue. If I got attention for my looks it annoyed me, because I knew that the same guys would never have looked twice two or three years earlier.
And yet the more reasonable side of me also knew that I did look better; that I, as much as anyone else, made assumptions about people based upon their appearance and that there was a part of me that was happier with my new-found confidence.
I, like everyone else, want to be accepted for my whole self, not just the nice parts. But how do we gain this kind of acceptance? Do we defy the conventions of beauty and just not try anymore, daring the people around us to love us ‘just as we are’? Isn’t that a little bit like asking others to accept our selfishness, laziness or kleptomania because it’s ‘just who I am’?
What does it say about me if I’m not seeking to be the best I can be, inside and out? When I’m too fragile to accept any kind of affection except that of unquestioning acceptance: the friends who always agree with me, the partner who won’t (gently!) encourage me to go for a jog, the family who never pull me up for ungracious attitudes?
I realise there’s a lot of questions here, and not too many answers. But I feel like sometimes as Christians we have this weird, Gnostic attitude towards our bodies; as if we think that all that matters is what’s inside – “Man looks on the outward appearance” being the main verse that gets trundled out. We sometimes miss the point that it’s not just the inside that needs a little redemption.
It seems to me that a common principle applies: that real, dynamic beauty is always seeking to grow, to learn and to engage with all of who we are and could be; accepting who we are intrinsically, but always reaching for something more. I believe that’s a call to both inward and outward beauty.
The thing is, beauty is a battlefield. There are no victors and everyone bears scars. But I’m also beginning to believe that beauty is redemptive and at its core, full of hope; even (perhaps especially) for the wild-haired, book-reading girl from deep in left-field.