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The following is part one of a two-part series. Watch for part two in Thursday’s issue of Meridian.

When my oldest daughter, Sarah, first arrived in the Philippines as a missionary, she was assigned to an area where she was one of only a handful of Caucasians.  In her first letter home she wrote:

“I feel like a celebrity…I can’t go anywhere without everyone staring at me.  When I say everyone, I mean EVERY SINGLE PERSON.  Children that can’t even be two years old come from around corners to stare at me and smile and they call out to me “Guwapa!!” which means “beautiful” or “pretty.”  It’s only because I’m white.  Everyone here wishes they were white.  People shake my hand…and don’t let go and smile at me and speak to my [native] companion in Cebuano and talk about how guwapa I am…I must glow in the dark too because it doesn’t matter what time of the day we’re outside, everybody who is on the street [watches] me walk past.” (1)

Ironic, isn’t it, that if I were given the chance to trade skin tones with anyone it would be with my neighbor, Maggie, who inherited her lovely, honey colored skin from her parents who are natives of the Philippines.  Consider the American obsession with tanning.  How many millions of dollars are spent each year on tanning creams and sprays, and how many hours are spent at tanning salons, hours of life traded for a darker shade of skin because we believe it will make us more beautiful?

The more I consider what beauty really is, the more I’m convinced that there are several truths about beauty that are essential for every woman to understand:

Truth #1: There is no true standard for physical beauty.

The definition of physical beauty is so subjective that every culture, even every individual, has their own ideas about the physical ideal, so when we spend enormous amounts of time and money on beauty products and procedures, exactly who are we trying to please?  American pop culture is fixated on skinny females, yet many other cultures prefer women with a bit more meat on their bones.  The fact that different cultures disagree about the ideal skin color or body type is proof that there isn’t one true stand for physical beauty.

Truth #2: God has a definite standard for spiritual beauty.

In the eyes of our Heavenly Father there is a definite standard for what constitutes real beauty.  It’s called purity and virtue, and it is within the reach of every woman.  “The Father of lights” (James 1:17) is all about filling His children with light and truth and the Holy Spirit.  Consider Parley P. Pratt’s description of the ultimate beauty treatment: “The gift of the Holy Spirit…inspires virtue, kindness, goodness, tenderness, gentleness and charity.  It develops beauty of person, form and features…it is , as it were, marrow to the bone, joy to the heart, light to the eyes, music to the ears, and life to the whole being.” (2)

President Gordon B. Hinckley describes beauty this way: “Of all the creations of the Almighty, there is none more beautiful, none more inspiring than a lovely daughter of God who walks in virtue with an understanding of why she should do so, who honors and respects her body as a thing sacred and divine, who cultivates her mind and constantly enlarges the horizon of her understanding, who nurtures her spirit with everlasting truth.” (3)

Truth #3: We become confused about the meaning of beauty when we get our information from conflicting sources.

Recently, I did an unofficial study, with the intent to determine why women are so confused about what beauty really is.  My early research took place in the women’s magazine section at Wal-Mart.  I opened several women and teen magazines and skimmed the table of contents.  Here are some of the titles of the articles contained inside:

“The Most Beautiful Woman in the World (and 95 other fabulous faces)”
“9 Beauty Tricks that’ll Amp up Your Sex Appeal Instantly”
“How to Get That Hollywood Look”
“I Hate My Hair”
“How to Step up Your Sex Appeal: 10 Easy Ways”

The second phase of my highly scientific research took place in my family room.  Picking a stack of Ensign Magazines from the table by my sofa, I glanced through the contents and found long lists of articles I would not be ashamed to read even if my mother were looking over my shoulder.  Here’s a sample of the titles:    

“A Return to Virtue”
“The Potter and the Clay (allowing God to shape our lives brings true happiness)”
“Let Virtue Garnish Your Thoughts”
“Daughters of God”
“The Transforming Power of Faith and Character”

The official results of my unofficial study: we’re getting our information from conflicting sources.  No wonder we’re confused about what constitutes true beauty, and what’s expected of covenant women.  Poring over glossy magazine photos of celebrity faces will always foster insecurities, but our perusal isn’t likely to inspire us to be more virtuous—why torture ourselves?  I testify that the truth will make us free, but eternal truths are rarely found in glamour magazines, torrid romance novels, television shows and commercials, blockbuster movies, or much other modern media.  If worldly magazines currently co-exist with the Ensign on our end tables, we need to rethink that situation.  If we’re watching movies that leave us discouraged about ourselves and self-critical because we don’t measure up to the unattainable looks of the leading lady, those feelings should be a clue that we need to change our viewing habits.

Distancing ourselves from the constant barrage of images the world parades before willing viewers can significantly lessen the pressure we feel to look and act according to worldly standards. We might even have to distance ourselves from friends who are obsessed with physical beauty, particularly if they’re trying to achieve it through extreme measures. These are tough choices, but the benefit is a healthier attitude about our own appearance.

Truth #4: Earth life is like a masquerade ball.

The truth is (drum roll please): earth life is an awful lot like a masquerade ball, where costumes and masks are provided by the host, who carefully selects them for each guest.  A few of those who attend the masquerade receive costumes that are gorgeous in detail and design.  Others are given costumes that appear to be ill-fitting or seriously damaged, even incomplete.  The vast majority of the costumes fall somewhere between these two extremes.  It is easy for us, as guests, to become preoccupied with comparing our costume to others’, making little attempt to see beyond the façade and determine who is really behind each mask.  Oddly enough, we rarely even catch a glimpse of our own true selves because we can’t get past the costume we see in the mirror. 

Won’t we be surprised on the day when costumes are cast aside and we discover there is little beauty in some of the people whose costumes we have envied and, even more surprising, some of the spirits who wore the least desirable costumes on earth are glorious beyond description?

Truth #5: The process of aging is part of Heavenly Father’s plan for His children.

Continuing the masquerade comparison, it’s a fact of life that even the most elegant and admired costumes at the ball eventually wrinkle and become worn and faded.  This happens despite concerted efforts to iron and mend the trouble spots.  Every costume changes over time, so if our self-esteem is based mostly on our appearance, we may experience serious emotional struggles when we discover that first gray hair or detect lines on our once smooth skin.   

When it comes to worldly beauty, public enemy number one is: aging—as if growing older was an unnatural occurrence.  I have thought long and hard on this subject—as I suspect most women do when facing middle age and its attendant physical changes.  The Spirit has reminded me on several occasions that the process of aging is an integral part of Heavenly Father’s plan, and if we approach this phenomenon from an eternal perspective, aging will teach us significant lessons.

Contrary to popular belief, aging is not a tragedy.  The true tragedy occurs if we reach a stage of life when our wisdom and experience could be a tremendous blessing to others, but we’re so caught up with frantic attempts to look younger that we miss opportunities to serve.

A retirement community was built near my neighborhood for residents fifty five years of age and over.  What a blessing it has been for me to watch the new residents move in.  Both couples and singles, these are some of the finest people I’ve met.  The women in particular have been an inspiration to me.  They are lovely in every way—their faces radiating goodness earned from years of service and sacrifice; patience and empathy learned from personal trials; and the wisdom and good humor that only decades of life experience can bring.

Coming soon: The Truth About Beauty, Part Two.

Notes:

1. Sarah Christofferson, personal correspondence, August 2010.

2. Parley P. Pratt, “Key to the Science of Theology,” 101-102.

3. Gordon B. Hinckley, “Our Responsibility to Our Young Women” Ensign, September 1988.

This article is an excerpt from the book “Sisters, Arise!” by Lynne Perry Christofferson, published by Covenant Communications, Inc. 2016.