True beauty

girl looking in mirrorI have a ten-year-old daughter who is beginning to be obsessed with fashion, make-up and yes, dare I say it, her figure.

I love the growing opportunities for girly shopping days together, as we have a huge amount of fun and the one-on-one time is priceless. But I am alarmed at the preoccupations that are already surfacing. She is thin, but apparently not as thin as one of her friends. She has some fantastic outfits (mainly from her older cousins, which is such a blessing), but is apparently not as ‘fashionable’ as that same friend (outfits are ‘judged’ at school discos).

Right from an early age, I have been teaching her that inner beauty is more important than outer beauty, but as she is growing ever closer to teenage-hood I can see the message ‘you must be thin and beautiful to be worth anything’ beginning to penetrate her mind. Alarmed, I have started to ask myself: Am I perpetuating the acceptance of that silent message somehow?

Yes, as I’ve hit and passed the ripe old age of forty, I’ve uttered the words ‘Oh no! I’ve put on weight!’ as I’ve tried to squeeze into a pair of skinny jeans, and have also asked ‘Does this outfit make me look fat?’ And guys this isn’t just a female-only problem: the message of the media is that you need to be toned and beautiful to be successful. The male grooming industry has exploded in recent years, so I know it is not just we women who obsess about such things.

I recently read a tweet from Stylish, quoting Helen Mirram: ‘I hate the word beautiful, I wish there were another word for it’.

That got me thinking about what true beauty is, and what I want my daughter to think about when she asks herself: Am I beautiful?

I do believe that the media’s constant use of glamorous models, whatever it is they are advertising, drip feeds us with the idea that we need to try to attain what, for some, is an unattainable goal. Here’s some of the ideas I’ve been using to combat the unhelpful messages we find all around us:

• Ask yourself: Am I happy in my skin?

When we remember that God has knitted us together in our mothers’ wombs (Psalm 139:13–14), and that each one of us is totally unique, it is time to accept ourselves for who we are. We can each strive for acceptance and affirmation from others (yes, my spirit is lifted when someone says ‘you look nice today’!), and yet God has a never-ending supply of both, if we would just look to Him.

Here’s an excerpt of the verses from psalms, taken from The Message. If you find it hard to accept your body shape, why not spend some time meditating on this, speaking it over yourself, because you are a marvellous creation:

‘Body and soul, I am marvelously made!

I worship in adoration—what a creation!’

Learn to be positive, and celebrate you for the person God made you to be; the real you.

• Stop obsessing about what you wear.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to look good, or enjoying the process of dressing smartly (and putting on make-up if you like wearing it), but allowing it to take over your focus isn’t healthy.

I have written previously about dressing our spirits; we can spend so long choosing what to wear but do we daily make a conscious decision to put on those garments that God has laid out for us?:

‘So, chosen by God for this new life of love, dress in the wardrobe God picked out for you: compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, discipline. Be even-tempered, content with second place, quick to forgive an offense. Forgive as quickly and completely as the Master forgave you. And regardless of what else you put on, wear love. It’s your basic, all-purpose garment. Never be without it.’ (Colossians 3:12–14, The Message)

beloved cover

• Change your idea of what beauty truly is.

As part of my daily reflections I am working through Rachel Gardner’s great book Beloved. Just today I got to her chapter on beauty, and loved the way she turned the definition of beauty on its head. She explains how our society has reduced beauty to glamour (outside, superficial, skin-deep beauty), and has some great, quotable lines on the difference between the two:

‘If glamour is the blusher painted onto your face, beauty is the inner radiance that lights you up from the inside.’

‘If glamour is the outfit that helps you make an entrance, beauty is your generous heart that makes your presence change the atmosphere.’

‘If glamour is the perfume clinging to your clothes, beauty is the fragrance of your life that lingers long after you’ve left the room.’

It is interesting to see how the Bible speaks directly about the importance of inner, rather than surface, beauty:

‘Don’t be concerned about the outward beauty of fancy hairstyles, expensive jewelry, or beautiful clothes. You should clothe yourselves instead with the beauty that comes from within, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is so precious to God. This is how the holy women of old made themselves beautiful.’ (I Peter 3:3–5, NLT)

Taking the time to cultivate that gentle spirit has, so far, been a lifelong journey for me, so I’m taking these verses as an encouragement to keep on going!

