By Matthew Boedy
I was so unique
Now I feel so skin deep
Counting on the make-up to cover it all
Crying myself to asleep because I could not keep their attention…
Bethany Dillon wants to be beautiful. You hear it in her voice. She is the one who sings the above words and she is the one who put a million voices to harmony.
I was reading the Sunday paper the other day and was seized by an article about by an art exhibit sponsored by Dove. The company has a new campaign looking for real beauty. The wide promotion includes traveling photographs that show real women, from young to old, from black to white, from poor to rich, from beautiful…well you get the idea.
The idea is show women as they are so they will accept themselves as they are.
The campaign also includes a commercial. Maybe you have seen it. It is the one with the women all in blonde wigs walking in a city and at the same time they shuck their hair to reveal their beautiful differences.
The focus on beauty, the company says according to its website (www.campaignforrealbeauty.), came from women themselves who are tired of trying to do what Bethany is doing – be beautiful in someone else’s eyes.
The project’s most compelling foundation is a survey done by photographers that calculated two percent of women in 10 countries would describe themselves as beautiful.
In the high school I teach at, there are abut 700 girls. That’s 14. In a church of 2000 women, that’s 40. In a mall on a Saturday, or a grocery store, or a park, that means not any of the 10 women you see would consider themselves worthy to look at. You would have to look at many, many more.
I’ve heard statistics before and not turned my ear. Children in poverty, people with AIDS who don’t know it, or the ERA of the Atlanta Braves.
But I had to ask myself why were my ears and now my head so concerned with how women see themselves? Is it because I am looking for a woman… well, looking seems so obsessive. Is it because sometimes I don’t consider myself beautiful and even that debate, that word, for a man, isn’t that a bit less than masculine?
Practically speaking, if I am so driven by that one number, what can I do really? Go up to all the high school girls I teach and tell them they are beautiful? Tell all the single 20somethings that they are? Tell every wife from 89 to 19 that they are? No.
But something has to be done. Two percent. Something has to be done.
Part of the campaign also includes a self-esteem fund, which the company says will pay for community events in collaboration with groups like the Girl Scouts. The company is hoping girls and women can find the confidence to know they are beautiful.
That seems like a good step. But it is hardly a new problem and hardly one without money and ideas thrown at it.
What is beautiful and why do the world’s women not think they are?
Could it be the fault of men, not recognizing beauty, not telling on it?
There is beauty in everything, the romantics tell us. But of course we are talking about beauty of the person. But that is exactly the problem. We are not talking about beauty of a person, we are talking about the beauty of a face, of eyes, of legs, of breasts, of muscles, of smiles.
Particular things that particular women of beauty have and others want. So when we say someone is beautiful we are most likely referring to something about them. So there has to be a reason, then, for beauty.
But is there such a thing as unconditional beauty? We can be loved for no reason, hated for no reason. But beautiful for no reason? No. Something has to be hot, straight, tight, sexy, or chiseled for us to be called that. And once we are, we call ourselves that.
Lucy Grealy lived her life past age nine with a deformity in her face due to cancer. She wrote her story and called it “Autobiography of a Face.’’
Early on she had many surgeries and believed her self to be “fixable,’’ but as time and life wore on, Lucy realized her face was not going to change.
In high school, of course, she was teased and taunted. And she realized a painful truth about beauty: “I knew in my heart that their comments had nothing to do with me, that it was all about them appearing tough and cool to their friends. But these boys were older than the ones in grade school, and for the first time I realized they were passing judgment on my suitability or lack of it, as a girlfriend.’’
They were passing judgment on her face. She was passing judgment on her beauty.
One of the doctors had given her hope for a normal face and that hope made her soar to the idea that she could be “fixed.’’
But the surgery did not fix what she had wanted. Lucy eventually went to college where she thought she discovered the one thing that could take away her ugliness: love from another.
She collected men who would have sex with her, hoping each time she would finally believe she was lovable. That never happened. Everything boiled down to one equation: Was I beautiful or ugly?
