Truth of Beauty

Today I stepped on the scale for the first time in several weeks and discovered I’ve met my biggest weight loss goal, so far: one hundred pounds lost.

I’m elated about this, of course, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have mixed feelings about my body after losing so much weight. A little over a year ago, I wrote an article about how I’ve learned to accept my body, even celebrate it just a little. But I’ve recently come to see this just isn’t true. Or maybe it was true, when I wore shapeless clothing and my body was seen only by the man who’d met me in my early twenties and bore witness to the weight fluctuations, the stretch marks, the slow downward descent of my breasts and outward protrusion of my stomach. Maybe it was true before I started losing weight more rapidly, which has led to loose skin and an odd feeling of deflation. Or maybe it was never true at all, and I wrote that post more from wishful thinking than honesty. Sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever come to terms with my body. I wonder if I’ll ever stand before someone “naked and unashamed.”

Months ago, I read the story of Lucy Grealy, a cancer survivor who killed herself at age 39 after years struggling to accept herself following over 20 unsuccessful reconstructive surgeries to repair radiation damages to her jaw. As I read her story, both through the eyes of her best friend, Ann Patchett, in the book Truth and Beauty then through her own retelling in Autobiography of a Face, I was struck by a deep and unexpected sorrow. One night as I looked down at my body, I found myself sobbing in my husband’s arms: “I’m sorry! I’m just so sorry!” I said this over and over in my mind, to an imaginary little-girl Lucy. And as I lay there with my husband, crying for Lucy, I realized I was crying for myself as well.

I have spent a lifetime searching for identity in my physical appearance, never quite measuring up, hiding myself from view. Where Lucy tried to hide her face, I tried to hide my hips and thighs, stomach and breasts. Where Lucy was teased about her face, I was criticized about my body. Where Lucy adopted the idea she could never be loved, I adopted the idea I could only be loved if I looked a certain way. And as I realized the tragedy of Lucy’s upbringing, I understood the tragedy of all that had affected me in a similar way, (to an obviously lesser degree.) Society had given us both not just an impossible standard, but a false one.

Lucy writes, of the literary classics she was reading at the time:

“They presented a version of the world in which honor and virtue and dedication to the truth counted. The stories comforted me, though it didn’t escape my attention that these qualities were ascribed primarily to men. The women might be virtuous as well, but their physical beauty was crucial to the story.”

Society has given women a standard most of us have adopted without question: whatever other virtues we may have, physical beauty is one of the most – if not THE most – important. Show me the heroin of the book, tv show, or movie, who is not also beautiful and I will show you the exception to the rule. There is very little place in the media for bodies that are lumpy, bumpy, big, or disproportionate and where they do show up, they’re typically featured as awkward, obnoxious, slovenly, or evil. Mama June. Roseanne. Ursula. Where are the heroins with sagging breasts and pouchy stomachs? Where are the flabby arms and cellulite? We are given as a standard something most women will never be able to achieve and grow up in a world that tells us in order to be virtuous we must also be beautiful according to that standard. Different is considered deficient. This is heartbreaking.

But it’s not the end of the story. At least, it doesn’t have to be. I’m coming to understand that although I can’t fight the world’s definition of beauty, or sit around hoping others will value my physical appearance, I can choose to value myself. Today, I ask myself the question: is it possible to decide—for myself—what true beauty is to me? Is it possible to accept this body, regardless of whether anyone else ever does?

As a friend of mine once said, perception is affected by focus and focus is affected by choice. In the United States, the source of the media’s idea of beauty isn’t true beauty—which includes so much more than legs and butt and boobs—it’s business. Behind every sexy advertisement is an old man sitting in a yacht and behind every centerfold image is a woman struggling to pay her bills. The act of being aware of this – of paying attention to this truth – has the power to change things. Behold the great and powerful Oz…

Behold the man behind the curtain.

This game, like so many others, is rigged against us, and if we want to win we must step away and find another game to play. We can’t change the world’s definition of beauty, but we can change our own.

“Every stretch mark, age spot, dimple, and stray hair I’ve picked up along the way tells a story. It might not be the story I would have liked to tell, of hours at the gym, consistent healthy eating, or regular spa treatments (ha!) But it tells the story of a woman, a family, and a little farm. It tells the story of eight beautiful, healthy children and a life lived, to the best of my ability, walking with God. It’s my story. And I wouldn’t change that for the world.”

I wrote these words a year ago. Can I believe them?

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