Beauty Sickness is a Thing. Do You Have It?
If you can’t see that you are fearfully and wonderfully made, you may be beauty sick.
Overdosing on Beauty
“We are bombarded with countless images of perfected, unreal female beauty every single day. This ongoing montage of women’s face and bodies leads us to believe that extreme beauty is much more common than it actually is. For millions of years of evolution, no human ever saw a face as beautiful as what we might now see every day in ads. Now we can hardly escape that type of face. Just as we didn’t evolve to be blind to beauty, we also didn’t evolve to handle this amount of beauty.
Some evolutionary psychologists use a sugar metaphor when it comes to understanding how the current beauty environment affects us. We evolved to be extremely sensitive to sugar and to desire it fiercely. This makes sense, as for much of human evolution, calories weren’t plentiful. It was always worth stocking up before the next famine arrived. Today sugar is cheap and readily available. Just as we find it hard to turn away form beauty images, we find it hard to turn down cookies. In an ideal world, we’d crave vegetables instead of candy, and our health would be all the better for it. But remember, our Stone Age brains weren’t made for today. In the same way that abundantly available sugar can have a negative impact on our health, abundant images of highly idealized female beauty can make us sick. This is a key way in which our evolved tendencies interact with our culture to produce beauty sickness.” - Shameful Bodies
In the podcast “Body Image” by The Liturgists, Hillary McBride mentions how her experience with those who struggle with anorexia sum up their message with, “I want others to see that I’m sick.”
I’m crying as I type this.
Sick on the inside, crying out for help on the outside. Let us be very careful not to see another woman and wish we were her. She is fighting her own battles. But she (and we) do not have to do it alone. In fact, we better not do it alone. We are made to love one another. It is up to us to help take the splinter out of her eye.
But first we must take the log out of our own.
Health, beauty, wholeness; it all starts on the inside and makes its way out. Nothing we see is completely objective. What we see passes through the filter of our brain’s processing organs. What we “see” is our version of reality. But what is reality? God is reality. Heaven is reality. These things are more real, more substantial, than any shadows we see here on earth. So how can He open our blind eyes to see what He sees?
First, we need to see that we are blind, that our vision is impaired by great big logs of lies. What we see is composed of a tangled forest of genetic histories, personal experiences, and present visuals. We see the story our mind makes up, and we cannot see because of the trauma we hold on to. And if our story does not match up with the fairytale story we want, we experience discontentment. We try and close the gap between our idealized body image and current body image through habits like eating less, exercising more, buying better makeup, hiring new consultants.
Once you can get to the roots, you can start pulling up (or chopping down) the lies breaking up your vision. It’s too much to go into here, but Love Beyond Looks can help guide you through the weeds of family, peer, and media (or to add some alliteration: family, friends, and Facebook).
Don’t Be Beauty, Reflect It
I often try and attain to a beauty ideal that isn’t even real. The Lord is not calling us to be a standard of beauty but to reflect a standard of beauty. He is the sun, we are the mirror. We are not made to look in mirrors and see our own reflection, but to look at each other and see the glory of God.
How do we make ourselves clean mirrors for a pure reflection? One way is to be washed in the water of the Word. We are created in God’s image, and He called his creation good. That word “good” is also translated into beautiful. There it is. Reality. This is your true reality: good. beautiful. His.
But what if we can’t even look outside of ourselves because we are so concerned with our own faults? When we are focusing on one small blemish on ourself (or a splinter in someone else’s eye), it is a disability:
In those with body dysmorphia, one study suggests "a pattern in both groups of over-attention to detail, reduced processing of global features, and a tendency to focus on symptom-specific details in their own images (body parts in AN, facial features in BDD), with cognitive strategy at least partially mediating the abnormalities."
And in those with anorexia, studies say, “…the macula and the nerve layers feeding it (retinal nerve fibre layer) were significantly thinner in the eyes of the women with anorexia nervosa. There was also significantly less firing of the neurotransmitter dopamine (electrical activity) in the eyes of the women with anorexia nervosa. Dopamine neurotransmission is a key element of the brain's ability to process visual images.”
This fancy jargon means that:
We need to be able to enjoy what we see to see correctly. Dopamine, our reward neurochemical, is associated with the brain’s ability to process images. If we don’t like what we see, it could be an indicator that something else is wrong and we would do well to discover what that is.
If we have a narrow focus on the negative, like that one pimple on our face, we may need to take a step back so we can see the whole picture.
I can see the effects of this in my own life. I was feeling rather moody, and thought it might have been because I was on social media too much. I felt the Lord saying, “step back.” This was before I delved into all this research about the benefits of stepping away to see better. As I did, I saw that what I was grumbling over I already had. I saw that what I wanted was purpose, and my eyes landed on my family. I saw that what I wanted was to know my place, and my eyes lowered to my feet, and then up to the vegetables I was cutting. Reality is right under our noses. It is simple, present, and already given to us.
We may focus on what’s wrong, while God sees what’s right. God sees us not as sinners, but as the saints He is making us into. He sees the endgame, He sees the reality of heaven when all things are good and perfect, because He is there. And He has made our bodies to be the temple of His Spirit, the place in between heaven and earth.
Pshaw, I say.
But then again He confronts me with the reality of His Word. Perfect does not mean without scars. When the disciples wondered if Jesus was real, Jesus showed them proof:
Our scars from cutting, our stretch-marks from babies, our bruises from abuse do not prove that we are damaged goods, but show we are real. And our ultimate reality is not what we see in the mirror, but what we see in Christ: His scars for our sin.
Geez, here I go, crying again as I type.
I think that’s a good place to end. But if you want more, message me and we can work this out in a group, an in-person (or maybe online?) workshop of sorts, or buy the Bible study and wrestle through this with a friend.
Open our eyes to see what You see.
Questions? Concerns? Comments?
Do you feel the symptoms of “beauty sickness”?
Where do you need to take a step back?
How can you take a step towards Jesus?