“There’s nothing wrong with work-worn hands,” I insisted. But what did I know? I was young, naive, idealistic, and inexperienced. I wasn’t thinking that someday a man might hold my hands, and might want them to feel soft and tenderly smooth, rather than roughly calloused, aged, and battered from hard work. “There’s nothing wrong with work-worn hands,” I kept on insisting, a few years later, when the harsh cleaning solution I used to clean a commercial kitchen made my hands bleed and crack. “There’s nothing wrong with work-worn hands,” I laughed when I was a newly-wed, and an older, wiser woman urged me to don white cotton gloves under kitchen gloves before plunging my hands in hot, soapy dishwater day after day after day.
I was no longer quite so young nor naive — but I was still oh so idealistic.
My idea of beauty was, I realize now, rather other-worldly, based far less on physical reality than on love, admiration, and relationship. A few years ago, a group of women told me that I described every single one of my female friends, and every other woman I liked, as “beautiful”. Really? I had no idea.
They mimicked me, with affection. “When I got here and said I wanted to meet Laura,” one of them told me, “you said, ‘Oh, Laura? You’ll love her! She’s encouraging and funny and smart — and she’s really beautiful! She has the most amazing eyes!'”
One of the other women imitated my voice, “‘And Carmen — she has this quiet strength. Nothing throws her. She’s like a super-hero. And she gives the best hugs in the world. She is so beautiful!'”
“‘Wait ’til you meet Amy!'” another woman pretended to be me. “‘She’s a math genius, but not at all intimidating. She can be so funny, and she has helped me so much. And she’s really beautiful!'”
The women laughed. “You think everyone is beautiful!”
“No, I don’t,” I insisted. “It’s just that all of you…you really are beautiful. You are some of the most beautiful women I’ve ever met! Go look in the mirror!”
Recently I was reading some articles online and I made the shocking discovery that the rest of the world doesn’t all think that way. Yes, for most of us, the objects of our affection do become more beautiful in our eyes. We even have the saying that “love makes blind,” and we’ve probably all encountered that odd-looking elderly couple that seems ridiculously smitten with each other, with the husband foolishly insisting that his wife grows more beautiful with each passing year.
But it’s more than that for me. I remember back in my college days, when a friend of mine showed me a picture from a magazine of some guy she proclaimed to be very sexy. She asked me my opinion. I scrutinized the picture carefully and had to admit that his body was aesthetically appealing, but how could I know whether or not he was sexy? In fact, I became convinced that he was the antithesis of sexy — any guy who would pose in a magazine like that was no doubt arrogant and narcissistic, and there was nothing remotely sexy about that! Ugh! Come to think of it, the guy was downright ugly!
Another friend confided in me around the same time that she had some major crush on a guy she only saw in passing and had never actually met. “What?” I was incredulous. “But you don’t even know him!”
I knew — because one cannot live for more than a day in our culture without being bombarded with this message — that most men are attracted primarily to a woman’s physical features, that men can be filled with a strong and overwhelming sexual desire for a woman who is a complete stranger to them, and that a woman’s “wonderful personality” will not make up for whatever off-putting physical flaws she might have in a man’s eyes. Men, I’ve been told over and over again, are primarily visual. You can’t see a woman’s inner beauty. You can only see her outward form.
But I’ve also realized that it’s not just men who are “shallow” in that way. Women too are guilty of looking mostly on the outside. After all, none of us can truly see inside the heart of another person.
I’ve had to live in the reality of that world, in a world in which I’ve never measured up to the culture’s standard of beauty, in a world where youthful flawlessness is idealized, in a world where whatever “cuteness” I may have possessed as a little girl has now long faded away in the experiences of living decades past my youth.
After my oldest son was born, my body was so radically changed that catching a glimpse of myself in a mirror was literally startling. It was the body of a stranger, and I was struggling to make peace with it. A dear family friend said to me, “What is our body but a tool to do God’s will? You are doing God’s will.”
I saw the beauty in that, and my eyes were opened to the new beauty in me…well, except when I would foolishly allow someone else’s opinion to matter more than God’s.
There’s more to this story, lots more, but I’ll save most of it for future blog posts. Fast forward to now. My body is aging. It’s been causing me some physical pain and discomfort lately. It’s in decline, functionally and aesthetically. That’s the way things are at my stage of life, and I can only expect this to accelerate in years to come. Eventually my body will fail, and I will die…unless death comes in a different, more sudden way. That’s our human condition.
I had a recent, mind-boggling epiphany as a result of some articles I’ve been reading. It seems I’m somewhat of an odd bird — what attracts me is relationship. I thought most people were like me, except for shallow, immature men. I honestly find it difficult to fathom that anyone — especially a woman — can be sexually attracted to someone without a strong emotional connection, without a friendship. I am mystified by the whole concept of the “friend zone”, because I’ve always elevated the idea of friendship and have seen it as a necessity for a truly rewarding romantic relationship, not the antithesis of it.
It’s like I said at the beginning of this rather rambling post that isn’t adequately expressing the entirety of what I’m trying to say: My idea of beauty is, I realize now, rather other-worldly, based far less on physical reality than on love, admiration, and relationship.
Friendship is attractive to me. True intimacy…a deep connection…mutual respect and understanding…a close bond…openness and vulnerability…without all that, I’m as lost as I was back in college, trying to explain to my friend why I didn’t find a supposedly hot hunk of a man in a magazine even remotely attractive. How could he be? He was a stranger.
Then, as I was mulling these things over, I read this:
As Paul writes, we are meant to offer our bodies as living sacrifices, beings that weaken and suffer and endlessly minister. Our bellies should swell with children and shared meals and laughter. Our eyes should smart with tears as we grieve with those who mourn. Our knees should ache as we kneel to serve, and our hands should twinge as they clasp the fingers of the dying. A preserved body is stagnant, atrophied; its value misunderstood, its substance misapplied. A sacrificed body is tired, rundown, redeemed, and truly beautiful. [from A Living Sacrifice: The Beauty of a Body Broken for Others]
That’s why Jesus’ resurrected body still bore His beautiful scars. It’s why pregnancy-ravaged bodies are beautiful and, yes, even holy. It’s why those who give of themselves in sacrificial and loving ways, who let me in to their hearts, become breathtakingly beautiful in my eyes.
It turns out that I was right after all. Yes, hopelessly idealistic — although I prefer to think of it as hopefully idealistic — and, as usual, marching to the beat of a drummer that is out of step with most of our culture, and even out of step with most people. But I will cling to my other-worldly notions of beauty, and of what makes someone attractive to me. It turns out that there is nothing wrong with work-worn hands. Maybe someday mine will become far more so than they are now…along with the rest of me…so that I can be “tired, rundown, redeemed, and truly beautiful” in the eyes of the Only One who truly matters.
After all, the thought of hearing the words “my good and faithful servant” means far more to me than even the most flattering words and opinions of mere mortals.