Western beauty ideals are missing the point

Photo by  Ian Dooley

Photo by Ian Dooley

I discovered the term “violin hips” by accident. It’s yet another stupid expectation I can add, alongside the "thigh gap," to an ever-growing list of unrealistic body-type standards I would never have known were a “problem” if the Internet hadn’t assured me they were.

It’s mind-blowing to me how literally every part of a woman’s body can have an ideal shape or look. Here is a generalized list of the Western beauty ideals that get slammed at us in every movie, TV show and magazine cover:

✔ white

✔ skinny

✔ long legs

✔ big boobs

✔ big butt

✔ large eyes

✔ small nose

✔ high cheekbones

✔ clear skin

✔ perfect teeth

If you read through this list thinking about how many of these check marks you don’t have, stop and think: how many of the women you know actually meet all of these criteria? My guess is, not many of them do.

And given the vast array of body types and ethnicities in the world, this ideal is a pretty small niche. The margin for beauty has become so narrow and exclusive, it’s like trying to stuff all of humanity into one tiny box. It’s uncomfortable, and it simply doesn’t work.

We are not given our appearances based on merit. It breaks my heart that we judge ourselves and each other based on attributes that were mostly out of our control from the start. We receive our physical attributes at birth; they are a result of genes, not an indication of worth. 

And yet, our Western society has created such an unattainable set of criteria that even those who check off most of the items on the list still fall short and lack confidence in themselves.

Yes, even models are insecure about their appearances. And that is exactly my point. No matter what you look like, these expectations are unrealistic and nearly impossible to attain.

If we let society tell us what beauty is, virtually no one can actually feel content with their appearance. Think about how wrong that is. We cannot all look alike, and what’s more, we are not supposed to.

I so wish we could be having a different conversation right now. I wish we could just let bodies be bodies—celebrating the weird dips and curves that make us each different.

I wish we could truly see each other for the exquisite beings that our Creator sees. Because if we were able to look at the human body that way, we would see every single person as beautiful—including ourselves.

But, I know we’re not there yet. The laws of beauty this world has written have been embedded in our psyche. We are scarred by them. We cannot help criticizing, judging and comparing.

Maybe one day we will get there, but for now, let’s just start by letting go of the things we cannot control. This goes beyond ceasing to force our bodies into shapes and styles that don’t work. It means actively choosing to accept that what we look like is not who we are at all.

As hard as it is to ignore the clamouring voices that insist your outward appearance gives you value and makes you appealing, it doesn’t define you and it should never be the most important part about you.

Of course, I’m not trying to say that we shouldn’t be healthy or take care of our bodies. However, by putting so much pressure on ourselves to look a certain way, I believe we’re missing the point.

I read a passage from Isaiah the other day, referring to Jesus:

Who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.
— Isaiah 53:1-3

I imagine that Jesus could have had his pick of human body-types when he came to earth, and yet he chose to come in a physically plain form, without the glory and splendour that was his right as the Son of God.

We can spend so much time worrying about how we look, and meanwhile, the King of the universe flips our priorities upside down and shows up as a human with “nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.”

To me, this says that if the goal is to become more like Jesus, then physical beauty isn’t on the priority list. If we try to “dress up” who Jesus is and attract people to him through beauty, we’re actually presenting him in a way he did not present himself.

God’s story is one of lifting up those whom our world rejects and valuing what we toss aside as worthless. Time and again, he raises us up, in all our ugliness and ordinary humanness, and shows us that true beauty is not in appearance, but in a changed heart.

True beauty is undeserved forgiveness poured out on a humanity whose outward flaws were the very least of their problems.

So why can’t we just relax and look human together?