Monday, September 26, 2011

On Beauty, Part Two

I remember it clearly. I was twenty, and I was driving across country to visit my parents. I had been driving since 5 am, and I stopped to get fast food for lunch. As I walked back to my car, a group of teenaged boys were sitting at a booth by the door. They looked me over, and I heard one of them declare to the guffaws of his friends, "Man, she is ugly. She is so ugly."

Even then, I understood what was happening. I knew that to childish and lonely boys, claiming to be an authoritative judge of women's beauty is a way of pretending you have choices in the matter. It was a pose, a pretense that women offered themselves to him regularly and he only accepted the extraordinary few.

But that did not keep me from believing him.

When I think about it now, I realize that I believed beauty, unlike character, was best judged by the people who knew me least. I had believed in the lie of "objective" beauty, that there exists a standard of loveliness that excludes love. Once you believe this, the fact that someone loves you means they have only unreliable opinions on your beauty. I saw love as an enemy of accurate perception,  which inevitably meant I believed I was seen most accurately when I was rejected most harshly.

The truth, on which I have only a tenuous hold, is that the people who love us see our beauty most clearly. I do not mean love fabricates beauty that isn't there. I mean love gives us new perceptions of realities we might, in other circumstances, be blind to. Love reveals, not masks.

Most parents know this. When we raise and cherish a child, the failure of their prospective romantic partners to recognize their unique beauty can cause us almost violent offense. It feels like a rejection of a profound and obvious truth. We have a thousand platitudes in response: you're better off without him; if she doesn't appreciate you, she doesn't deserve you, etc. This is not parental blindness; it is the full-spectrum vision of love.

I have been thinking about these things recently because of our fifteenth anniversary. After fifteen years of marriage, I think I am obligated to accept that my husband genuinely finds me beautiful. Isn't that a strange thing to say? I realized recently how many times I have dismissed his compliments as either a compassionate attempt to make me feel better when I'm low, or a practical plan for getting sex from the only person he's allowed. I have too often denied him credit for simply meaning what he says.

He has told me for fifteen years that my hair is beautiful, and I had supposed, without really thinking about it, that he said this because he preferred long hair and it was the only way to keep me from cutting it. But it dawned on me when looking at a snapshot the other day: no, he really thinks my hair is gorgeous. Like if he were daydreaming about the ideal woman, she would appear with thick, wild, long, curly hair. He loves my hair. He glories in my hair.

And if I reject that, if I insist on the self-lacerating misery of "I'm too fat," "I'm too short," "I'm too old," or whatever worried canker most appeals that day, I am telling him that his love makes him unreliable.

I cannot clutch my fears and wait for his assurances to overwhelm me. Marriage means letting go of fear so I can take the hand he holds out to me. Marriage means seeing him see me, and knowing I am beautiful.


  1. i think you're right...the trust and acceptance of another's appreciation - at face value, as genuine, as honest - is one of the hardest things.

    i guess i've never thought of it in terms of the marriage framework. obviously, i'd argue it exists and is important outside that framework. but it may still be one of the best arguments FOR the framework itself that i've heard. would that we all had such relationships.

    this would actually make a great post for my #thehomeproject series, Veronica. loved it.

  2. this hit home. my husband always asks why i simply can't believe him when he says i'm pretty. maybe it is time for me to let go of those fears, too.

  3. "a practical plan for getting sex from the only person he's allowed"

    This made me laugh so hard!

  4. Congratulations on 15 years!

    This brought tears to my eyes - you are so right, and I have been so blind. Thank you thank you thank you.

  5. I felt completely ordinary and invisible at 20. I look back at pictures of myself then and wonder why I thought that. Not, mind you, that I look now and see some incredible beauty. I do see, though, much more there than I used to see.

    If only I had a time machine to travel back to that 20 year old. I could try to set her straight. Not that she'd listen to me.

    Regarding accepting your beauty is someone else's eyes, I am very grateful for my husband's steady viewing of me as beautiful.

  6. This is really wonderful. Thanks for sharing the personal.

  7. Loved this post and part one as well. I also think it's awesome that we were married on the same day, same year. We were pronounced husband and wife around 2:20pm,

    I'm one to brush my husband's compliments off as motivated by sex or duty, never because he sees me as beautiful. This is a huge mistake. He gets rightfully offended when I answer with, "You're supposed to say that..." or "Whaddaya want?!"

    When I tell my children they are beautiful/lovely, it's never because I want them to pick up their backpacks or do their homework. It's not because I'm their mom and have to tell them how cute they are. I do it because I can't help myself at that moment. I should entertain the thought my husband might feel the same way about me.

  8. Wow. That's some powerful truth! You've spoken what I could not articulate. Imperative too, in understanding God's love - perfect love drives out fear.

    Thanks so much for sharing!

    -Kim Rempel

  9. I keep trying to figure out how to respond to this post as I nodded in assent reading on down. I keep wondering about the deeper implications of this statement,

    "The truth, on which I have only a tenuous hold, is that the people who love us see our beauty most clearly. I do not mean love fabricates beauty that isn't there. I mean love gives us new perceptions of realities we might, in other circumstances, be blind to. Love reveals, not masks."

    Loved this post, and the journey to believing your husband at last. :)

  10. Anonymous10/15/2011

    I was so happy to see you here. I have very few bloggers that I am committed to reading, but you were one of them once upon a time.

    I LOVE what you wrote on beauty... so very well said, thank you. I do hope you continue to write, because like your first post mentioned, I also long to hear (and see!) hope and truth and beauty intelligently revealed in this world. It's an encouragement in my desire to obey the command, "Do not fear what they fear, neither be afraid."

    Sometimes you just "click" with certain voices, and I recognize them when I hear them. :) Thanks so much!

  11. Anonymous10/19/2011

    I love your idea that love unmasks real beauty.

    I think you've just provided a lovely justification of the problem in fairy tales of all the good characters ending up beautiful, even if they started out ugly (Beauty and the Beast, The Ugly Duckling). Instead of seeing this as a dangerous teaching that goodness and success always leads to physical beauty, I'm going to now see those stories as revealing the truth that anyone we really know and love will come to be beautiful to us.

    (By the way, hi, I'm Zina, and I can't remember how I came to bookmark your site nor whether I've introduced myself before--but that doesn't stop me from commenting with impunity.) :)

  12. Linda B.10/19/2011

    I keep coming back to read this post again and again and let the truth of it sink in deeper. Thank you so much.

  13. These two posts on beauty ARE beautiful. As a mother learning to parent a daughter who is unbelievably gorgeous I am prayerfully trying to let her beauty point to Christ and not create an environment where she is enslaved to it. Some would deny beauty all together and tell me never to speak of it, but that would be to deny God! After all, whatever is true, good and beautiful is Godly!!