Why Beauty is Ugly and How to Redeem It
A few years ago, I shared an article on my Facebook page entitled “Not Everyone is Beautiful.” I was immediately hooked because of its controversial title—I can appreciate a little political incorrectness—and was even more struck by its content. You can go read it for yourself HERE, but the gist of the article was the author railing against our cultural tendency to share inspirational quotes like “Everyone is beautiful, whether you know it or not.” Here’s some of what he had to say:
“I know what you mean when you say ‘Everyone is beautiful.’ You mean that everyone is valuable, everyone has worth, everyone has good qualities that make them interesting and important and someone to be loved. And if we could reclaim the word and make it mean that, I’d say keep at it.
But the fact is, we don’t own the word. The world owns the word, and to the world, ‘beauty’ is physical attractiveness and little more. To use ‘beautiful’ in our wider, deeper, more important meaning only confuses the issue. It sends our young women mixed messages, telling them that everyone is beautiful, and sending them into despair when the boys flock after someone with a thinner waistline and a wider bust. It tells us we have value because of our looks, and leaves us to worry where our value goes after those looks fade…So forget about ‘beautiful.’ It’s become an ugly word anyway.” (Nathan Biberdorf)
Needless to say, it started a little bit of a firefight on my Facebook wall. Friends commented that it was a “sarcastic rant” and that they weren’t sure the author was on point. I agreed with them to some degree but felt like the article landed in the gist of how I’ve begun to feel about the subject. I felt that it was time for me to share my own opinions on the subject of beauty and my journey to reach my present convictions.
The concept of beauty has always been a stumbling point for me. I didn’t grow up as the girl with the natural beauty that broke necks—but I definitely turned some heads. When I was about 10 years old, I developed a condition called trichotillomania, a nervous disorder similar to OCD that causes a self-induced and recurrent loss of hair. Most cases are fairly mild, and hair loss is unnoticeable; however, my case was more moderate to severe. I lost my eyelashes, eyebrows, and a significant portion of hair from my scalp. I looked similar to a patient recovering from chemotherapy. In several cases, people approached me and asked if I indeed had cancer. Some days, I wish that that was the case. People who are fighting an uncontrollable disease are the strong, beautiful ones that get on national TV and thousands of likes on Instagram. In my mind, I wasn’t one of those people. No one was setting up a charity for me or sharing my pictures on Facebook captioned, “How about 1 million likes for this freak who can’t control herself? Isn’t she beautiful?” I wasn’t fighting a disease; I was fighting myself. And every day when I looked in the mirror, I convinced myself that I was losing.
By the time I was 16, I had got my trichotillomania under control for the most part. Unfortunately, the damage had already been done. My hair mostly grew back, but not thick and beautiful—normal—like before. However, the damage from my disorder went much deeper than follicle-level. I emerged from trich with a damaged perspective of both who I was on the outside and of who I was on the inside. I learned how to hide the surface-level damage flawlessly, but I felt helpless to cover the scars that cut deeply through my identity. As I purchased eyebrow pencils and hair powder that usually winds up in the makeup bags of balding 60-year-old women, I felt incomplete. And even today, as I still have to deal with the consequences of the disorder I still occasionally struggle with, I am very aware that those who are considered beautiful do not deal with hair loss on a daily basis like I do. I know that I do not naturally fit the constructs of the contemporary definition of beauty.
So I stopped searching for ways to shove myself into that definition and started searching for a new definition altogether. What I’ve found has changed the way I look at myself and the way I approach my relationship with God.
This search led me to articles like “Not Everyone Is Beautiful.” While I do not believe that the author is a Christian, his conclusion echoes my own. Society has constructed the definition of beauty to be a ginormous, flimsy amphitheater. Everyone outside can hear what’s going on inside, but the VIP list is incredibly short, and the concert is only accessible to those who can mirror the famous few on the list. Unfortunately, every so often, the amphitheater comes crumbling down, and the giant that once controlled all of society is suddenly irrelevant when a new colossal structure is built downtown. Try to keep up.
Every so often, someone who does not fit the conventional mold is suddenly touted as beautiful, too—like the hairless girl with cancer or the child in Africa with a horrible cleft lip. Society will call them “beautiful” and “strong,” but what we really mean is, “What a ‘beautiful’ trooper. I’m praying for her recovery (so her hair grows back)” or “Someone should adopt that ‘beautiful’ child (and pay for surgery to make his face normal).” We praise their strength, but until everyone begins shaving their heads or developing face-altering medical conditions, it’s not “real” beauty. It sounds horrible, but because cultures all around the world have placed such a premium on some projected standard of “beautiful,” there have to be people who just don’t fit that standard. That’s the industry that sells—makeup, hair products, medical procedures, diet programs, weight-loss pills, gym memberships, self-help books. Making people who aren’t “beautiful,” beautiful, is, sadly, a way of life, an endless cycle that I fell prey to when I was very young. I learned what I was “supposed” to look like, learned that I didn’t look that way, and searched desperately for something to fix it. After trying for years to operate as a young Christian girl in a viciously flawed system, I’ve finally stopped myself, begun a new evaluation, and began to operate under an entirely different system altogether.