It is this overall message that I hope to convey to my daughter, and it has also challenged me to think about the way that I live. Later on in her beauty chapter Rachel also says: ‘The goal of glamour is to make everyone feel envious. The goal of beauty is to make everyone feel loved.’ Isn’t that so true? We can get a fleeting feeling of contentment (or smugness – let’s call it by its true name!) when we know people are looking at us enviously. But those we look up to, those we describe as having a ‘beautiful spirit’, are those people who go out of their way to make others feel loved and accepted. They are the true successes; and the true world-changers.

• Remember your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit.

I am certainly not saying that we should let our bodies go to wrack and ruin. They are a gift, and we have a responsibility to look after them and keep them healthy, which often takes more work as we get older. I know the following verses from 1 Corinthians are in a passage about refraining from sexual immorality, but I think they are a good checkpoint for us to see what our attitudes to our bodies are:

‘Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honour God with your bodies.’ (1 Corinthians 6:19–20, NIVUK).

The Holy Spirit is in us; is our attitude towards our bodies and the way we behave towards those we are in contact during the day honouring to Him?

This article first appeared on the Christian Today website.

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Yes I AM beautiful!

Having dropped my kids off at school, done the food shop and come home to unpack it, put washing on and had a very late breakfast before sitting at my computer, I can see that I’m now running behind. There have been some great posts on last night already (see Amy Boucher Pye’s here and Jennie Pollock’s here). And yet the launch of Chine Mbubaegbu’s book Am I Beautiful? meant so much to me that I simply have to record it here. Because the issues, of body image, self-esteem, outer beauty and inner beauty etc, are so close to my heart. I, too, have suffered from low self-esteem throughout my life and never felt beautiful enough. As a pastor’s wife I also see so many women struggle against what the media tells them they should look and act like, desperately wanting to walk in the freedom in Christ they know they should be enjoying.

The other reason is because I edited the book. It felt like such a privilege to do so; Chine was the first person I started writing articles for and now I was able to serve her by being her editor – it was great (and difficult at times – but more on that later! 😉 )

As both Amy and Jennie have admitted, I too sat here at my desk yesterday morning, annoyed that I was having a bad hair day and that I was shattered from catching up on work and church responsibilities as well as helping our youngest with his transition into ‘big’ school. I looked and felt every inch the 40-year-old woman I now am. I also knew I’d be seeing people I have worked with but not met yet, as well as other ‘movers and shakers’ in the Christian publishing and media world. I wanted to look my best, but, as a shy, work-from-home mum, I find that side of the business really hard at times. So, while I was looking forward so much to celebrating with Chine, I was also worried about how I would look and how I would come across to people I chatted with. As I sat there, trying to work but all the while telling myself off for being so silly (and smiling wryly at the irony of it all – after all the book is all about the fact that we ARE beauty as we are made in the image of Beauty), I was relieved to find I was not alone. Chine, too, had struggled with what to wear that morning (see her post here).

But that’s the point isn’t it? Chine was asked last night why she thinks Christian women struggle so much with this, when we know the truth of who we are. She quiet rightly pointed out that we are literally bombarded with images of society’s perceived ‘perfect woman’ day in day out – it’s hard to keep up your resistance to it all the time! Whatever age we are we ALL have to fight against the messages we are told constantly as, let’s face it, we are all much more likely to be taking in more of society’s messages than the Bible’s each day because the images are constantly with us. We HAVE to learn to soak ourselves in the Truth, remind each other that Beauty is so much more than outward appearance and teach those lessons to the younger generation before they start coming across the issues themselves. When my daughter saw the lovely bright pink cover of my advance copy of the book she immediately picked it up to read it. I told her I definitely want her to read it when she’s a little older – perhaps about to become a teenager. But then a similar story that Amy told last night about her daughter reminded me of what my daughter has said on more than one occasion and I thought perhaps she’ll need to read it earlier. At eight years of age she is, quite literally, a beanpole. Tall, slim and striking – sometimes she takes my breath away. But I’ve caught her at least twice already pulling at her flesh, saying she’s fat. How do these messages reach such young ones? A dad asked a question last night about how he should bring up his daughters in our society to know that beauty is not skin deep and yet to truly believe that they are beautiful. Chine’s answer was great – she told him not to give up telling his daughters that they are beautiful, as some parents do, but to ensure that that isn’t the only message he is giving. To encourage them by saying that they are also kind, funny, smart, loving etc. It’s a challenge for all of us who are parents – but also for all those in church families as it is up to you too! Our kids often pick up things far more easily from the wider church family than they will from us so those positive messages need to be coming from you too! 😉

