“Teacher, you look beautiful today!” I looked down to see one of my kindergarteners grinning and running up to give me a hug. Hugs are a common form of greeting at Khon Kaen International School which I much appreciate, but being complemented on my beauty was not a normal occurrence. After the one student said it, the other three echoed their agreement. Part of me was charmed at their sweet compliments, another part of me was skeptical that they might be buttering me up, and yet another part of me was slightly put off by the clarifier “today”. What about every other day of the week? Whatever their reasons for unexpectedly boosting my self-esteem, it got me thinking. What was it that made me appear beautiful to them? Was it because my hair was down instead of in its usual pony-tail? Was it my clothes? Was it because I was wearing contacts? Was it the mascara I had hastily brushed on? Or maybe it was everything combined. Whatever it was, I decided to do an experiment. I would change different things about my appearance each day to figure out what stimulated their recognition of beauty.
The following day I wore a nice dress, had my hair down again, but I wore glasses and no make-up. I didn’t have to wait long to get an opinion on my look. As soon as I walked into the kindergarten room, one student ran up to hug me and simultaneously announced:
“Teacher, you look less beautiful today.”
“I do? Why is that?” I responded, chuckling at her bluntness.
“Because you’re wearing glasses. You don’t look beautiful with glasses.”
Well, there you have it. Straight out of the mouth of a kindergartener. I’m not beautiful with glasses. While I could have ended my experiment right then and there, I decided to continue and change other things to see what their responses would be. The next day I wore nice pants and a dress shirt, did my hair nicely, but didn’t wear makeup or contacts. Well, the pants ended up ripping during my attempt to impersonate a frog during the song “If You’re Happy and You Know It: Animal Version”, so I was much too concerned about getting through the rest of the class without anyone noticing my tragic wardrobe malfunction to care about their opinion of my look. The next day, however, I decided to wear contacts again. I also wore a dress and left my hair down. I didn’t put on make-up though, so apparently I didn’t make the cut. Even though I wasn’t wearing glasses, there were no comments on my appearance. My last variable was to wear makeup but not do any of the other things that might draw attention. I threw my hair up in a pony-tail, wore a simple outfit, and put on my glasses. I brushed on a little mascara and wondered if they would even notice. They did. “Teacher, you look beautiful again today!” was the greeting I received from my students that day. I’m sad to think that it must have been the make-up that got their attention that day, and possibly every day. That proves that the media has definitely influenced our perception of beauty, even teaching children that wearing make-up is what makes you beautiful.
Since coming to Thailand I have noticed many, many commercials advertising beauty products. Beauty is taken very seriously in this country, and many go so far as to coat their entire faces in white cream in an attempt to meet the standard of beauty they’ve created for themselves. (It’s actually more frightening than anything. I don’t know why no one tells them that…) I’ve gotten so many comments on how I’m so lucky to have white skin, how they wish they could have skin just like mine. In reality, my skin is already several shades darker than its natural ghostly pale complexion thanks to the intense sun, and yet it’s still extremely light compared to most of the locals. There are popular apps people have downloaded for taking pictures that will remove blemishes, lighten your complexion, and add virtual make-up, all in an attempt to get that perfect selfie. There are drinks and supplements everywhere that promise to make you thin (which, of course, is meant to counteract the loads of white rice, sugar, and meat that invade the Thai diet and make it so that diabetes is the leading cause of death in this country), and if you aren’t thin, people are quick to judge.
Let me clarify, I have nothing against wanting to look attractive. I certainly like feeling pretty. Every girl does. It is part of who she is, part of how God made women to be. (I’m sure men want to feel attractive too, but I’m not a man so I won’t pretend to speak for them.) Wanting to feel attractive is one thing; spending your entire life striving for that goal is another. Something in my appearance must have told my kindergarteners that I reached their standard of beauty, but believe me when I say that is far from my main goal in life. These standards that have been set by the media are almost unattainable. I’m realizing more and more that the way we define beauty makes it impossible for anyone to fully make the cut.
But that’s just the thing: we humans created those standards, not God. Where in the Bible does God ever say, “People with white skin are more beautiful than those with dark skin”? Or when did He say that women must make their eyebrows perfectly arched, or lengthen and curl their lashes, or hide acne scars with layers of cover-up and foundation and blush in order to be beautiful? Or where does it tell men that they need to look like body builders to enter the kingdom of heaven? 1 Samuel 16:7 says, “Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” Note that MAN looks at the outward appearance, not God. Humans have put so much emphasis on appearing beautiful that we’ve started to forget what inner beauty looks like. What does it mean that the Lord looks at the heart? Do we match His standards when He examines the inner chambers of our being? He looks past the makeup and the clothes and the size and He delves into our minds, our souls, our secret selves that we don’t let anyone see. What does He find there? What would you find there if you really started searching? I’m sometimes afraid to look deep into my heart because I know I won’t like what I see. There are mistakes and sins hiding deep in the crevasses that have gone untouched for a long time, and my human nature wants to keep it that way. I much prefer to spend time looking at my face in the mirror, acknowledging every blemish, every scar, every freckle, every misplaced hair, and doing what I can to fix those outward impurities. Acne can be treated, hair can be smoothed, makeup can be applied, but it’s much harder to fix a scar-covered, sin-filled heart. In fact, on our own it’s impossible.
I think as long as this world is still turning, people will always have the desire to appear beautiful on the outside, and I totally get that. However, my point is that though we can make all sorts of modifications to our bodies to become more attractive, it won’t matter a single bit if our hearts are still ugly. I won’t say that I resent compliments, because I don’t. Really. But instead of being complimented on my outward beauty (which, in all honesty, is too much work to care about all the time), I’d rather be noted for having a beautiful heart – one that has been cleaned and buffed and treated by my creator, and turned from stone into flesh. In order for that to happen, I have to come face-to-face with the reality that, in its current state, my heart is kind of ugly. Actually, really ugly. Instead of primping in the mirror for hours each day or spending every spare moment at the gym trying to transform our bodies into the image of earthly perfection, it would be much more worthwhile to spend our time searching our hearts, asking God to remove all our blemishes, scars, and shortcomings, so that when our bodies are recreated into perfect, heavenly beings, our hearts will already match. Beauty isn’t something you achieve, it’s something you receive. Now whenever I get comments from my students about being beautiful, I simply smile and do my best to show them what true beauty really is – a heart that’s been transformed by God.