I recently overheard this conversation between my eight-year-old niece and six-year-old daughter.
Niece: “You’re skinny.”
Daughter: “No, I’m not!”
Niece (laughing): “Are you fat?”
Daughter (increasingly upset): “No! I’m just normal!”
I’ve intentionally kept the words “skinny” and “fat” out of my daughter’s vocabulary, knowing the brutal effect such words can have on self-esteem. But that time of innocence has passed. As a first-grader, she will more and more become aware of beauty judgments and body terms.
Because I was slender, I was teased when younger about having an eating disorder. My body structure, handed down to me from a dad and mom with the same body type, refused to gain weight even with all the food I stuffed into it. And being constantly hungry (which I still am), I did stuff. When my grandma was in primary school, she had to stay in from recess and drink whole milk because she was so skinny–very humiliating for her, evidently, since she can still talk about it at 96.
Comments about body type can be harmful, and we need to guard our daughters’ ears from quick labels like skinny or fat. Yet not talking about my daughter’s body is not an option. When she takes special care to dress nicely, brush her hair, and put in a lopsided, mismatching barrette, I will compliment her efforts and call her beautiful. I want her to know that caring about how she looks is okay. That taking time to work on her physical looks is not sinful. Christian culture has been through an era (and some are still there) where external things of beauty were not appreciated or encouraged. Jewelry, make-up–rejected because of worldliness.
I’m sensing again a renewal of the “matter is bad” attitude amongst Christian culture as we fight against the out-of-control standards of beauty around us. In the conservative frenzy against unhealthy cultural beauty standards, some have swung too far the other way, saying we shouldn’t talk about our daughters’ bodies, except to explain how they work, or that we should only compliment our daughters on internal qualities. We shouldn’t look at pictures of beautiful people for fear of creating an appetite for a certain body type or style that is beyond most of us.
As I’ve written, having a body is good. Matter, as part of creation, is good. And our spirits and minds are intricately connected to our bodies. To ignore the beauty of matter–like our daughters’ external qualities–is to ignore part of who we are. If I see a beautiful sunset, should I withhold words of praise in case someone else has a different opinion? I know that the sunset’s beauty doesn’t stop at “sky value” just as human beauty doesn’t stop at “face value”. But just because that beauty goes beyond the surface, doesn’t mean the surface can’t be beautiful.
Beauty is rooted in the Creator. The eternal reality is that beauty is objective: that which is good, created by God, pure–those things are inherently beautiful. And so, all people, made in His image, have irrevocable beauty and value.
But the earthly reality is that beauty is subjective. We are attracted to different forms of beauty, and that is okay. As a sunset reflects the Creator’s beauty, so does a person with external beauty. The fact is, that some people hold gifts of physical beauty, like other’s hold musical gifts, or academic gifts. And often, we all hold unique packages of gifts, given by God for the working out of His purposes and the edification of His church.
When I talk to my daughter about her body, I won’t stay hushed about her physical beauty. But neither will I let beauty become narrowly defined by how she does or doesn’t look. I won’t ignore that she’ll be more attracted to certain looks than others, or certain style of clothes over other styles. It’s okay to have opinions about what is beautiful and what is not. It’s okay to want to look beautiful. When those opinions lead to obsessions and an out-of-balanced focus on self, then we’ve got a problem.
Back to my daughter’s comment, “I’m just normal.” I sensed in that comment a lack of interest in talking about her body. To her six-year-old mind, the words skinny and fat imply something abnormal, and all she wants to do is play Hello Kitty, dolls, read, and write stories. And that’s okay. That’s where she is developmentally. As she grows, I will teach her that “normal” is that place of gracefully understanding God’s gifts to her. “Normal” is not a certain beauty standard. “Normal” is enjoying who God has made her and is redeeming her to be.
So today, my hope for you is that you would be “just normal”. Ignore the skinny/fat talk, and focus on the gifts God has given you. If you want to spend extra time sprucing up your hair or choosing your outfit, do it and don’t feel guilty about it. As you’re looking at yourself in the mirror, remind yourself of the Creator of beauty and ask Him to spruce up your character, even as your brush through the tangles in your hair.