How We Look

Just to quickly get you up to speed: my mother bought a ping pong table, I bought an ice tray that makes cubes shaped like lightning bolts, Kate Middleton had a baby who will be king and her hair still looks gorgeous, and at the moment I’m holed up in my Dad’s library study at UNCG, wearing the ancient sweater and corduroys he keeps in here over my own clothes, because this place is cold.

It’s with a few healthy tons of trepidation that I’m writing this entry today. It’s something I’ve wanted to write about for a long time. I’ve been afraid of saying the wrong thing, but at last I’ve decided to just go ahead and put this out there. Maybe I feel ready for this because I’ve finally achieved Gandalf-and-Solomon-level wisdom, or maybe I’ve just been reading enough C.S. Lewis that I think I have. I’m not sure.

What I have to say is about the way we look, specifically the way we women look, how others look at us, how we look at each other, and how we look at ourselves. There are two prevailing cultural attitudes, both strong, which tend to sit in our guts and battle it out all day long.

First, there is the all-powerful objective of female beauty that every man, woman, and child knows and accepts to some extent. I generally have pretty high self-esteem when it comes to my looks, sometimes too high, but I find that if I look at Vogue for more than fifteen minutes, though it was just to see the clothes and though I thoroughly understand the risks, afterwards my own reflection looks faded and plain in the face of such mighty photoshop. Features of which I was previously proud look second-rate and pitiful in comparison to the powerfully glowy women in glossy color.

In order to combat these images and the unhealthy habits which follow in their wake for some, we are told (mainly by the internet) that we are all gorgeous and bikini-ready, that the best thing is health and confidence, to love our scars and our flaws, and that what really matters is just to have beautiful insides. Well, it’s hard to adore acne scars, (they have not yet tried to force us to think acne itself beautiful, thank God,) and my actual heart is not a very attractive thing—to the best of my knowledge, though its ability to keep me alive is admirable, it’s slimy, filled with fast-moving blood, and is currently making sounds like a mudsucker.

So with all these quiet comparisons of one benighted attitude to another and the size of our own waists with that of the girl walking past us on the street, we come to the muddled conclusion that we are supposed to love ourselves and fix ourselves into a more lovable state, all while seeming to care a great deal about the female self-image in general, but not what we see in our own mirror. By no means should we think and talk about the way women look any less than ninety minutes a day, and with each analytical session, we should come to an increasingly complex understanding of our physical appearance, such that we must eventually write a book (or blog entry) to purge ourselves and begin anew. Essentially, we learn that secretly it is part of our duty as women to be slowly and subtly exhausted by the fact that we have bodies and they are visible to the naked eye.

Well, perhaps I am not Solomon or Gandalf or even C.S. Lewis, but I was raised by two fairly wise people and one of the most valuable things they’ve bestowed on me is a healthy sense of the ridiculous, which I’m just now clumsily learning how to use. By all means, take your God and your work and your play quite seriously, but upon most occasions it’s best to assume that you are a bit silly. As Liesel and I used to tell each other, “People are funny.” You are a funny, truculent child, who never quite understands what he is being taught, and who, when he does begin to grasp truth, immediately misunderstands it on purpose and endeavors to be offended.

But I’ll tell you, there is mystery all wrapped up in humor and incredulity—we laugh at things we don’t understand, at things which don’t make sense, which are beyond our comprehension. Our physicality is part of our humanity—we are physical beings as well as spiritual (see the incarnation)—but it’s obvious that our bodies are pretty ungainly and silly for sacred vessels. C.S. Lewis says that the fact that we have bodies at all is “the oldest joke there is” and Saint Francis regularly referred to his physical self as “Brother Ass.”

So as women who own mirrors and occasionally see other women, what does this mean? Well, I’m only just now trying to figure that out, but I’ve made a little progress. Remember your body is on loan, but that you’ll have it for a while, so treat it with affection. Look in the mirror and laugh, walk away and forget what you saw. Buy lovely clothes and sometimes wear them. Stand up straight. Accept compliments gracefully, but walk away and forget those too. Make friends with those you’re tempted to be jealous of or judge. Use nice-smelling conditioner. Think you’re beautiful or think that you’re not, but don’t think it very often, and remember that in either case that fact has no bearing on the incredible reality that Christ died for you.

For our bodies, all beautiful and silly and ugly like they are, are just a small, funnily-warped reflection of a glory ahead of us. But I don’t understand that yet, so, for now, I’ll just wait and look and laugh.