Of the types of most-frequently-shared memes are those that convey the message, “Love yourself just the way you are.” That message always makes me squirm. Which part of “the way we are” are we supposed to love? The way we feel? The bad habits that we enjoy? Love our sins? These words about love are so twisted nowadays.
Remember back when we women were trying to help younger women get over feeling that they had to live up to society’s expectations of beauty as it is broadcast everywhere? Girls see magazine covers and billboards that proclaim beauty as only one thing. Beauty is only gently curling hair, a curvaceous body and milky white skin. So girls have tried to emulate that look with special undergarments and tight, “I can’t breathe” clothes. Girls with darker skin have an especially hard time.
We, who are older, have told them they were being manipulated. We told them the camera and lots of make-up are really what create those fanciful cover images; but “real women” come in all shapes, sizes and colors. Accept yourself. Love your body the way it is, we said.
When I was growing up, Twiggy made the magazine covers. Suddenly curves were not the definition of beauty. Only being thin was “in.” So girls began to starve themselves. Anorexia and bulimia became serious problems. Girls starved themselves, literally, to death. All of this in order to be like what society proclaimed was the definition of beauty and desirability.
Always we have known that what the media broadcasts regarding body image–on covers, and in stories, movies, etc.–can seriously impact our young people. And that’s why the whole “love yourself just the way you are” message became famous. Pop psychologists recognized that we are given a body type, skin color, gender, etc. at birth and it is better to learn to love our bodies the way they were given to us, rather than trying to force them to become something other than what they are. Not only is trying to be what we are not an inappropriate activity; it is also physically and psychologically dangerous.
Obviously, that pop psychology message did not work. Now, not only do girls want to starve themselves and enhance their looks, but boys are also falling victim to media manipulation. And the worst evidence of this is that young people seek a quick fix of “the perfect self” by playing with selfies. The “selfie” generation crops and angles a photo so that the plump girl looks thin, the big nose is blurred, and the crooked smile is cropped out. Of course everyone in the “real world” knows that the cropped and manipulated selfie is not how that person really looks. And so the image becomes a mirror that tries to flatter, but instead leads to depression because it is unreal. It is not “the way you are.”
And now, we have on the cover of magazines, a man who has spent millions of dollars and months of surgery and hormones in order to cut, boost, shape, mutilate and change himself into what is presented as the new him—a her. And this action, the magazines say, is to be admired and celebrated? And is it also to be emulated?
What happened to “love yourself just the way you are”? What happened to understanding that God gave us these bodies for His reasons? For some the challenge is to deal with what it means to be beautiful by worldly standards. The rest of us have various imperfections—thin hair or large feet or perhaps a susceptibility to alcohol or a genetic tendency to gain weight quickly, etc.—as our “crosses” to bear?
Whatever the imperfection or difficulty that we are born with, we can learn to cope with it, and learn from it. We can carry the cross because Jesus carried His and He is with us.
When we go to the grocery store, my daughter used to beg for all the cute little bottles or containers. Then we looked at the price of the cute “packaging” versus the price of a much larger container of the same thing, minus the cute packaging and there was a light bulb moment. Now I just say “Packaging” when something draws her eye.
Our outward appearance is much less important than what is inside.
I hope that my daughter and her friends will learn to eat healthy rather than to spend hours on make-up to cover up the results of an unhealthy diet. I’d rather they focus on becoming inwardly beautiful through a rich spiritual life, rather than spend all their efforts on outward riches. I’d rather they learn to love God and neighbor rather than worrying so much about “loving themselves.”
That said, we see a lot of self-loathing in our culture; the kind that popular meme struggles to address. The real answer to that problem is in accepting what God gave us and then learning to use God’s gifts fully. Beauty (or heroism) is not what is being broadcast on those magazine covers where people use lots of money and special photography to re-define their outward appearance.
Real beauty shines out from those who can look beyond themselves. Real love is a gift from the One who gave us Love. And love is not self absorbed.
I’d rather the meme said, “Love yourself because God loved you first. He is present in your life. He is with you. That is a reason to love and celebrate!”
Only when we recognize and are grateful for the gifts He gave us, will we understand what “love yourself” can mean. Then when we share those gifts with the world we begin to know more about Love.