The Eye of the Beholder

by Bethany (Patchin) Torode

"Do I look okay?" I stared at the worried face of the 13-year-old girl. Her rosy cheeks, shiny hair, and flowery shirt were all spotless, in striking contrast to our surroundings - a dusty, dull grey building in the process of becoming a Mexican church. "You look great," I replied as I wiped the cement splatters and sweat from my brow. This is a missions trip, honey. No one cares what you look like. Just get dirty.

Working with a group of teenage girls, you hear an endless number of these comments. "I wish I looked like her." "Does this shirt make me look ugly?" "I hate my figure." It simultaneously tries my patience and encourages my compassion, because it reminds me of myself at that age. I remember what it was like to look in the mirror and dislike what I saw. I remember spending minute upon minute criticizing my features, practicing make-up application and sighing. Since then I've observed just how much of an obstacle self-criticism can be. For instance - a woman who cannot accept God's creative blueprint for her body will have a hard time accepting the honest love of a spouse. If a man tells her that she's beautiful, she has to assume that he's either lying or blind. People (this is true for men, too) who are self-deprecating are rarely able to receive the gift of a sincere compliment. They are constantly hindered in their interactions with others because they can't stop worrying about their own image. Yet so many people never realize this. Why?

Wendell Berry, in The Unsettling of America, points to the physical models we are bombarded with every day and unconsciously trained to measure ourselves against: "Girls are taught to want to be leggy, slender, largebreasted, curly-haired, unimposingly beautiful. Boys are instructed to be 'athletic' in build, tall but not too tall, broad-shouldered, deep-chested, narrow-hipped, square-jawed, straight-nosed, not bald, unimposingly handsome..." A Kentucky farmer, Berry's own physical ideal is that of good health. "Though many people, in health, are beautiful," he writes, "very few resemble these models. The result is widespread suffering that does immeasurable damage both to individual persons and to the society as a whole."

Seeing ourselves

An intense focus on our physical appearance and our failure to conform to (supposed) physical ideals is damaging because it is sinful. The Book of Genesis reveals that man was created in the image and likeness of God. Our bodies are visible reminders of God's glory. When we constantly complain about them or try to re-fashion them according to our own designs, we disdain God's greatest creation.

There's nothing wrong with a woman occasionally highlighting her features with makeup. But it's doubtful that God wants us to spend half the morning covering up the faces he intentionally blessed us with. There is a certain honesty and vulnerability in a clean, unembellished face. It shows humility, and draws attention away from the merely external to the soul shining through the eyes. There's also nothing inherently bad about a man working out to strengthen his muscles. But spending hours in the gym striving for perfect tone is not a good use of his time or body. There is much more to be admired in the modest arms of a man who increases his strength by carrying his children, tilling the ground or maintaining his house. The Apostle Paul calls the body the temple of the Holy Spirit. We should worship with the temple; we must not worship the temple itself. The body is a glorious creation, but its purpose is to glorify the Creator.

Discerning beauty

Our bodies are meant to be instruments for God, not trophies to attract the opposite sex or to gain admiration from our own. Man was created as a unity of body and soul - the two cannot be separated and looked at apart from each other. For this reason, a truly beautiful body is one that gives shape to a beautiful soul. The Bible teaches that a beautiful woman is one with a quiet and gentle spirit. A handsome man is strong in character, pure in thought and tender in action. When superficial beauty covers an impure spirit, it becomes a mockery. Proverbs 11 puts it bluntly: "Like a ring of gold in a pig's snout is a fair woman without discretion."

There will be people who are more physically attractive, more aesthetically pleasing to the eye than others. But our differences are what make us so very appealing. If all flowers were roses, we would never experience the beauty of a mixed bouquet of contrasting daisies, dahlias, lilacs, tulips and daffodils. Roses are magnificent, but they are not everyone's favorite flower. Charlotte Bronte gives us a picture of true beauty in her novel Jane Eyre. The heroine, Jane, is described as beautiful in spirit but "plain" in appearance - she is nearly the opposite of the physical ideal of the day: the plump, pale and pampered society belle. Next to the lovely and haughty Blanche, her rival for the love of Mr. Rochester, Jane seems nondescript and undesirable. But Mr. Rochester is not deceived by appearances. "To women who please me only with their faces" he explains to Jane, "I am the very devil when I find out they have neither souls nor hearts - when they open to me a perspective of flatness, triviality, and perhaps imbecility, coarseness, and ill temper: but to the clear eye and eloquent tongue, to the soul made of fire, and the character that bends but does not break - at once supple and stable, tractable and consistent - I am ever tender and true."

