I was the stereotypical secondary school “fat girl”. Although not grossly overweight, I was “big enough” and weight problems dogged me for the better part of my teens, leaving me frustrated and unhappy with my physical appearance. Years later, despite shedding pounds through a healthier lifestyle, I avoided mirrors and felt deeply insecure about my appearance. I dreaded the comments of well-meaning aunties and friends: “Wah, you put on so much weight ah? Maybe should try liposuction…” It only took a single comment or being unable to fit into a dress to plunge me into a depressed mood for days, if not weeks.
In image-conscious Singapore, we’ve long been familiar with aesthetic centres offering treatments to improve the complexion or reduce the outward signs of ageing, and slimming centres which promise that streamlined ‘S-shape’ figure. The menu for cosmetic surgery is vast and growing: over-40s want to hang on to their youth as long as possible, while those in their 20s and 30s are more adventurous. Male or female, if money is no object, the possibilities of attaining whiter skin, wider eyes, a narrower nose and the famed “V-lined face” seem almost irresistible.
No matter how bad I felt about my appearance, I never considered going under the knife. The turning point for me came – literally – by accident, twenty-one years ago. Our car was in a collision and I sustained a large gash on my forehead. When the fear and shock has dissipated, I finally looked in the mirror. Ugly black stitches ran from my eyebrow to my hairline, holding a large pulpy swelling together. Half my face was swollen, my eye squeezed shut by an outsized puffy eyelid which stood out angrily from my cheek in violent hues of purple, yellow and black.
My reflection filled me with horror. But in that moment, a still small voice spoke into my heart: “It doesn’t matter what you look like. I see your inmost being.” That was the moment I started to know a freedom I had never known before. In the weeks that followed, as the wound healed and shrank, self-consciousness about my looks also seemed to shrink. With it, my long-held shame of being overweight also faded. I had been holding on to something that was hurting me so badly, but now I let it go. It could no longer hurt me as it once did, and I have never forgotten the deep lessons the Lord taught me from that time:
LOOKS DO MATTER
It would be untrue to claim that looks aren’t important at all. Cosmetic surgery does not interest me, but I am thankful that the doctor who stitched my forehead that day in A&E did a reasonable job, and the scar on my forehead is barely visible today. For some people, cosmetic and aesthetic procedures really offer the chance to correct everything from serious disfigurements to embarrassing facial features which can lead to low self-esteem. A friend had major jaw surgery to realign her teeth but found that her new appearance unexpectedly gave her a huge boost in self-confidence. In a world which so often values outward attractiveness, career and relationship success can still – sadly – hinge largely on good looks.
BEAUTY CAN BE COSTLY…
There are lots of Bible characters, particularly in the Old Testament, for whom looks came at a cost. Abraham lived in such fear that his beautiful wife Sarah would be taken from him, that he repeatedly lied about their relationship. Joseph was imprisoned under false charges when he rejected the advances of his master’s lustful wife. Saul was considered prime candidate to become Israel’s first king because he “was a handsome young man. There was not a man among the people of Israel more handsome than he. From his shoulders upward he was taller than any of the people.” (1 Sam 9:2). Yet his impressive appearance belied a character marred by weakness and insecurity. And David – whom we are told was “ruddy...had beautiful eyes and was handsome” (1 Sam 16:12) – stooped even to adultery and murder when he couldn’t resist his attraction to the lovely Bathsheba. Sometimes, looks literally can kill.
… BUT GOOD CHARACTER IS ETERNAL
If we consider that our Father is the Master Creator, it seems obvious that His works would reveal sheer artistry, particularly in the beauty of His creatures. Yet we know surprisingly little about the appearance of the most important person in the Bible, Jesus. Instead, there are hints that there was nothing about His looks which would attract us to Him, that Jesus was infinitely more than His physical appearance.
Peter writes in his epistle: “Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear— but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God's sight is very precious” (1 Pet 3:3-4). This is sometimes seen as a convenient verse for the less-than-beautiful among us to hide behind (“I’m not so great-looking, so maybe I don’t need to bother”). Rather, Peter speaks actively of the attractive power of godly character and vibrant Christian faith. It is no cliché to say that a woman (and yes, a man too) is often made attractive by their faith in Christ. As Proverbs 31 describes, “Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.”
“Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear— but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God's sight is very precious” (1 Pet 3:3-4).
A CHANGE OF HEART REQUIRES A CHANGE OF WORDS
Ultimately, the pressure to look good comes from the comparisons we make, and how we treat each other. Most of us would be quite happy in our own skin were it not for the constant reminders that we don’t measure up. We are called to live counter-culturally as Christians, and that must surely apply to our attitude to outward appearances as well. It’s not easy when our culture is so focused on who is handsome, or who has a great figure, when the next aunty in church might greet you with pointed comments about your waistline, or the lack of it. Words are so important. Even well-meaning comments can wound deeply and add an impossible burden to those already struggling with self-esteem. But words can build up, as well as tear down.
Our children have the good fortune to have mixed Chinese/English genes, so you would have thought they have no worries on that front. But like all young people, there is always something to worry about in the looks-department. Our middle daughter is very tall, slim and (I daresay) attractive – but she struggles with a genetic condition which affects her hips, making it hard for her to stand upright. It is her faith, not her looks, that anchors her. She neither has to forget trying to look pretty, nor fear if she doesn’t feel she is ‘perfect’.
These days I enjoy feeling healthy. I like having a choice of styles in clothing which I could never have fitted into as a teen. I am still happier behind the camera than in front of it, and visiting family and friends after an absence still gives me pause. But deep down I remain free of that overwhelming pressure to “look good” and am glad that our daughters seem to have the balance between taking pleasure in their appearance and knowing that there is far more to life than how they look.
As Christians we have the privilege of having a Heavenly Father who knows, loves and accepts us for who we are. So often we squander that freedom, drawn instead into a never-ending pursuit of expensive enhancements which offer incremental improvements, with ever-reducing returns. The simple truth is we don’t have to. So, be free.
A latecomer to fitness and exercise regimes, Lynette has recently discovered that long walks and short jogs are not only good for health but a great way to spend more time in prayer.