When I was about 12 I knew that someday I would be a movie star. At the time I felt I was well on my way, having starred as the lead in theater productions of Annie and Sleeping Beauty. It wasn’t long before I let go of that dream, but for many years the world of celebrity held me firmly in its grasp. The glamorous events and the beautiful dresses held a fascination for me – not to mention rubbing shoulders with the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio (who had won my teenage heart in Titanic); perhaps starring with him in the next big Romantic Comedy.
But along with these images of grandeur that I soaked myself in, crept other sneaking insecurities. I would look at a picture of a beautiful actress and think to myself: She’s so beautiful! If only I were as pretty as she is – I wish I could have her nose, I wish my legs were as long, I wish my hair were as sleek, I wish my arms were as slender. I didn’t just admire their beauty, I longed to look like them, and could only see imperfection in myself. And then, last year, only a year out of college I read a book suggested to me by a friend called i>Wanting to be Her by Michelle Graham (published by InterVarsity Press). I began the long (and continuing) process of confronting the sinfulness of my poor body image.
Almost all women deal with body image, and very few of us are totally confident about the way we look. In fact, according to the National Eating Disorders Association, 80% of American women are dissatisfied with their appearance. College aged women are especially vulnerable to issues surrounding beauty and weight. Of the 5-10 million people who suffer from Anorexia the majority of cases are found in women aged 15-24.
Perhaps college aged women are so susceptible because of fear surrounding the ‘freshman 15,’ the stereotypical amount of weight gained in the first year of college, but I think it’s more likely the desire to be loved. In her book, Michelle spends some time talking about where women place their value as a person. She says that a lot of women believe that our value as a woman is directly proportional to our physical appearance. Given our desire to be valued, cherished, and loved, we feel the only way to fulfill those desires is to be thin and pretty.
The underlying problem then is where and how we look for love. Our mixed up ideas begin by thinking that our appearance will garner the love we crave – with our good looks we are bound to find our knight in shining armor. And then when he comes into our life we convince ourselves that with his affirmation the hole inside of us that craves to be cherished will be filled. He will sweep us off our feet, make us feel loved and desired, and in so doing, complete us.
That is the idea behind every Romantic Comedy in existence – and I know since I am a sucker for a good romantic story. A beautiful young woman searches for a love to complete her, because love from her soul-mate is the missing puzzle piece from her life. All of us, women and men, are susceptible to look to another person to complete them – it is not solely the plight of a woman. Since Adam and Eve, men and women have looked to each other to find completion, and it has turned many marriages sour.
Twenty-some years into my parent’s marriage my mom and dad separated. My dad had come to the conclusion that he was no longer in love with my mom – that neither of them was meeting each other’s needs. For twenty years he had waited for my mom to live up to the expectations he had set for her as the woman of his dreams, and she had failed to match his desires.
He left the day before Easter. It was the most painful time in my immediate family’s history. I, my brothers, and my parents were all hurt, confused, and searching for answers about what love means. By the Grace of God, my dad came home nine months after he had left, and my parents were reconciled on Christmas Eve.
I was recently talking with my dad about my own troubles in love. He gave me some wisdom that he had gained during his separation from my mom. He told me that people look for another person to give them the love they need, to fill the missing piece in them – but the only person that will ever complete us is God. Only when we understand and embrace that, he said, can we learn to give and receive the love that people are able to give each other, but it will never be the satisfying love of God.
It’s something we’ve heard before: that only God can fulfill the desires in our hearts. But do most of us ever really believe it? Certainly our desire for romance must come from somewhere; it was placed in us for a reason. But our sinful nature has caused us to look for it outside of its source. It seems that even if we know it, many of us don’t really trust it or act on it.
Michelle explained that for women, “beauty carries with it an empty promise of the perfect love relationship. We use our body as bait for Mr. Right. And once we’ve caught him we must keep chasing after the impossible beauty standards of our culture. But our unrealistic expectations for men to fulfill us only lead to disappointment…They can’t possibly fill the shoes of…the One who calls himself our heavenly bridegroom.”
And the flipside of that already tarnished coin is that most of us feel we don’t have the looks to compete with more beautiful women, or to hold the attention of men.
So as women we have to ask ourselves: Is my desire to look beautiful because I crave love and acceptance from men and the world? Or is my desire to embellish myself because I am adored and thought beautiful by my maker and want to give him praise? Psalm 139: 13-15 says, “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body.”
Believing that God considers you his beautiful creation and cherished daughter is easier said than done. But I know without a doubt that resting in the knowledge that I am adored and thought beautiful by my maker – the source of who I am – is the key to finding contentment. When we find our deep need for love being fulfilled by God, the joy we discover will allow us to honor and serve God. Romans 12: 1-2 gives us this command, “Therefore, I urge you, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”
I would be lying to tell you that I don’t still struggle with body image after reading Michelle’s book. The road to accepting yourself the way God made you is long and painful. Right now, I’m in the middle of the road, perhaps walking in the right direction but certainly with the horizon still far ahead. I no longer obsess about celebrity, but that doesn’t mean I don’t get mixed up about beauty and love. It takes a constant surrendering of my will and the words – God I trust you.