So… back to the editing process. Amy has already mentioned this but I was waiting in great anticipation and slight nervousness to read the first draft of Chine’s book. If I’m honest I’ve been jealous and a little scared of her in the past. She’s such a successful, beautiful, funny, vivacious, confident woman – and a fantastic writer. I was amazed once when we had an honest email exchange that our perceptions of each other were so different from what I expected! The grass is definitely always greener…

When I sat and read Chine’s book it was well written, and very efficiently journalistic in its approach. Apart from the little snippets where she’d let herself be vulnerable. Like the story of being five years old and being asked to draw a self-portrait at school. She drew a blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl and it wasn’t until a friend leant over and told her that it wasn’t her, that she realised she was different from everyone else. Nigerian-born, she was the only black girl in her class. That, I told Chine, HAD to be the opening story of the first chapter (and read it in Chine’s own words – she tells it far better! 😉 ). The moments when she opened up hit me so hard that I realised I simply had to encourage her to open up more, to be more vulnerable and totally honest.

When I looked at how we could rework the book and passed on all my suggestions to Chine I then held my breath. Would she be crushed? Would she hate me? Would she think my ideas ridiculous? As an author I know what it is like to submit a manuscript and then wait to see what the editor thinks of it. It’s so hard! I know Chine told us the second pass of the book was a much more painful process than the first – but oh how it was worth it! As every review and comment I have heard indicate, it is the rawness, the openness and absolute integrity that has touched people. It almost gives women permission to talk about this subject in a way that perhaps we haven’t before. With a new, dogged determination not to settle for society’s values, not to allow ourselves to feel less than – and to help each other with the process. Because we ALL are beautiful… even when we have a bad hair day! 😉

Taking stock on International Women’s Day

I am currently editing a fantastic book that seeks to empower women by freeing them from the chains of needing to seek affirmation constantly and looking for the answer to the question Am I Beautiful? It reminds us that as women made in the image of Beauty itself, we are all indeed beautiful, so we need to learn to rise above all the pressures – self- and society- and culture-applied – to accept that. And it also urges us to remember that there are far too many bigger issues, far too many pressing needs, for us to simply be preoccupied with ourselves. We need to be able to move on and make a difference, to be the world changers that women significantly seem to be. The brilliant author, Chine Mbubaegbu, cites some UN statistics:

‘There are 900 million women and girls facing extreme poverty. Women own just one per cent of the world’s wealth, we earn just 10 per cent of the world’s income and half a billion of us can’t read or write.’ And yet, it is being recognised around the world by governments and development agencies that women certainly make a huge difference when given the chance. That, while we earn less than men generally, when we do work we reinvest 90 per cent of it into the health, nutrition and educational needs of our families – as opposed to the 30–40 per cent of men that do so.

Chine’s citation of such facts and figures whetted my appetite so I went in search of more on the UN website. And found some other interesting ones:

  • Over the years women have begun to enter various traditionally male-dominated occupations, but are still rarely employed in jobs with status, power and authority or in traditionally male blue-collar occupations.
  • Women are still under-represented among legislators, senior officials and managers, craft and related trade workers and plant and machine operators and assemblers.
  • Specifically, women are still under-represented in national parliaments, where on average only 17 per cent of seats are occupied by women.
  • There is a persistent gender pay gap everywhere – while it has begun to close slowly in some countries it is still unchanged in others.
  • Despite all these changes, women still continue to bear most of the responsibilities around the home: caring for children and other dependents, preparing meals and doing other housework. Around the world, women spend twice as much time – at least – as men on unpaid domestic work.

While all of these facts start to get me riled, it is the information about violence against women that angers me the most. This is a UNIVERSAL phenomenon – not just occurring in so-called under-developed nations but right under our noses here in the West too. Our ‘developed’ nations can hide some horrific secrets under the surface. Charities such as A21 have done a great job in raising our awareness of such issues as human trafficking but there is so much more that can – and should – be done.

I was horrified to read the following in the UN stats report The World’s Women 2010: ‘In many regions of the world, longstanding customs put considerable pressure on women to accept being beaten by their husbands, even for trivial reasons. Whether for burning the food, venturing outside without their husband, neglecting children or arguing with their husband, in quite a few countries a very high percentage of women consider such behaviour sufficient grounds for being physically hit.’

Wake up women – and men – around the world! We are worth so much more. No one – absolutely no one – deserves to be treated with less respect than another. I hope on today, of all days, we can celebrate all that is good about womanhood and determine afresh to fight against the injustices that so many of our sisters in countries all around the world are facing right now.