Proverbs 31 says that charm is deceptive and beauty soon fades. This doesn't mean that physical beauty isn't to be enjoyed or acknowledged (read the Song of Solomon) - but that the truest beauty is found by looking through the body, not at the body.

Distorted vision

All of this wisdom seems utterly foolish to our culture today. And it is very hard not to believe the culture, when our outlook is shaped by billboards, store window displays, and popular songs; when our coffee tables are strewn about with catalogs and magazines selling "perfection"; when television, movies, and the internet provide an illusionary world full of fascinating, adventurous, and beautiful people; when all around us, the human body is exploited for the purpose of seducing customers, reducing the image of God to a mere object - and a common, cheap one at that.

If we were to honor and guard our bodies for what they truly are, striving for good health and an honest presentation of ourselves, we wouldn't need to spend money on "improving" or disguising them. By making an object of the body (whether of worship or denigration - these are two sides of the same coin), they hope to make us forget that our bodies aren't plastic, that we will age and eventually die. They want us to believe that happiness is found in bodily pleasure, physical beauty and self-love, so that we will pour our money into fashion, cosmetics, entertainment and self-help. Who are "they"? Call them Hollywood, call them the media. Their lies are ancient. In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis describes the Evil One's strategy for distorting our perceptions:

It is the business of [Satan's lowerarchy] to produce in every age a general misdirection of what may be called sexual 'taste.' This they do by working through the small circle of popular artists, dressmakers, actresses and advertisers who determine the fashionable type. The aim is to guide each sex away from those members of the other with whom spiritually helpful, happy and fertile marriages are most likely. Thus we have now for many centuries triumphed over nature to the extent of making certain secondary characteristics of the male (such as the beard) disagreeable to nearly all the females - and there is more in that than you might suppose. As regards the male taste we have varied a good deal... We now teach men to like women whose bodies are scarcely distinguishable from those of boys. Since this is a kind of beauty even more transitory than most, we thus aggravate the female's chronic horror of growing old (with many excellent results) and render her less willing and less able to bear children. We are more and more directing the desires of men to something which does not exist - making the role of the eye in sexuality more and more important and at the same time making its demands more and more impossible.

We have to be careful of the images we expose ourselves to and surround ourselves with, because it is extremely difficult (if not impossible) to gain a truthful perspective on beauty and the body while we are immersed in the popular culture. Only by stepping back from the world can we hope to see things from the perspective of heaven.

Sight restored

"Faced with the sacredness of life and of the human person" Pope John Paul II asserts, "...wonder is the only appropriate attitude." What right do any of us have to look with disgust upon a creation as magnificent and priceless as the human body? Each of us, like Adam, is hand-fashioned by God Himself. Not only are we an amazing feat of biological engineering, but each of us is a singular masterpiece, one that will never be seen again on this earth. Our countenance, our body shape, our unique combination of hair, eye and skin colors - they are exclusive to us. These little facets reflect the beauty of the Creator as a prism reflects light.

Everyone is familiar with the fairy tale Beauty and the Beast. Near the story's end, as the beast lies dying, Beauty at last pronounces her love for him: the spell is broken and the beast is transformed into a prince. This is a beloved story partly because it is our story. We are all Beasts in the sense that we need the magical love of another to transform us into beautiful creatures. But the fairy tales fail us when we look for that love in another human being. The cause of our ugliness is sin, and only the love of the Creator can restore us to wholeness. Jesus sacrificed himself not just for our souls but for the whole of us. Our bodies will rise again, glorified. This doesn't mean that in heaven we'll all look like immortal Barbie and Ken dolls; a glorified body is one cleansed of sin and free from corruption and death. The kingdom of heaven does not take its standards of perfection from fallen man. Why would we need to lose the wonderful quirks and unique features that distinguish us as individuals? Who knows - in heaven our appearance might not change at all, only our eyesight.

Because when we truly look at ourselves and each other as God sees us, we will not see faults and blemishes - we will see the image of Christ, dazzling and radiant in beauty.

Copyright 2000 Bethany Patchin.