“I can’t finish this ice cream,” voiced my friend as she pushed aside the vanilla dessert that came with our lunches on Fridays. Every person in middle school could come to a collective agreement that Friday was the best day in the week because the cafeteria served pizza and ice cream. “Summer is coming in a few months and I need to start preparing my summer body,” continued my friend to our table of six girls who all began to question how these weekly desserts would affect our stomachs during a sunny day on the beach. This is the earliest memory I can recall that introduced me to the struggles of beauty that every female feels at least once in her lifetime.
The sad truth is that nearly every woman in the country has experienced an obstacle with her self- image. A concept that I find even more unsettling is that most, if not all, of the girls I have met throughout life have looked into the mirror and chosen not to call themselves beautiful. Imperfection is magnified in the eyes of a woman whose vision is directed towards flaws in herself that should not be considered as measures of her beauty. Yet, these aspects of her own body are among the many areas criticized by such a woman’s readiness to find fault.
As a young female who has experienced pressure to look beautiful, the realization that twenty million American women suffer from abnormal eating habits scares me, but does not surprise me. Furthermore, a woman’s psychological health is often affected just as much as her physical body during these efforts to create perfection. Depression and anxiety are common symptoms of the negative body image adopted by a high percentage of women in the U.S. without the confidence that their bodies are, or ever will be, beautiful.
The beauty industry, ranging from cosmetic and retail companies, has grown with the insecurities of its female demographic. Women contribute a substantial amount of money to makeup and clothing brands with the intent of becoming more perfect versions of themselves. Per month, the average woman spends around three hundred dollars on products for her appearance. At almost four thousand dollars per year, a woman’s spending habits on beauty purchases could pay for the standard tuition for four years of college. Surgical treatment has also become a normalized method of achieving beauty in the twenty-first century. Through plastic surgery procedures, women give thousands to medical facilities that will reconstruct parts of their bodies into idealized forms.
I have come to learn in faith that true beauty does not come from a change in our outward appearances, but a change in our understanding of what is beautiful. Catholicism teaches both men and women that it is not their physical beauty that should hold value, but the beauty that comes from within. Scripture reveals the Lord’s definition of beauty as the judgement of character: “the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). Looking at the heart of a woman, to possess the virtues of faith and charity, far outweighs the modern urgency to follow the newest style trend or wear expensive makeup.
The practice of compassion for our neighbors and righteousness in our daily behavior should be displayed just as proudly as jewelry or clothes. No matter how comfortable we are with ourselves on the outside, we must find more comfort in the person we have created on the inside, for that is where the essence of true beauty lies. The maintenance of our inner beauty is explained in the Bible through one of the most fundamental beliefs of the Catholic religion—the notion that life is everlasting and our souls will live forever in an afterlife with the Lord. God challenges His living creatures to ignore the attraction of earthly belongings which are tied to the planet and cannot enter with us through the gates of Heaven. The inner self, or the soul, is preserved in resurrection as “the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight” (1 Peter 3:4). Physical beauty, like the material goods that lose meaning after ascension, is a temporary state of perfection. With time and aging, the beauty associated with youthfulness disappears in every human being. The blessing of internal beauty is that in old age, and even after death, it is a beauty that will never fade away.
In the same ways that we attend to our appearances with regular consistency, booking monthly salon appointments and shopping at every nearby mall, we must constantly care for our inner selves. Our souls can be nourished through simple practices—seeking the Lord’s guidance in prayer and exercising virtue in our daily life. The teachings of our faith can prepare us for such a lifestyle of virtue, filling our hearts with a beauty that is seen in the ways we treat ourselves, others, and the world we were given as a gift from God. Although our inner beauty is the place where we should focus our attention, it would be a mistake to assume that caring for our physical beauty is a sin. A healthy balance between our inner and outer selves is possible if we remember that all individuals are made in the image and likeness of our Creator. Women who are quick to scrutinize themselves and their bodies forget that we cannot be flawed in the hands of the Lord. Instead of looking in the mirror and choosing not to call ourselves beautiful, we can look in the mirror and remember the words of God when he reveals, “You are altogether beautiful, my darling; in you there is no flaw” (Song of Solomon 4:7).
On the day that “summer body” was introduced to me in the school lunchroom, I had no idea that it would become a regular term in my vocabulary all year round. The years of learning that came from this elementary experience to the college days I am living in now have taught me to change my perspective on beauty through religion. With God, we can learn to love ourselves from both the outside and the inside. While every woman goes through a period when her understanding of beauty is flawed, it is important for her to know that she is not.