A raging feminist has been lurking dormant in my system, it seems, and lately I find myself enraged at the objectification of women, lies we’re told about our bodies, lessons we learn by osmosis– how to talk about ourselves as never meeting the Photoshopped standard, too big here, not enough there, flaw after flaw after flaw, how to measure our self-worth, whose opinion matters. How dare they, I think. How dare I be judged and judge myself only on appearance?
Because of this, I have wrongly started to resist the word “beauty,” hesitate to label a person as beautiful. The beauty of a human body is too closely aligned with sex appeal in our culture. I find myself thinking, “Wow, she is really beautiful,” and then flinch – oh, no, am I a product of my culture? Have I fallen slave to the sex selling machine?
I want to be beautiful. Not just the inner beauty we all tout around, I also want to be beautiful outside; to leak joy and hope, yes, but also to view my physical being, not just my spirit, as a thing of beauty. Instead, I have been trained to analyze every perceived flaw in my figure.
Beauty, we say, is in the eye of the beholder, but I don’t think that’s true.
When we look at the mountains, do we think, “Well, that range sure would be stunning if the trees were a little taller.” When we look at a flower, do we think, “Oh, if only that marigold had a few more bunches of yellow, then it would be beautiful.” When we are overwhelmed to the point of silence by a sunset over water, clouds pierced by rays of light reflected on waves, an array of color so bright we have to squint, our eyes tear up, can we think anything except awe, anything except, “Wow. Stunning. Amazing. Awesome. Gorgeous. Beautiful.”
No. The thing itself is beautiful, whether we say so or not. Even the crumbling brown landscape underneath the frozen pack of snow finally exposed in the bright March light this eternal winter is beautiful, its grasses crisp, its dirt soaked, the buds on its branches so real, so good, so true. It is beautiful because it is. It is beautiful because it is real. It is good. It is true.
The philosophers of the ages hold up beauty as transcendental, equal to and paired with truth and goodness. Truth, Beauty, and Goodness are the defining characteristics of God in the church. Where one goes, the other two follow. Complete truth, beauty, and goodness is holiness; it is what Christians aspire to in order to achieve wholeness in Christ, who is the embodiment of these three characteristics.
Beauty is fine in nature, it is fine in art, fine in landscape, fine in architecture, fine even in the perfection of math, in science, in physics, beauty as theory as measurement as precision as symmetry as color as prism as light.
Why not the human body?
This, I asked myself today as I walked from my office back to my car, surrounded once more by college students, all in their late teens and early 20s, bodies embellished or hidden, tucked in skinny jeans, falling out of tank tops, topped with ball caps, pierced, tatted, booted, some bare, some smiling, some talking, some frowning, some laughing, and all I wanted to do was stop each one and say, “God, you’re beautiful.” All of you. Miraculous you. You are beautiful because you are. You are real. You are good. You are true. You are beautiful, God-breathed, unique.
There’s a quote that is often mis-attributed to C.S. Lewis that says, “You don’t have a soul. You have a body. You are a soul.” I used to love this, loved it even after I knew that C.S. Lewis didn’t say it, because it de-emphasized the part of my being that I have always been most critical of, scorned and embarrassed by. Good, see, I will shed this body and be an eternal soul, and that’s all I need to worry about, my soul, its truth and goodness and beauty, not my body, withering and dull and flawed.
But this is not true. We are souls. We are also bodies. We are also minds. We are also spirits. We are all of these things, so intricately woven together that we still cannot unravel them to find where soul ends and body begins, where mind stops and spirit starts. We are all of these things, mystery of creation and dust, mystery of growth and decay. We cannot deny that we are also bodies; we cannot rail against the structure that holds the rest of us together. To deny the body is to deny a part of our being, and now we are denying ourselves wholeness. Truth. Goodness. Beauty.
Can we begin to separate sex appeal from human beauty? Can we begin to celebrate the human body in its strength, its tone, its architecture, its flexibility, its aesthetic design, its full range of motion and its ability to heal? How drastically different would it be to think of ourselves this way, instead of comparing ourselves to the cover of a magazine, judging a woman who walks down the street, casting a downward glance to avoid the crazy thought that someone else is lovely? Can we begin to speak truth into ourselves, into our children, into our family members, into our friends, maybe even into strangers, “God, you’re beautiful.” Beautiful because you are
Beauty. It is not such a difficult word.