This is a guest post by my friend Allison Vesterfelt. For more writing from Allison, you can check out her blog, AllisonVesterfelt.com.
I prefer to think that beauty doesn’t matter.
I was invited to a wedding recently, and my first thought upon receiving the invitation was one I’d rather not admit, but I imagine is to uncommon: what am I going to wear? The thought, in itself, wasn’t bad, but what followed was less than settling. It was this subtle but gripping anxiety. How could I know the style of the event? How could I predict what other women would be wearing?
How could I (with money as tight as it is) afford to buy a new dress?
That was the part that left me wishing I could just brush the whole thing off like it didn’t matter. But no matter how much I wanted to forget about it, or brush it off, the truth is it did matter. If it didn’t, why was I so worried about it?
Then my husband and I had an argument because he said something I perceived as cold an insensitive. It was a comment about a shirt I was wearing, and how it didn’t flatter my figure. Honestly, it touched on all of my insecurities and before I knew it I melted into a pool of tears, eager to blame him for putting too much emphasis on the way I looked.
Why does it matter? I wanted to seethe at him. It’s just clothes!
But it wasn’t just clothes. Obviously, it meant something to me (or I wouldn’t be in tears) and it meant something to him (or he wouldn’t have brought it up). How come the subject is so touchy?
It’s hard because, as a woman, I feel pressure to be beautiful. I can tell myself all day long that the pressure isn’t there, or that it’s “what’s on the inside that counts” or that it’s shallow to spend time thinking about make-up, or my hair, but no matter how much I tiptoe around the subject, or try to turn away, I still feel it. And I’m not the only one. My guess is you feel it too.
We know, from experience and intuition, that beauty matters.
We’d just rather not admit it. It’s much less painful to act as if there is no such thing as beauty than to admit that we might not be “it.”
It’s much easier to pretend like beauty doesn’t matter than it is to say that it does, but we don’t embody it.
But the problem is no matter how hard I try, I can’t ignore beauty. I can’t climb a mountain, or read a book or watch a sunset or listen to an album without the overwhelming sensation that beauty is real and it matters. I may not be able to put my finger on it, but I can sense it. I can recognize the presence and absence of it.
It’s not just spiritual, either. It’s physical.
Just think about the things I listed above. Sunsets, beautiful views, an instrument played with skill or a singing voice that stops us in our tracks. These are not inside qualities. They’re outside qualities. They’re tangible. We can touch them, hear them or see them. And they are beautiful! It gets complicated, though, because beauty is also not just physical.
Have you ever met a beautiful person who opened their mouth and ruined it for you? I have. I’ve also met women who radiate beauty but don’t follow any of the stereotypes. They’re aren’t shaped like the billboard women and their skin ins’t photoshop flawless.
In fact if I tried to explain why they were beautiful, I wouldn’t be able to put my finger on it. But for whatever reason, I am drawn to them. I can’t stop staring.
Their beauty is not just an outside quality, but it is not just an inside one either. What’s on the inside does count. But what’s on the outside does too. You can’t disconnect one from the other.
I think part of the problem is that we’re misdefining beauty.
We learn beauty from billboards and catalogues, which are crappy teachers if you ask me. They tell us that beauty is a certain color of hair, or of skin, and a certain shape to our body. We can’t help but think to ourselves — if that’s beauty, I’m not it. With a standard as impossible as the one we’ve created it’s easy to feel ashamed and hopeless.
I’ve lived under the crushing weight of knowing I could never live up.
And so to protect myself I’ve just said beauty doesn’t matter. It’s worked alright, most of the time, until my husband makes a comment about the shirt I’m wearing, or I don’t have money to buy a new dress for a wedding, and those old realizations come back again, the ones I’ve tucked away and tried to ignore, with a strength that bowls me over.
Suddenly I am a pool of tears, loud and inconsolable.
I was watching the sun rise over the ocean a few months ago when the idea occurred to me of beauty unfolding. It’s simple I know, but I thought about the progression of it, and how each phase was beautiful for a different reason. The colors changed every couple of minutes, and each time they did it was another reason I couldn’t look away.
I thought about how God never runs out of ways to make us beautiful.
And like the sun I think we are beauty unfolding over time, seeing different facets of ourselves in different phases of life. I am learning how to let my beauty unfold like that, how to see myself as beautiful, and how to admit that beauty matters.
I can pretend like beauty doesn’t matter, but as long as I do, I’ll never get to embrace how beautiful I really am. I’ll never experience what it feels like to be the sun — some mornings bright, others muted and pastel, others hidden by grey clouds, but never fluctuating because someone didn’t notice her beauty.
Never hinging her beauty on the approval of, or comparison to, another.
Allison is a writer, managing editor of Prodigal Magazine and author of Packing Light: Thoughts on Living Life with Less Baggage (Moody, 2013). She lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota with her husband Darrell.