Monday, June 28, 2010

Stranded on a desert island

Tonight at dinner, I asked my two boys what they would take with them if they were stranded on a desert island. I expected them to say something like playstations or TVs or chocolates or footballs or books. But when they replied, I discovered that I have the two most wonderful boys in the world (although I may be slightly biased).

My youngest son said that he would take me. I was really touched by this, not only because I was his first choice, but also because despite all the material things he could have chosen, he wanted love instead.

Our family doesn’t have a lot of money. And there are times when I look at the catalogues and think of all the things I wish I could buy my children. And I know there are times when they wish we could afford a lot more than we can. It can be hard living in a world that constantly tells you that you need this toy and that game and this food and those clothes, when you can’t really afford to get any of it. But in the end, I wonder how much it really matters. Because when given a choice of anything, most people would prefer to have love. It is so much more important than material items. And I am so glad my son recognised that.

As for my eldest son, he chose the smart answer. He told me he would take a ship so that he could get off the island. Love is wonderful and important. But I have to give credit to my son for thinking about the future!

As for my answer? I’m almost ashamed to say it now. What I wanted to take on my desert island, the very first thing I thought of -- it was my iPod. It didn’t even exist 10 years ago. Now I can’t bear the thought of any length of time without it. Okay, if I had really thought about it, instead of just saying the first thing that popped into my head, I would have chosen my children. I’d much rather have them than my iPod any day. But it’s pretty sad that I wanted my iPod on a desert island. In fact, I’m still having trouble thinking of how exactly I would survive on a desert island without my iPod - or diet coke for that moment.

In a way, we are all stranded on an island. It’s an island floating in space. As much smarter people than me have pointed out, this earth is all we have. We don’t have anywhere else to go.

And we need to ask what it is we really want while we’re here? Are we going to use up the earth’s resources making things like diet coke and iPods? Treat them as our main priority. Or are we going to recognise that love (including love for others and love for the planet) is far more important than material things? We don’t have a ship that can take us to another place. But maybe we should start realising that we need things that can guarantee our future.

I sometimes get pretty depressed about where the world is heading. But as the boys and I gave our answers around the dinner table tonight, I felt a glimmer of hope. It was obvious that the younger generation has a far better idea of what’s important than I do.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Beauty Queen

I learnt when I was 17 that love was meant for beauty queens. And when I was 37, I learnt that I wasn’t a beauty queen because I didn’t have silky, shiny hair and pearly white teeth and full pouty lips and curly defined lashes and flawless skin. The good news was I could become a beauty queen if only I bought the right products. I guess if I couldn’t afford to buy the right products, I would just have to continue being ugly - and not as worthy.

I’m about to get quite personal here and share some thoughts that I’ve only recently admitted to myself. I feel less worthy because I’m not beautiful. When I talk to people (men and women) I sometimes get the feeling that they won’t want to know me because I’m not that beautiful or I don’t put enough effort into my appearance. When I compare myself to people who are more beautiful than me, I feel like I am worth less than they are and not nearly as interesting.

I shared this because I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one. And I don’t think it’s any surprise that I feel this way. Advertising agencies spend a lot of money trying to make me feel this way. Every time I turn on the TV, I’m bombarded with ads telling me that I can have silky, shiny hair and pearly white teeth, et cetera, et cetera. And the advertising agencies don’t just want to make you feel like you can have all these things. They want you to feel like you need to have all these things. No ad is going to come out and say you’re worth more if you’re beautiful. But the message is there nonetheless. Anyone who feels completely fine and worthy the way they are, and the way they look, is not going to spend a large amount on beauty products.

However, my feelings of worthlessness because of my looks got a lot worse when I joined the Pentecostal Church. On the face of it, this doesn’t appear to make much sense. Christian books, DVD, study groups, sermons and TV programs spend a lot of time telling woman that they are beautiful -- and that God thinks they are beautiful. So Christian women should think they’re beautiful, right? Well no. Because it’s still reinforcing the message that woman want to be beautiful. So if you’re not beautiful (even if God thinks you are) you feel sub-standard.

Christian marriage books (of which I read many before my divorce -- obviously they didn’t work) spend a lot of time telling women that men care about looks and they should put effort into their appearance. I was listening to a radio program where James Dobson was interviewing someone (sorry, I’ve forgotten his name) about how women should make the effort to look beautiful for their husbands. And ‘making the effort’ meant putting on make-up. James Dobson asked him whether women should wear make-up when they go to bed at night. I was relieved to hear the interviewee say no, but horrified at what came afterwards. James Dobson said that that really surprised him. The interviewee said that wearing make-up at night wasn’t good for the skin. In other words, the only reason why women shouldn’t be made up 24/7 is because it might make them look uglier in the long run.

Now I have nothing against women wanting to look nice for their husbands. And I think women like to make an effort sometimes, which often means putting on make-up. But I have a real problem with a world where women are expected to wear make-up. Because what make-up really is is a mask. It’s hiding the way we really look under a new improved version. And from a Christian perspective, it’s basically saying well the way God made me isn’t good enough. I need to look better.

One thing that makes this worse is that we are constantly seeing images of beautiful women. One hundred years ago, women were thought beautiful who wouldn’t even get a second glance now. I went to high school with a girl that everyone thought was beautiful. I think she’d be overlooked in a high school now. And I don’t think it’s because of fashions changing. I think it’s because our standards are so much higher. When just about every single woman we see in the media is made up to look their very best, we start to think that’s what beautiful is. And anything less than that isn’t good enough.

Not only that but we’re losing our appreciation of natural beauty. The type of beauty that can be found in very ordinary faces. We don’t see it because we’re too busy comparing the faces we see in real life with the made-up, altered faces we see on our TV screen. And we’re too busy hiding our natural beauty beneath a fortune of beauty products that the ads tell us we need to be beauty queens.

We’re also busy hiding imperfections. Beauty products are only part of it. There’s also cosmetic surgery. And if there is any imperfection on your body anywhere at all, there’s something you can do to get rid of it. If we continue to simply hide or remove imperfections, will we eventually reach the stage where any imperfection at all is automatically seen as devaluing? Will a woman’s worth be automatically rejected because she has a big nose?

About three years ago, my sons were talking about beautiful women. I can’t remember how they got onto the subject. At this stage, they were five and seven, which seems a strange age to be talking about beauty. But anyway, one of them (I think it was my youngest) said that the most beautiful woman at our church was the pastor’s wife. I don’t want to go into all the ways the pastor’s wife fails to live up to the ‘magazine ideal’ because that would be contributing to the problem. But let’s just say she’s not conventionally beautiful. But yet to my son, she was the most beautiful woman in church.

Last year, we were watching TV and some ad came on for a skin moisturiser. My son said to me “You should get that.” I felt like crying. Not because there was the insinuation there that I need a beauty product to be beautiful, but because his idea of beauty had changed. The media and the advertisements had finally influenced him.

I wonder what he’ll think of as beautiful in another ten years time. Will he have so many images of beautiful woman in his head that no-one in real life can compare? Will he fail to appreciate natural, ordinary beauty? Will he only look at women whose imperfections are hidden or corrected? Will he think his girlfriend isn’t making an effort if she doesn’t wear make-up? Will he think a woman’s worth is dependent on her beauty?

I hope not. And I like to think that I may influence the way both my sons see beauty. I hope that they can learn that someone doesn’t have to be perfect to be beautiful. And that a woman’s appearance is not the only thing that’s important. I hope they can appreciate and recognise the beauty in a person’s soul.

But then I can’t expect the media not to affect them at all. I know how much it has affected me.
The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women


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