The three things I’ve realized:
- The definition is flawed.
The world says beauty is x, y, and z. It’s a linear function of features and traits that, combined, make a person a specimen to be either admirable or disagreeable. Beauty is not just a standard; it’s a normal way of life. Society has trained us all to immediately if subconsciously, identify those who stand out only because of how they do or do not look. It’s a projection and a shifting one at that. X, Y, and Z today will be replaced by A, B, and C tomorrow. When society changes, so do its standards and definitions, and millions are trapped in the rat race of projected normality.
As a Christian, I understand that the world is sinful. I’m beginning to understand that the definition of “beauty” is fallen, too. We’ve taken a characteristic that describes the works of God and twisted and marred it, reducing it to something that enslaves and debases, criticizes and undervalues. Our version of beauty is a shallow puddle compared to God’s intended raging ocean, a hollow shell instead of a perfect fruit, a charred building full of beggars instead of the finest palace built for royalty. In our sinful hands, we’ve transformed the concept of beauty into something very unbeautiful indeed.
- Beauty is deeper than instrumental value.
When searching out the true definition of beauty, I was sure going deeper was the answer. Beauty isn’t skin-deep, right? So I began to focus on who I was on the inside. In my mind, I began to form a laundry list of my personality traits and talents. I figured I was pretty smart, had some athletic talent, musical. I was a good listener and loved others. I wanted to do what was right. These characteristics, regardless of how I looked, must make me a beautiful person, right?
Wrong. I still hadn’t gone deep enough. I had only succeeded in identifying my worth to society—what I as a person contributed to the world. But my usefulness, my instrumental value, was still only a list of x, y, and z, and once again I had fallen prey to a shallow life of endless comparisons and trying to do or be better. I had also entered dangerous territory where I had begun to define myself by what I am instead of who I am. That doesn’t sound like a very large difference, but it impacted how I considered myself before others and how I approached God. I believed I was only as valuable as what I could do and as who others knew me to be. I started basing my relationship with God on how well I served Him or how good of a Christian life I could lay at his feet. That’s a works-based relationship, and it was doomed to fail from the start. Instead of feeling closer to God, I felt further away, more defeated. I knew that this definition of beauty was still not the whole picture. I knew there had to be more to the concept of beauty, to God’s concept of beauty, than characteristics I had to develop on my own or a projection of myself I had to uphold diligently. I knew beauty and value were somehow linked, but I had to find a different type of value to find a different type of beauty.
- The Intrinsic Truth
In the beginning, God created.
He created the physical realm. The sky and the earth. The oceans and the land. The dinosaurs and the chickens. The horses and the horseflies that keep attacking me when I’m trying to lay out at the pool.
You and I, too.
But He did so much more than pop out some animals and plants. By his very nature, He projected his characteristics on the physical world. His power is evident in the rushing waterfall. His grace is evident in the provision of oxygen to breathe and food to eat.
And his beauty is evident in his pronouncement of all that He made, good.
By his very word, the things He created were complete, valuable and perfect. They had a place and a purpose, and, as the result of the spoken word of a beautifully perfect Creator, they were beautifully perfect. And when God said “Let us make man in our image,” He imparted to us the ability to reflect who He is. Our creation in the image of God gives us intrinsic value—value not because of what we’ve done or who we’ve portrayed ourselves to be—but value that resides in the image of God in us. And though we are fallen creatures, sinful and capable of marring the entire concept of beauty, beauty remains in us because of our standing as a creation of the most High God. Any other definition of beauty is vain—incomplete, fleeting, and incapable of being attributed to every person that seeks it.
Beauty is in the eye of whoever is holding the dictionary. Beauty is in the eye of the Beholder–the One who beheld the universe before it’s creation and was the very definition of Beauty from the beginning of time.
So yes, not everyone is beautiful. Perhaps no one is always beautiful, at least according to a definition that changes as times and cultures do. To be honest, I’m not sure it’s possible to operate completely outside the system of socially-constructed ideas of beauty. I’m still going to buy makeup and do my hair and enjoy making myself look “beautiful”—but I’m not going to struggle with it anymore. Because I’m learning a new definition of beauty, one that began when God looked down on a perfect world and in radical and unprecedented fashion granted humankind the ability to reflect Himself. And though I am flawed and often choose to live in ugliness, I am valuable because He has given me value as his creation. I am beautiful because He is. Everyone is. Will you join me in leaving the pursuit of self-degrading, ugly beauty in the past?
To those who are crying out for a new definition: Go back to page one. It’s been there all along. And it is very good.
Genesis 1:27 – so God created man in his own image, in the image of God He created him, male and female he created them.
Genesis 1:31 – and God saw everything that He had made, and it was very good.
Ecclesiastes 3:11 – He has made everything beautiful in his time.
Psalm 139:14 – I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works, my soul knows it very well.