Jump directly to the Content

When Beauty Is a Beast

How we allow society to determine our standards

I'm one of those wacky women who viewed turning 30 as an achievement. This was my coming-of-age as an adult. I was wiser, mentally stronger, and surer of myself.

But my celebrated adulthood also brought unfortunate "side effects." Wiry stray grays invaded my chestnut mane. Worse, that mane started thinning. And still worse, my waist, stomach, and thighs began thickening. My mid-30s are bringing more symptoms of aging: under-eye circles and forehead wrinkles.

Of course, I see every line on my face as if my eyes were microscopes. But my perception isn't entirely accurate: Everything looks a little saggier, sloppier, and more flawed than it actually is. Apparently this warped view is a worldwide problem among women. In a 2004 global study on beauty commissioned by Dove, only 2 percent of surveyed women selected beautiful from a list of words to describe themselves. The study also found that most women are uncomfortable calling themselves beautiful.

Why don't we refer to ourselves as beautiful? After all, God made each of us unique and in his own image. Most likely our self-esteem suffers because we buy into the culture's definition of beauty.

How Our View Develops
"I didn't feel beautiful growing up," says Jennifer Ficke, 37. "I was born with unruly, thick, wavy hair. I was self-conscious about my oily skin and acne. My family didn't have much money for clothes, so I got lots of hand-me-downs. I never felt I fit in with other girls."

Trisha Welstad, 30, also felt awkward about her looks as a teenager. "I felt boyish. I was tall and flat-chested. I had big feet and a low voice. Even though I'd put on makeup and try to feel grown up and girly, I never felt beautiful."

As a young girl, Becky Horton found a stack of her father's Playboy magazines. Curious, she peeked at the photos. The comparison between her skinny frame and the women pictured was devastating. "It made me believe I had to look perfect to be liked or beautiful. I obviously wasn't a Playboy model, so I felt ugly most of the time," says Becky, 31. "As an adult, I still struggle with body image. I usually feel down about myself when I compare myself with other women. Watching tv or being around beautiful women triggers it."

From a young age, we look to others to determine our idea of beauty—and to confirm whether or not we're beautiful. Do I look like other girls? Do boys notice me? And we carry insecurities into adulthood, as we try to find validation by secretly comparing ourselves with others. Do I look like the women in magazines and on television?

Media images stick with us. "The media have gotten into my head," says Trisha. "I constantly feel a push to be flawless like models and actresses—skinny, great complexion, nice clothes, stunning hair."

What we don't realize, though, is that those models and actresses don't even look like that. Makeup, lighting, and airbrushing make them appear perfect. Several years ago, CBS faced criticism for altering a photo to make tv journalist Katie Couric appear significantly thinner. Newspapers across the country later printed the original photo alongside the altered one, with an Associated Press article that began, "No, Katie Couric didn't suddenly lose 20 pounds."

These retouched glamour shots have a negative impact on women. One study, conducted by Dr. Susie Orbach, a psychotherapist and visiting professor at the London School of Economics, found 80 percent of women who look at fashion magazines for just three minutes show signs of lowered self-esteem. That can happen just by standing in the grocery checkout line.

It's easy to blame our beauty issues solely on the media for their unrealistic images or less-than-diverse definition of beauty. But we gals know the real problem isn't the photographs; it's the comparisons we make between those pictures and our bodies.

Size Zero & Flabby Thighs
Perhaps this dissatisfaction with our bodies is the result of two ironically opposite weight trends: Americans as a whole are getting heavier—two-thirds of U.S. adults are overweight or obese—while fashion models are becoming dangerously thinner. A line from the movie The Devil Wears Prada sums up the idealized model body: "[Size] 2 became the new 4, and 0 became the new 2" (0 being the controversial goal for many models). Several national clothing chains now carry the smaller size 00. Meanwhile, the average American woman wears a size 14.

Despite the celebrity and media obsession with thinness, most American women aren't striving to be ultra-slim. Sixty percent of American women in the Dove survey believed they weighed too much. This number is on par with the percentage of American women who actually are overweight or obese. Truth is, many women simply desire to achieve a healthy weight.

"When I married, I stopped worrying about my body—so much so, I gained 50 pounds," says Tina Ramos-Ingold, 42. "My husband has always liked my body and appearance. Still, I decided to lose weight. I feel much better about the way I look after losing 30 pounds last year, and shopping has become fun again."

After high school, Jennifer Ficke began gaining weight in small increments. "It all kind of added up," she says. She yo-yoed up and down for years, then while watching the reality show The Biggest Loser, was inspired to stick to her weight-loss plan. "I started to eat serving-size portions and work out more. I have only eight pounds left before Iget to my high-school weight!" she says.

Moments of self-doubt still threaten Jennifer's success. "When I don't feel beautiful, I feel really low, and I'm tempted to eat something: emotional hunger," she confesses. "Then I pray, and I talk to my husband about it. Those are huge comforts to me."

Cosmetic Alterations
For some women, appearance becomes so closely associated with self-worth that they go the way of the knife to help themselves feel beautiful. Reality shows such as Extreme Makeover and The Swan portrayed cosmetic surgery as a fairy-tale transformation, making broken women into confident beauties. The message was, You, too, can feel beautiful … if you want to badly enough.

Mary McNeil, 46, felt desperate for change. She'd felt insecure about her appearance for as long as she could remember. "After having three kids, I couldn't ever do enough crunches to get rid of my stomach," she says. Then her husband wanted to end their marriage, and suddenly everything about her body seemed wrong. She decided breast augmentation and a tummy tuck would boost her confidence.

"The surgery wasn't so I could attract men," says Mary. "I just wanted to feel better about myself. After my divorce, the surgery was a chance to make things right. I didn't want to look like a porn star. I simply wanted to bring my body into proportion."

The results of the surgery surprised Mary. "It actually removed my obsession with my body! I had a stomach pooch and tiny breasts, and now I don't. It made me more content with my body."

Mary and her husband reconciled and remarried—but not, she realizes, because of the work she did on her body. "The cosmetic surgery didn't make him love me more," she says. "It didn't bring him back into my life. Many women get cosmetic surgery and think it will solve all their problems. It won't. I love the work I had done, but I know it didn't fix my life's challenges."

Real Beauty
We'll always face internal and external pressure to be more, less, younger, hipper, new and improved, made over, whatever. As Christians, we have the opportunity to accept a different definition of beauty, based on God's unconditional love and acceptance.

Trisha says she recently taped 2 Corinthians 5:15-20 to her bathroom mirror so she can memorize the verse while she puts on her makeup. "It talks about how we're a new creation in Christ, and how we should see ourselves not as the world sees us but as Christ sees us," she says. "Apart from what I think of myself or how I feel when I wake up in the morning, this verse reminds me of who I am in Christ."

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

Holly Vicente Robaina
Free CT Women Newsletter

Sign up for our Weekly newsletter: CT's weekly newsletter highlighting the voices of women writers. We report on news and give our opinion on topics such as church, family, sexuality, discipleship, pop culture, and more!

Read These Next


Join in the conversation on Facebook or Twitter

Follow Us

More Newsletters