Sunday, December 02, 2012

On Beauty and Worth

This is a post I've thought about for many months. Actually, for well over a year, really. I think it may even be one of the reasons why it's taken me so long to write something on this blog. I've been mulling it over in my head, trying to figure out exactly what I feel about this, and how I can best articulate those feelings.

Let me start with an experience I had a bit over a year ago.

Women in our area of Utah County were asked last year to provide a choir for the General Relief Society Broadcast in September. It was a thoroughly enjoyable experience. For one thing, I got to sing with my sister (of whom I could write the most superlative things, and they would all be true), who also lives in this area. For another, the director of the choir was a woman who was possibly one of the most engaging personalities I've come in contact with. She managed to make every member of the choir feel as though best-friendship were an absolute possibility, if only there were enough time to spend with everyone individually. She was funny and wry and really, really loved us. Or, at least, loved us inasmuch as it was possible to love a room full of people that you didn't really know, but sort of knew because you were all Mormons involved in a really cool musical experience together.

Yep. It was awesome.

There was one event that troubled me though, just a bit. And it wasn't so much that I was troubled about the motivations of our director, more just what it told me about what we believe as a society in general.

Towards the end of our rehearsals, we were, naturally, doing pretty well, but still nervous that we would get up to the Conference Center and forget our notes, come in at the wrong time, or scratch our noses just right when the camera zoomed in on our faces. So, our director gave us a pep talk. It was, like her, funny and spiritually uplifting, and heartfelt and touching.

And she, like many people who are trying to help women to feel better, said to us something like, "You are all beautiful. You are all beautiful daughters of your Heavenly Father." (And you'll forgive me if my memory sort of...doesn't remember the exact wording. But that was the gist of it.)

Many women around me cried, and smiled through their tears, and I...felt troubled.

I so appreciated her effort to make us feel good about ourselves. I could feel that she did love us, and I felt that she was, really, connected to divine love, hooked into it and transmitting real charity. (Which is the only way you can, in my opinion, feel a deep and genuine love for a bunch of people to whom you have never actually spoken one-on-one.) I believe she expressed that love in a way that she felt would make us feel good. And I think it did work for most people.

But here is what troubled me: why should we need to feel beautiful in order to feel loved? Why does being acknowledged as attractive (and, really, isn't that what 'beauty' means?) make us feel valuable and valued?

I'm reminded of the many times (and I actually haven't heard it a lot in my current ward, which is kind of awesome, I think) when I've heard men get up during fast & testimony meeting and, during the course of their testimony, express their gratitude for their beautiful wives.

It's great, and we all feel good, and I'm sure the wives are aglow with the warmth of their husbands' regard, but...

But wouldn't it seem kind of strange if a woman got up to bear her testimony and said, during the course of it, "I'm so grateful for my handsome husband," or if women were instructed in the General Relief Society broadcast to be sure to tell their husbands that they are handsome? Because every man needs to be told that?

Not that I'm actually trying to argue from a feminism angle (although that wouldn't be a bad thing, just not the angle I'm choosing at the moment). It's more that I feel uncomfortable with this idea that feeling beautiful equates with feeling worthwhile.

There have been times when I've expressed to friends or family members that I don't really feel particularly beautiful. And, truth be told, I'm really not. I'm overweight, I have an oddly upturned nose (with pores the size of potholes), and my lips are kinda pale and weird (and let's not even talk about my ankles). These friends and family members have reassured me that no, I really am beautiful, and it's not external beauty that is important, it's inner beauty, right? And I do appreciate what they say, and the love with which it is offered.

And I believe what they say for a half hour, or maybe less. But, then, the belief fades, and I recognize the reality that I'm really not beautiful. Not that way.

Because guys, not everyone is beautiful. And I feel like that should be okay. A woman who has scars from years of horrible acne may not be considered all that beautiful. A man who's been burned, or is missing an arm, or teeth, may not be considered attractive.

(And I feel tremendously guilty having written the above examples, as though I'm denigrating the worth of these individuals, when in reality, I'm trying to free them from feeling as though they need to be beautiful in order to be loved. Or maybe, I'm trying to free myself.)

'But wait,' you may say. 'These people are beautiful on the inside. They're still beautiful. Everyone can be beautiful.'

That is very true. But I wish we wouldn't use the language of physical attractiveness to describe the goodness of a spirit.

Beauty draws us in. It is engaging. There's a reason why we call beautiful people 'attractive.' They pull us to them; we want to be near them. And I think it's wonderful if people are beautiful. It's fun to watch beautiful people on TV and in movies. It's fun when folks get dolled up and look all lovely for a dance or a date or a night on the town. I don't want to suggest that beauty is bad. I don't even want to suggest that men and women stop telling each other they think they're good looking.

I just want it not to be connected to our sense of worth. I want women to say, when they are reassuring other women, "You are all good and kind and worthwhile daughters of our Heavenly Father." I want men (and similarly women!) to stand up and express thanks for their spouses with phrases like, "I'm so grateful for my loving wife, for her dedication to the gospel, for her service."

And I'm trying to do my part, too.

But most of all, when I don't feel particularly beautiful, when I feel like the ugly duckling who grew up to be an ugly duck, I want to still feel of value. And worthy to be loved.