Monday, May 21, 2012

on the perception of beauty

022812 me closeup1d
B's photograph of me. Can you tell how uncomfortable I am?

For as long as I can remember, I've been extremely shy about the way I look. Well, there was a time when I wasn't I suppose -- somewhere between infancy and about five, maybe -- but with the start of school and puberty and all that other grown-up stuff, I just became shyer and shyer and shyer. I hated having my picture taken. I was the only one in high school who wasn't in the yearbook.

Being continually teased as I was growing up had something to do with it I suppose. School is the classic breeding ground of prejudices and insecurities based on physical appearance. As a kid, I'd gone to grade school overseas for a few years; I had trouble making friends because I was the only Chinese person there, and, well, being kids, they made fun of what they didn't know.

I did finally make friends with this one girl of Italian descent -- dear, sweet Jolene -- but just as I began to settle in, I was brought back home again. Well, now I was theoretically among my own countrymen, but I had acquired a heavy Jersey accent, as well as a different outlook on life -- needless to say, I was made fun of again. Perhaps that's why I've pretty much blocked out my entire academic career.

"Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting" it says in Proverbs 31, yet society's obsessive fascination with physical appearance has made beauty a multi-billion dollar industry. It seems that the first archaeological evidence of cosmetics usage was found in Egypt around 3500 BC, which is, I think, sufficient evidence that "civilised" human beings have always cared about looking good.

One is bombarded daily by images of physical perfection, never mind how unrealistic, Botoxed or Photoshopped. Our culture creates impossible standards of beauty, and then somehow connects those standards to personal worth. It isn't always easy to learn to accept one's body without judgement.

But anyway, this isn't a paper for Soc or Psych 101. This is an analysis of how silly I became when I thought I saw a freckle developing on... well, somewhere obvious. I was out somewhere; I popped into a public washroom; I happened to glance at myself in the mirror while I was washing my hands. Hm. Was that a freckle? There? I looked closer. It was.

The next day I looked at it again in broad daylight. Yup, there it was. True, it wasn't an all-out, sincere freckle yet, but it certainly was real. Now, I'd been in the sun a lot the week before this, so I shouldn't have been hugely surprised. And I know, I know -- use sunblock. But I have very sensitive skin, which is why I don't use anything at all -- sunblock, moisturiser, foundation, camouflage, whatever.

And now there was a freckle in plain sight. Well, to me it was. My eyes were drawn to it like a magnet; the effect was that of walking into a room and seeing some alien life-form sitting by the fire, smoking a pipe. I couldn't seem to help staring at it, and the more I did, the worse it seemed.

I couldn't resist mentioning it to my husband, my mother, and even Rebecca. All of them peered at the spot to which I was pointing with genuine anguish. It didn't matter that they couldn't see what the heck I was talking about; it was enough that I could. I felt like it was a neon sign highlighting my already homely appearance.

I started looking up ways to fade freckles, but besides lemons, there didn't seem to be anything less effective than lasers. Thankfully, I wasn't driven to that yet. And then, while scanning some forum thread started by a lady going through the exact same thing, I saw this posted reply: I have a freckle there too. I've always thought it was really cute.

That gave me pause. What was it, I wondered, that made two people look at the same thing, and think such completely different things? I couldn't help thinking that the person who declared her freckle "cute" was a self-confident, cheerful, upbeat individual -- I mean, you have got to be one of those glass-half-full types to say a freckle there is "cute".

Well, I decided to give myself a good shake. "The perception of beauty is a moral test", Thoreau once said. Besides the obvious fact that world poverty, crime, starvation and injustice far outweigh the importance of a freckle -- even one there -- I realised that I was not reflecting that "entire renewal of the mind" of which the apostle Paul wrote to the Romans.

"Do not be conformed to this world (this age), [fashioned after and adapted to its external, superficial customs]", he said, "but be transformed (changed) by the [entire] renewal of your mind [by its new ideals and its new attitude], so that you may prove [for yourselves] what is the good and acceptable and perfect will of God, even the thing which is good and acceptable and perfect [in His sight for you]" (Rom 12:2).