Toward the end of her life, she went years without looking in a mirror, even developing a way of brushing her teeth that required no reflection. Eventually the absence of an image became the forgetting of one as well. She became a non-human, a heavy drug user, suicidal and eventually died at age 39. Her death was ruled an accidental overdose.
Lucy’s beauty was in her words – she was an accomplished and talented writer. But without beauty, she even doubted that.
In a companion volume, Lucy’s best friend and author Ann Patchett finished Lucy’s story. In “Truth and Beauty,” Ann writes how in the midst of Lucy’s hardest days, in the middle of her depression, her sexual escapes, in the middle of her long journey to be beautiful, she would ask one question: “Do you think I am talented?’’
She was beautiful. As a writer I can see that. But as a man, could I?
What do I find beautiful? I consider a beautiful woman to be a collection of love, compassion, fear, doubt, faith, tears, laughter, wisdom, eyes that talk without words, and a smile that warms. Those are all aspects of beauty but to me all those melt into a person, so much that if I focus on one of those things I lose what’s beautiful. It is the fullness of a person that is beautiful. It is the person as they are.
Surely more than two percent of women agree. Why don’t they? Can we fault men, for not recognizing beauty and when we do, not telling others?
What do we do with beauty once we see it?
Sometimes we want more, thereby making it the thing, not her.
Consider King Xerxes. He sent out an order to find all the beautiful women in his kingdom. When they were found, they were to undergo beauty treatments for at least 12 months and then they would be ready for the king’s eyes.
They were already beautiful and he forced them to hide it until they added to it. Until they were beautiful enough.
That’s all they were – a collection of faces, legs, eyes, and rosy cheeks.
Of course a more modern example would include selling cars, selling boats, selling just about anything with a woman in a bikini.
But more than our lustful eyes, men, we have to consider our harsh hearts. What do we do when we don’t see beauty?
We make fun of it. We shun it. We call it names. We call it ugly. We let it know time and time again that it is not beautiful. Of course by then, the woman has become it to us.
The high school truism, though, remains correct throughout life. As harsh as men are on women, women are worse on their own sex and on themselves.
Two percent. That means 98 percent of women, after seeing a lifetime of other women with better cheekbones, tighter thighs and thinner hips, have concluded they are not hitting the mark of beauty. They are not beautiful enough.
Someone once wrote that beauty is the first gift nature gives to women and the first gift it takes away.
Women cling to their beauty as if the gift will be taken away. But ironically, in their desire to keep it, they trust in it, lavish it on any man and so it becomes his.
It will not be taken away. That is the lie that breaks a million mirrors and a million spirits.
And sadly, a crusade of men yelling from the rooftops that women are all beautiful isn’t going to change that. Just like truly no woman can convince me I’m man enough.
It is much like the lead character in CS Lewis’ “Til We Have Faces,” Queen Orual, the ugly sister to the beauty Psyche.
The queen became jealous and sought to destroy Psyche’s beauty. She only learned to honor her sister’s beauty when she began to honor her own. She began to honor it when she was given it from above: “You also are Psyche,’’ the voice said.
Or as Lewis put it, how can the gods meet us face to face till we have faces?
How can we see each other as beautiful until we see ourselves as such?
Angela, how can I get you to believe you are beautiful? Holly, how can I get you to believe you are beautiful? Emily, Christy, Jennifer?
You must surround yourself with people who will tell you the truth. Because the truth is so much better than the lies.
Emily Dickinson, the poet who would have never been mistaken for a model, said beauty is not caused; it is.
That’s unconditional beauty. It is not caused. God doesn’t love us because we are lovable, quite the opposite. And He doesn’t think we are beautiful because we have something beautiful on us. We are beautiful. The great voice says so. And that is enough.
Matthew Boedy is a 26-year-old high school teacher and Young Life leader in Augusta, Ga. He enjoys all things beautiful and writing about them.
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