The Beauty Quest: What Story Do You Believe?
I’m a 43-year-old woman and staring down what everyone eventually faces: aging. The years are catching up with me. Beauty is fading.
The best years of my skin, my non-graying hair, and my figure are behind me. Frankly, it’s hard to see them go. I’ve secretly wondered if I will fade until I become invisible to the world around me.
On the other end of the age spectrum, my friend’s (very healthy) 10-year-old daughter said recently, with conviction, “I need to lose weight. I’m fat.” Apparently, several of the girls in her class were echoing the same mantra. Young girls and mature women alike drink from the fire hydrant of beauty messaging all around us.
Our cultural narrative draws us in from very early on, telling us what beauty is, how to pursue it, and the rewards for achieving it—to be worshiped, loved, and accepted. This story about beauty is a powerful and demanding one. And it’s difficult not to buy in.
Extreme Beauty Measures Throughout History
We’re not alone as 21st-century females, though. In her article titled “The Price of Perfection”, Robin Marantz Henig writes, “We would be short-sighted if we thought the beauty quest was a uniquely contemporary obsession. Over the centuries, women have mauled and manipulated just about every body part -- lips, eyes, ears, waists, skulls, foreheads, feet -- that did not quite fit into the cookie-cutter ideal of a particular era's fashion.”
The article gives a few examples of the extreme lengths people from other times and cultures have gone to:
- In England in 1665, a health pamphlet suggested the handy technique of bloodletting to get thin. According to this pamphlet, overweight women should be “bled largely twice a year”.
- In China, up until WW2, upper-class girls had their feet bound, crippling them for life but giving them the 3-4 inch long feet that were prized as exquisitely feminine.
- In Central Africa, one tribe wraps the heads of female infants in pieces of giraffe hide to achieve the elongated, cone-shaped heads that are taken to be a sign of beauty and intelligence.
- In ancient Greece and 14th century Europe, in pursuit of the popular flat torso, many women bound or folded their breasts, squashing them as close as possible against the rib cage and holding them there with elastic binding.
- In U.S. in the 1930s, desperate women swallowed tapeworms to lose weight.
What can we add to that list from our current cultural moment?
Ever-changing fad diets, laser hair removal, anti-wrinkle injections to paralyze our faces, and major surgeries to add to, subtract from, plump, or tighten our figures.
The Question We Need to Ask
As we gaze into history, look around the world, and observe our own culture, a few things are clear:
- The definition of “beautiful” is always shifting.
- Women are told (overtly or subconsciously) to conform to their culture’s view of beauty in order to be noticed, loved, and accepted.
- Beauty is a multi-billion-dollar industry.
- Few women ever seem satisfied with how they look.
What are we to do in the face of such pervasive and damaging pressure? It feels easier to retreat from it all and become a nun! However, I think the ultimate answer lies in asking the right question.
I’m not talking about the smaller question of which cosmetic measures are right and which ones are wrong. Instead, let’s set our sights on a much bigger question, one that I’m convinced can transform our relationship with and view of our bodies:
What is the TRUE story about beauty and am I living in it?
How we answer that question can either bring condemnation, harsh demands, insecurity, and despair…OR it can bring freedom, confidence, and true contentment with who we are and how we’re made.
The TRUE Story About Beauty
To escape the never-ending demands of our culture’s beauty narrative and the lies in our own hearts, we must know how we were made, how things have gone wrong, and how we are set free from the tyranny of our twisted beauty quest.
1. Creation: God created and loves beauty.
The Bible tells us that God loves beauty and is the source of all beauty (Genesis 1). He delights in his creation, especially humanity.
In Genesis 1:27, God says, “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”
Because God made men and women uniquely in his image, we can see, appreciate, and create beauty. We rightly love and appreciate beauty, even physical beauty in humans. After all, Psalm 139 reminds us that we are fearfully and wonderfully made.
Loving what is beautiful reflects our Creator and how we were made. But we must recognize that our extreme focus on our bodies’ physical beauty is not the way it’s supposed to be…
2. Fall: sin entered the world and broke our bodies and our view of beauty.
We see the first account of humans disobeying and trying to be God in Genesis 3. Biblical scholars refer to this as “the fall.” From the moment Eve trusted and acted on the lies Satan told her, God’s perfect plan for our bodies and our view of beauty were marred. Some of the effects include:
Alienation from God
Our hearts now look to things other than our Creator as our source of happiness and satisfaction. So, instead of seeing beauty as a gift of God, we worship it. We place an inordinate amount of focus, money, time, and value on our physical beauty.
Bodies that grow old, break down, and die
A wrong view of ourselves
We either don’t see the beauty within ourselves, or we are narcissistically fixated on ourselves. Sometimes both!
A wrong view of others
We don’t typically praise God for and celebrate the way he has created others. Instead, we experience envy, jealousy, comparison, and manipulation in relationships.
Thankfully, God doesn’t leave us trapped in this despicable mess. He invites us into the most beautiful story of all.
3. Redemption: A right view of beauty begins with a relationship with Jesus.
Jesus came to change everything that has gone wrong because of sin and its effects—including how we view beauty in ourselves and others.
While the very Son of God hung on the cross, he took on all our sin—including our self-loathing, our self-worship, and our envy and jealousy of others. He took on all the ugliness in us and put it to death when he exhaled his last breath.
Trusting in Jesus means our sin no longer separates us from our Creator—the source of true beauty. We are loved, known, and accepted just as we are by God…forever. (Cue our deep exhale of relief.)
4. Restoration: Jesus will return to restore our beauty completely.
Oh, but the story doesn’t end there! Jesus conquered death by coming back to life. He promised that those who trust him will do the same. When he returns, Jesus will give us new bodies that never wear out, never get sick, and never die. (Be gone wrinkles, love handles, and cellulite. Or maybe we will think those look good? Either way, I’m in!)
While we wait for his return, the beauty we were made for is being restored in us. Those who are in Christ arenew creations. Our minds and hearts are being transformed and renewed to be more and more like the Instagram fashionistas we follow our beautiful Savior, Jesus.
What Story Will You Choose?
Diets, tanning salons, Botox, and plastic surgery can’t hold a candle to the gospel. While those things temporarily change us on the outside, Jesus works in a completely different way. He’s making us beautiful from the inside out—every part of us. And his brand of beauty is the only place we will find freedom, contentment, and joy forever.
When I look in the mirror and start picking apart what I don’t like, I’m trying a new tactic—to pause and ask, “Are you believing the TRUE story about beauty? Or are you trapped in the smaller story?”
On good days (not to be confused with good hair days), I look at my reflection and have some clarity:
- I remember that I get sucked into the lie that tells me that I must look a certain way to be seen, loved, and accepted.
- I remember that changing my appearance won’t bring lasting happiness or contentment.
- I remember that self-focus doesn’t bear good fruit in my life or in the kingdom of God.
- I remember that because of Jesus, I’m fully accepted, completely loved, and being restored to true, lasting beauty by God.
God has called us into a big, beautiful story that isn’t centered around how we look at all; it’s centered around Jesus. When we choose to live in that story, we can relax in our own skin, knowing that he is our truest source of beauty.
Reflection: 6 Truths about Beauty
Do you want to continue believing the ever-shifting cultural narrative about beauty? Or, are you ready to orient your heart, mind, and body to our beautiful Savior and what he says is true?
Take some time to journal through these Bible verses and reflective questions to remind you of what it means to be a beautiful part of God’s TRUE story.