We were about to leave the house for a night out with friends. My husband hollered that we'd be late if we didn't get going. I hollered back that I was ready. Really, I was standing in the bedroom, half-dressed, with my back to the full-length mirror, twisting my upper torso as far to the rear as possible. I craned my neck to catch a glimpse of my posterior. Did it stick out too far in these jeans? Ugh. Yes. I dumped the offending jeans on a growing pile of discarded outfits and grabbed some shorts instead.
Again, I went to the mirror. Again, I contorted my body. This time the rear view was better. But did these shorts adequately conceal the burgeoning cellulite along the back of my thighs? Another loud summons from my husband convinced me that they did.
I grabbed my purse and rushed out the door, biting back the question I so desperately wanted to ask: "Do I look fat in these?"
Fairy tale vs. reality
"Mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the fairest of them all?" We learn that rhyme as children. And sadly, that's when many of us decide the "happily ever afters" are for the beautiful people; the rest of us must struggle with a more troll-like reality.
But eventually we grow up, and something magical happens. We find our special mate, the one God prepared just for us. We say our vows and embark on our own "happily ever afters." Nothing left to fear from our Ugly Duckling days, right?
Maybe. For many of us, that old connection between appearance and self-worth is hard to break. Ask any woman who's ever taped a picture of a swimsuit model to her refrigerator in an attempt to resist leftover cheesecake. Or any man who has quickly surfed past the television commercial where a guy with washboard abs demonstrates a home workout machine.
The fact is, images of the "perfect" body abound in our culture. If we allow ourselves to be influenced by a preoccupation with good looks, physical appearance can become a source of insecurity not only in our minds but in our marriages as well.
In his book Women Are Always Right and Men Are Never Wrong (Word), conference speaker Joey O'Connor puts it this way: "Despite all the beauty and glamour we see in magazines, on television commercials and in movies, physical fitness is no measure for a healthy marriage. A healthy marriage is characterized by how husbands and wives honor and respect each other, regardless of physical appearances."
O'Connor refers to the message of 1 Samuel 16:7: "Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart." Then he asks two vital questions: "Whose standards do you use to define beauty and attraction in your marriage? Do you judge your spouse based on outward appearance or by what's in his or her heart?"
Do looks really matter?
Most people would agree that physical attraction is a vital ingredient in a healthy marriage. But that's exactly what it is—an ingredient. It was never intended to be the whole meal.
"Marriage was designed by God to meet relationship needs on a human level," says Beverly Burch, a Chicago-based psychotherapist who specializes in individual and marital counseling. "Very few of us are classically beautiful. Most of us aren't going to get on a magazine cover. What's deeply satisfying in a relationship is a [person's] personality."
Dan and Roxie, of Madrid, Nebraska, agree. Married 24 years, their relationship has grown past the initial attraction phase. "Sure, Roxie's appearance was the way I was first attracted to her," Dan says. "But marriages don't last if they're not based on something besides looks. As time goes on, you turn more from the physical to the spiritual."
Roxie chimes in: "Appearance matters, but … humor always meant more to me." She believes personality traits, such as a good sense of humor, are what really go the distance in a marriage. "Sickness or weight gain, I don't think that would matter," she says. "We're all eventually going to get older. It's personality that counts."
Advice for the other half
It's great when a marriage, like Dan and Roxie's, matures to the point where intimacy increases and friendship deepens over the years. The relationship provides joyful nurture and loving security for both partners. The 1 Samuel 16:7 model, based on inner qualities rather than outward appearance, is firmly in place.
But for some couples, physical appearance takes center stage—becoming a source of resentment or even rejection. When that happens, Beverly Burch advises, it's time for some honest evaluation.
"You have to find out why appearance is an issue, and who it's an issue with," she says. Feeling angry or dissatisfied with your spouse's looks, or with your own looks, can be the symptom of a deeper problem. And usually the key is found at the relationship level, not with the numbers on the bathroom scale.
If bitterness over physical appearance has infected your marriage, Burch suggests that you and your spouse consider these questions: Has there been some deep disappointment within your relationship? Has your marriage become less satisfying, making physical appearance seem much more important to you? Have you stopped growing in intimacy, so that appearance is all you have left?
Sometimes one partner believes appearance is more of an issue than the other. "Stereotypically, it might be the wife who's ashamed of her looks," Burch says. "That keeps her from being herself with her husband. She can actually create the situation she fears by not letting her husband connect with her personality."
On the flip side, insecurity may prompt some people to become preoccupied with dieting and "looking good." They feel most valued for their appearance. They may even fear that if others really knew them, they'd find little to love.
"But people who are preoccupied with their looks are self-focused," Burch says. "Self-focused people don't give as much [to others]."
And that can open the door to the worst enemy of any marriage—selfishness. "I've never seen a marriage fall apart because one person wasn't beautiful," Burch says. "Usually it's selfishness, on one or both parts."
No one would minimize the importance of a healthy lifestyle. Paying appropriate heed to your weight and appearance can be a positive measure of self-worth. But an attitude that consistently makes outward appearance the yardstick for determining attraction is a roadblock that can hinder the growth of true intimacy within your marriage.
"Appearance is such a superficial thing to pick on," Burch says. "Be honest with yourself. If you waved a magic wand and the other person were suddenly beautiful, or you were suddenly beautiful, would you truly be satisfied?"
Remember, God looks at the heart. He loves you and your spouse unconditionally. He designed your marriage relationship to be a source of intimate acceptance and love. He can use prayer, honest communication and perhaps the help of an understanding pastor or Christian counselor to make your partnership all that he intended it to be.
But do I look fat?
When I frantically try on 12 different outfits before leaving the house and still fight the urge to ask "Does this make me look fat?" what I'm really seeking is relationship reassurance. I want to know if my husband loves and accepts me for what's right about my heart and not what's wrong about my body.
I know he does. And I feel the same for him. That's just the kind of personal need that marriage was designed to fulfill.
If you or your spouse need to work at losing weight or at facing the physical changes that come with illness or aging, remember that such tasks are made easier within the framework of unconditional love and honest acceptance.
In his book, Joey O'Connor gives this advice: "Whatever you look like and however you feel about your body, use what you've got to be attractive to your spouse, but more important, work on being a person of the heart."
Renae Bottom is a writer, teacher and volleyball coach. She and her husband, Mark, live in Grant, Nebraska, with their two children.
1999 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.