“Do not let your adorning be external – the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewellery, or the clothing you wear – but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious.” 1 Peter 3:3-4 ESV
Growing up my mother would boast about her ‘beautiful’ daughter, but once home she thought I should be told I was ugly so I didn’t “get a big head.” In later years, when I returned home from university to visit, she would inspect my make-up and tut if she didn’t think I was wearing enough.
“No-one will ever like you if you don’t look right,” she would say. If I was also wearing trousers and a hoodie, I would get the added insult of being told I dressed like a boy and would never find a husband, and she would be denied the pleasure of having grandchildren. This greeting I received year in year out, whilst she herself loved being told how great she looked, and young for her age.
Needless to say this warped logic left adult me unimpressed by external beauty. To me beauty was meaningless, and empty. The truth often is that the focus on outward appearance is either about controlling how others either see you, or it’s about controlling the people themselves. I had a lot of compassion for my mother and her suffering, after all – hurt people hurt others.
What people do or say is often not about you but them. None of what I went through was because my mother did not love me. She was just so broken, and held on to her brokenness so tightly because it was all she knew how to do. People cannot give you what they don’t have, and what is on the inside of a person is of more value than any perceived beauty.
I have only ever believed one person who said I was beautiful actually meant more than how I looked. That was on day three of a mountain expedition, so it would be hard to think otherwise! But that comment filled my heart. Our words have such power, and there is so much suffering – who could you tell today that they are beautiful on the inside? They’ll treasure it if you mean it!
Before I became a teacher I worked in a large prestigious department store in London. Part of the induction programme focused on not paying any attention to the outward appearance of shoppers. I was told that clothing was no indication of wealth and we were not to be judgemental in any way and treat everyone with the same respect and courtesy. But this is often not the way we are brought up. We are subjected to media stereotypes and advertising on a daily basis that reinforces the very opposite of that training.
“But the Lord said to Samuel, look not on his appearance or at the height of his stature, for I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees; for man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” 1 Samuel 16:7 AMP.
So how do you avoid giving in to this mind-set? How do you break free from repeating the same patterns of behaviour? I started by controlling my thoughts and by valuing real beauty, and this often starts with the smallest of things. I focused on the beauty of nature – how delicate and beautiful a wild flower is when you look at the sparkle of a sun shining down on it! I valued the smile of a stranger or made a point of using kind words in conversation with friends. I started to think about what was possible in a world full of opportunities. I chose to focus on what was good. An important shift in perspective. And I controlled or avoided contact with the negative people in my life.
“And set your minds and keep them set on what is above (the higher things), not on the things that are on the earth.” Colossians 3:2 AMP.
Although I never truly valued outward appearances, now that I am Christian I see how simply walking down the high street, or watching adverts during the break in a television programme, provide a constant reminder that the world values how we look over the health of our souls. Now more than ever I see how important it is to let go of this false worldview and look more deeply for the true beauty that lies within.