Photo Credit: Jolyn Sloan
The sunset as I drove out to a retreat for women this past weekend was one of the most beautiful I have seen in my life. The clouds were perfectly layered, the sun weaving between them, the trees and grass of the prairies dancing in response to a golden partner. I was to speak on the body, but I was distracted as I began by the last remnant of sunlight still passing through the windows over the lake. It wasn’t part of my script but it came out of my mouth anyway: “How many of you have looked in the mirror with anywhere close to the same wonder that you had at the sunset tonight?”
It was a powerful question that moved many of us to tears. I have been thinking and speaking about the body a lot lately, and I am discovering that there is a near-universal dissatisfaction with our bodies in our culture, for women and also for men. We are able to recognize the beautiful in nature, in art, in music, and even in other people. But we are choking on the possibility that we might just be beautiful ourselves.
As a teenager, I drove my brother to the city once, and we went for lunch and we were talking about our family and our small town life, and my brother said, casually, “Yeah, my friends always talk about my two beautiful sisters.” I was the third sister. The smart, talk-too-much, student council sister. He back-pedaled pretty quickly, not intending to hurt my feelings or suggest I wasn’t beautiful, but he had named something I already knew. I was too curvy, too red-headed, and too independent to be considered beautiful. And my sisters, with their dark complexions and different shapes, did not feel any more secure than I did.
This is not just about body image and positive self esteem. It is not about shaming our culture into broader standards of beauty. This is about how the way we see ourselves changes the way we act, because the way we think changes the world.
I believe that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14). I believe that humanity is the most beautiful part of creation in no small part because we have the capacity to recognize the beauty of the rest of the world and protect every ounce of beauty that has ever existed.
You see, that sunset was amazing, but for all its glory it cannot see. The sunset cannot smell the rain it followed or taste the damp in its air. A beautiful sky cannot paint itself or hear the soundtrack of gently falling leaves. The sunset can neither add to nor take away from its own glory. But I can.
I can look in the mirror and tear away at someone wonderful and beautiful with my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and what I have failed to do. So often we reduce ourselves to what we dislike and where we have failed. I look upon myself, created in the image and likeness of God and cast condemnation all over the beautiful work of God’s hands. My view is distorted and efforts to make the reflection more agreeable or hide the parts I do not like are a distraction from seeing the truth: I am already beautiful and loved exactly as I am.
Self-hatred and condemnation are a prison that keep me from loving in freedom. I am desperately afraid of being beautiful and loved in all my imperfection, because then I will need to extend that same freedom and beauty to imperfect others. It feels safer to live in judgement, in the alluring but false comfort that my imperfection is justifiable if I can find others whose sins and bodies are “worse” than mine. It is all a lie that keeps me trying to cover up instead of truly living.
These thighs and hips that I have been so obsessed about making smaller have been the spacious way to life for three beautiful little people. These arms lacking definition are a safe place for my spouse and kids, for neighbours and friends, for strangers who offer me their stories after I speak. This body of mine is giving voice to the gospel, making food for hungry kids and friends, and bearing witness to a God who exists to simply love. There is no size, no shape, no sin that can wipe away our beauty. It is time we started believing it.
My heart is beating alongside the creator of the universe, bursting with a life that allows me to participate in the ongoing creation of the world. My breath is a gift, given to me breathe life into the world, rather than whisper destruction. It is my job to get on with living, diving into believing that I might just be beautiful because God made me this way.