Fallen Beauty

Mar 20, 2003 |Jenny Schroedel

How Jenny learned to quit hating the mirror.

In college I had a rigidly enforced personal policy. When nature forced me to use campus bathrooms with their lurid florescent lighting, I averted my eyes from the mirrors. Glimpsing my pale, blemished reflection was to be avoided at all costs. Now and then, I'd sneak past some brave soul primping inches from one of those inexcusably unflattering mirrors and I'd wonder how she endured such exposure. As I scoured campus seeking the least distressing bathroom, I wondered why candlelight was never considered — so economical, so flattering, and so atmospheric.

One of the many nice things about the Garden of Eden was that florescent lighting was not in the blueprints (God, at least, has taste). A world without florescent lighting is a small stretch of the imagination, but it is a much greater leap to imagine the shameless nakedness of Adam and Eve, before sin crept into the garden. I am convicted by these words from Genesis: "And God saw that it was good."

These words stand in direct opposition to the legacy of self-loathing infecting college campuses across the nation. Students starve or gorge themselves. They sleep around, falling prey to nasty diseases. They waste themselves on booze, waking up in strange places with dried vomit in their hair.

The phenomenon of the Freshman Fifteen (the average weight gain during the first year) as well as the infamous Sophomore Spread, do nothing to improve matters. At my school, cooks fortified salad greens with extra protein and fat because so many women ate only lettuce — no dressing, no bacon bits, and certainly no hard-boiled eggs. A Christian friend of mine starved herself so brutally that she ended up falling down a granite staircase and being taken to the hospital by ambulance.

Few people are able to accept their physical selves completely — most of us can rattle off a list of body parts we'd gladly exchange for new ones. A friend of mine with an abusive father has a tragic inheritance of self-loathing. When he was a child, his father regularly criticized him, saying, "You're so ugly. One of your eyes is bigger than the other and your ears stick out." To this day he can't be convinced otherwise.

One Hard Fall

"God don't make junk," another friend of mine says. But if God created us so well, why do we have such trouble believing it? Some theologians point to Eden's fall. They say that just as we were not created to sin, but only with the capacity to sin, so too, we were not created ugly, but only with the capacity to become ugly.

Sometimes we feel ugly because of lies fed to us as children, like my friend with the critical father. Other times our perspective is warped: we call ourselves ugly because we don't look like Kate Moss or Leonardo DiCaprio. Often, we actually choose to become ugly by sinning. A case in point: binge drinking and chronic sleep deprivation lead to bloodshot eyes with sagging bags, jaundiced skin, and hazy minds. Just as abusing creation transforms clear lakes into frothing cesspools, abusing our bodies transforms unfolding glory into festering flesh.

Still, one can be physically attractive but spiritually ugly. Satan can pose as an angel of light, and we are capable of similar charades. We can invest time and money into our bodies and wardrobes but neglect our souls, becoming dazzling to look at, but empty inside.

In the fourth century, the great Christian apologist Athanasius described Adam and Eve's fall in vivid terms. He said their sin was a denial of God's intention for them. It was a self-inflicted identity crisis. Instead of living pure and innocent lives, they sinned, trashing their "birthright of beauty." Madeleine L'Engle echoed his sentiments: "One of the great sorrows which came to human beings when Adam and Eve left the Garden was the loss of memory, memory of all that God's children are meant to be."

Hope for an Ugly Duckling

During my awkward years, a beautiful woman told me that she passed through an ugly-duckling stage. Her handsome husband confessed that when he was young he didn't like himself because he was short. The fact that they had faced similar struggles gave me hope that I might one day be able to make peace with my own reflection.

I no longer flee mirrors. Somehow, God's bold affirmation of His creation (and that includes me) eventually penetrated my psyche. I finally understand the psalmist's words: "You created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made" (Psalm 139:13-14).

Even so, zits, wrinkles and flab remain as evidence of the fall. I've decided that's OK. Some of the world's most striking people had wrinkles. Take Mother Teresa, a frail 87-year-old woman, almost bent double by the time she died. Age spots and all, she shone with a transcendent, almost irresistible beauty. Photographers sought to capture her hands clasped in prayer, skin sagging like crushed tissue paper. They wanted to retain the curve of her back, bent in perpetual prayer and service. Even her feet, cracked nails and oddly hooked toes, did not escape the photographers' gaze. Amazingly, Christ was also physically nondescript. Isaiah prophesied a homely Messiah: "He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him" (Is. 53:2).

People like Mother Teresa didn't spend much time in front of the mirror. Instead, she devoted herself to becoming a mirror, reflecting God's dancing light wherever she went.

Skin, flesh, bone and blood flows from glory to glory, towards beauty unfathomably deep.

Copyright 2003 Jenny Schroedel. All rights reserved.

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