In another letter, this time to the Philippians, Paul wrote, "Whatever is true, whatever is worthy of reverence and is honorable and seemly, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely and lovable, whatever is kind and winsome and gracious, if there is any virtue and excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think on and weigh and take account of these things [fix your minds on them]". He did not mean fixate on a freckle.

And as the apostle Peter wrote: "Let not yours be the [merely] external adorning with [elaborate] interweaving and knotting of the hair, the wearing of jewelry, or changes of clothes;

"But let it be the inward adorning and beauty of the hidden person of the heart, with the incorruptible and unfading charm of a gentle and peaceful spirit, which [is not anxious or wrought up, but] is very precious in the sight of God" (1 Pet 3:3-4).

I meditated on these Scriptures, and thank God He got me off that freckle and back on track. "The Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart", it says in 1 Samuel. "For You formed my inward parts; You knitted me together in my mother's womb. I praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are Your works; my soul knows it very well" (Ps 139).

And then, while sitting on the toilet, flipping through an old issue of Real Simple, waiting for Kip to soak in her oatmeal shampoo, I stumbled upon an article by Elizabeth Berg, entitled Beautiful, in every single way.

The synopsis read, "Name your 'problem area': Maybe it's your thighs. Or your upper arms. Or your posterior. Most of us have a body part that bedevils us... author Elizabeth Berg owns up to the war she's long fought against her belly and shares how, at long last, she forged a truce".

In the article, Ms Berg writes, "For my entire life, I have hated my midsection... right smack in the middle of my body was my excessively large blubber belly... I could make a large serving spoon disappear into the folds of my fat... The only time I wasn't self-conscious about my belly was when it was at its largest. But I was pregnant, so that didn't count. Every pregnant belly is beautiful, for what it holds inside. But then the baby is born, and guess what's back?"

And then Ms Berg writes of her epiphany. For her, two things happened. One, she happened to catch a glimpse of her best friend's belly and realised that it was even bigger than hers. "But it wasn't awful at all," she writes. "It was part of her. And as such, I loved it".

The second thing -- and this was what really struck me -- happened when she was with her mother. It was a hot day, and her mother was complaining about the heat. "'You should put on some shorts,' I told her. She shook her head.

"'Why not?" I asked, and she leaned in close to whisper. "Varicose veins".

"'Mom,' I said. 'No one cares'. And then I connected some dots" (extracted from the article, Real Simple Mar 2012).

Reading that, I did too.

7 comments:

Plowing Through Life (Martha) said...

It's horrible how society puts so much pressure on how we [should] look. We should learn to love ourselves just the way we are, but it can be difficult with all that social pressure. It is especially difficult for women; they have higher standards to meet. What a shame.

AntiquityTravelers said...

wonderful article, and very reflective for us all! You'll notice I do not have any current pictures of myself either .... that is purposeful on my part. First because I am shy and don't like my picture taken. But second because I want people to think about the jewelry I make on them - not on me. Might have to re-read this and reflect a bit more. :) thanks for writing this!

Dawn said...

Janice, your physical beauty matches your inward beauty...both equally refreshing and so lovely. I personally think that you are stunning to look at. This post was a great read and I have enjoyed the visit. dawn suitcase vignettes xo

Miss Val's Creations said...

You are so beautiful! We do live in such a difficult society with all these images/concepts of beauty. We need to focus within and then our outer beauty follows. But I know what you mean since I have freckles and spider veins that I do not care for but they are part of me. Luckily capris pants are still in style!

Beth said...

Wonderful post, Janice. It is such a shame that our society puts such importance on physical beauty and seems to have such a narrow standard of judging beauty. One of my favorite books is The Little Prince, and I have always loved the quote from it: "It is only with the heart that one sees rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eyes."

By the way, I think you are abolutely beautiful.

Regina said...

Hello Janice, it was nice to have you at Casa de Retalhos.
This is a very good article. I think it's so sad that people, I think specially women, feel uncomfortable in their own skin because of what society and the midia dictates 'how' we should look.
By the way, you look beautiful.

Beth said...

I came back to say thank you for mentioning the Elizabeth Berg essay. Fortunately, it was online so I was able to read it. What a wonderful piece! Have you read her fiction? I really like her books a lot. My favorite one is Range of Motion.

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