When I was a little girl, I used to wonder if, before we were born, we stood in line in heaven and requested our lives.
"Ah," I imagined a large angel with an imposing wing span speaking to me, "you're going to be a girl. Very well, what would you like? Long legs? A great figure? Fame? Fortune?"
Innocently I answered him, "If you please, sir, I'd like a nice personality." And with no time to reconsiderZap!I was born and here I am. Less than five feet tall, not-so-straight teeth, blotchy skin, and enough of a figure for two women.
Once, I asked my brother if he thought I was pretty. He glanced up at me from his sheet music and told me to go away. "Darnell, I'm serious," I whined. "Am I pretty?" Realizing the only way to get me to leave was to answer me, he took a deep breath and looked me over from head to toe.
"Your face is all right," he said finally. "You have a quirky personality. You're okay."
"What's that supposed to mean?" I asked, my voice rising. "So, what you're saying is, I'm too fat and I act like a fool!"
"That's not what I said," he answered calmly, returning to his work.
"That's not what you said? That's exactly what you said!" I spit out at him. "You said no guy will ever want me because I'm ugly and I'm stupid! What do I have to do to get a little affirmation around here?!" I yelled, storming from the room.
So this was my life. Throughout it I struggled with feelings of ugliness and inadequacy. My friends had good looks, skinny ankles, and straight teeth. They got asked out on dates. I got dates on a fruit tray at Christmas. They became homecoming queens and cheerleaders while I wallowed in a state of below averageness, longing to be an airbrushed model, waiting to wake up beautiful.
Then one day I met Jesus. A girlfriend had invited me to church. As I sang along with the rest of the voices lifted in worship, I was overcome by a sense of guilt and unworthiness. This wonderful God we were singing about, how could he love fat and ugly me? But during the service I began to realize that God doeslove mejust as I am. That day I accepted God's love and sacrifice for me. Over time I've gained the assurance that he loves me more than I can imagine and that I'm truly beautiful in the way that matters moston the inside.
But my old negative feelings about myself didn't immediately disappear. Some days, they came in droves, and I struggled to battle them off. Like the time I met with my friends Diane and Leona for lunch.
I was thirtysomething, reaching my sexual prime, unmarried, and retaining water. It wasn't a good day. We met at a local restaurant and the topic of conversation quickly turned to men.
"So, how's Eugene?" Diane asked.
Leona waved her hand. "Oh, please, no," she answered.
"You're not seeing him anymore?" I asked.
"Girl, that was two weeks ago," she replied, "and we weren't really seeing each other. We were just, you know, talkin'."
"Oh," Diane and I replied in unison.
"No!" Leona stressed emphatically and started naming other guys she'd met recently.
"What I want to know is how and where you meet these men?" Diane queried.
Leona sighed heavily as if disgusted by it all. Personally, I was on the edge of my seat, ready to take mental notes. At the first opportune moment, I'd run to the bathroom and write it all down on a square of toilet paper. She took a slow, laborious bite of her sandwich and chewed thoughtfully.
Please answer the question,I thought to myself. I was holding my breath. My future hung in the balance between Leona's answer and pastrami on rye.
She took too long. I reached over and moved her plate to the other end of the table. "Spill the beans, now!" I hissed.
Leona pouted as if I'd hurt her feelings, then rolled her eyes. She'd seen this look before. It was ugly. My glare spoke envy. It exposed my desperation and longing, all the feelings a mature Christian woman should have been able to rise above. But this Plainer-Than-Jane was sick and tired of being quirky. I wanted a man.
"Where are the men? How do I get one?" I whispered.
Leona pursed her lips. But I held my ground. No info, no sandwich.
"You know how it is," she said. "You walk out the door and men ask you out on a date."
"Oh," I replied softly. Obviously I lived in the wrong neighborhood. I looked to Diane. After a few moments she remembered she had food in her mouth and closed it.
"You girls know what it's like," Leona continued. "You can't even walk to the car these days without having men stop to talk to you."
"No, Leona," I said flatly. "I don't know what it's like."
"Oh, girl, yes you do," she insisted.
I watched Leona. She was drop-dead beautiful from head to toe. Her movements were soft and flowing, her voice soft, sultry. Every hair was in place and her fashionable clothes fit perfectly. I tried to remember the last time I'd visited a beauty salon and thought of the four-year-old bra I was wearing, held together with a carefully placed safety pin. I felt very inadequate.
"Do men ask you out every time you walk out your door?" I asked Diane later that afternoon when she dropped me off at home.
"No," she said.
"Me neither. Do you think I should move to a different street?"
My friend looked at me searchingly. Looking at me like that, she reminded me a lot of my brother.
Waving good-bye, I got an idea. It came to me suddenly, like a craving for chocolate. I ran to the house and into the bedroom, stripped, and stood naked in front of the mirror. After the initial shock wore off, I peered at myself from every imaginable angle, trying to catch my best side. If I can accentuate my best angle, I'll be asked out all the time, too,I thought to myself. Finally, however, I gave up and did humanity a favor by putting my clothes back on.
Self-esteem depleted, I hung my head and was ready to fling myself onto the bed in despair when I saw my Bible next to my pillow. I opened it to Psalm 139. "I am fearfully and wonderfully made" is what the psalmist said in verse 14.
"I know God, but ," I began to protest; then the words of 1 Samuel, chapter 16 came to mind. "Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart" (v. 7).
I was thoughtful for a few moments. Then, hesitantly, I got up and peeked back in the mirror. All of me was still there, every lovin' inch. "Well, God," I said, still looking at my not-so-perfect, ample reflection, "Your Word says I'm special, so it must be so." The face smiling back at me winked knowingly. I said a short prayer of thanksgiving and did the best thing I could have possibly done for myself at that moment. I went shopping.
Leona's married now. She says she was just walking down the street. "You know how it is downtown, girl. You walk past a store and all the guys come out. They ask you out; they ask you to marry them. So one day "
I've walked down that street a hundred times and no shop owner or clerk ever asked me anything, not even what time it was. It was hard, but I forced myself to face reality. They must've all been busy with customers when I went past. Obviously, they hadn't read 1 Samuel lately.
I asked my brother recently, "Darnell, am I pretty?"
He smiled. "You're a precious pearl," he said, "a beautiful, godly woman."
Guess we've both improved over the years.
Shea M. Gregory is a freelance writer living in California.
Copyright © 1997 by the author or Christianity Today/Today's Christian Woman magazine.