I have a 10-year-old daughter who is beginning to be obsessed with fashion, make-up and yes, her figure.
I love the opportunities for girly shopping days together; 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, 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 take root. Alarmed, I have started to ask myself: Am I perpetuating the acceptance of that silent message?
Yes, as I've hit and passed the ripe old age of 40, I've uttered the words "Oh no! I've put on weight!" as I've tried to squeeze into a pair of skinny jeans. I've also asked, "Does this outfit make me look fat?" And this isn't just a female-only problem: the message of the media is that men need to be toned and beautiful to be successful. The male grooming industry has exploded in recent years.
I recently read a tweet from Stylist, quoting Helen Mirren: "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 constant use of glamorous models, whatever it is they are advertising, drip-feeds us with the idea that we need to try and attain what, for some, is an unattainable goal. Here are 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 yet God has a never-ending supply of both.
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, but allowing it to take over your focus isn't healthy.
I have written previously about dressing our spirits. We can spend a long time 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 offence. 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).
• 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 jewellry, 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" (1 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 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." 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.
• 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).
The Holy Spirit is in us; are our attitude towards our bodies and the way we behave towards those with whom we are in contact during the day honouring to Him?