“You’re beautiful,” my husband Patrick told me.
But I didn’t believe him. Wouldn’t believe him is more like the truth. That simple exchange of compliment and deflection ate away at our marriage like lymphoma. After faithfully sharing those words for months, I noticed my husband’s silence.
We had one of those talks—the hard ones where we both air our frustration. At the end of the conversation, I realized I’d hurt him deeply because I simply could not believe he thought I was beautiful.
I bought into the world’s pervasive lie that youth equaled beauty and aging equaled un-worth. I drank it like poison, let it inform the way I carried myself—but more than that, I internalized the belief that the older I got, the less desirable of a person I became. I projected the world’s system onto my husband, wrongly believing that he felt the exact same way.
I was wrong.
I am not alone in this struggle. Today women are bombarded with messages that constantly undermine our body confidence—to the extent that 80% of American women are dissatisfied with their appearance. Our role models are thinner and thinner. “In 1975 most models weighed 8 percent less than the average woman; today they weigh 23 percent less.” As a result of this and many covert and overt messages (over 5,000 “attractiveness messages” in the media per day), many women struggle with distorted thinking, and it leaks into their marriages.
And no matter what a spouse says, even if it’s wholly supportive and encouraging, those words often do not overcome what the woman feels deep inside. It affects her confidence, her feelings of desirability, her ability to be naked and unashamed in the marriage bed.
In Ephesians 4:29, Paul tells us, “Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear.”
Many are guilty of disobeying that verse—but our words aren’t critical of someone else; we speak them silently about ourselves—a practice that has the potential to push our spouse away.
Though the last thing I wanted was to push my husband away, my deflection of his compliments did exactly that.
“It hurts me when you don’t accept my compliments,” he told me.
“It’s hard for me to believe you truly feel that way.” I was honest when I said those words. My mind filled up with images of all the beautiful women I’d seen even that day—on my mobile device, computer, TV, and the stack of magazines near my bed. How could he see me as complete when I didn’t measure up at all?
But the hurt in his eyes, and the utter frustration I saw in the midst of our argument, compelled me to take an honest look at the way I’ve been treating myself. If I kept wallowing in my perceived un-beauty, our marriage would suffer. I had a choice—to believe his words and live as if they were true, or push him away and stay imprisoned in my own thinking.
I had to ask myself: what would it look like to live freely? To accept my husband’s compliments? To embrace who I am as I age? How would our marriage improve if I let myself be loved? If I finally learned to love and embrace myself, flaws and all?
This is not a simple battle. It involves denying the nagging judge in our head who mercilessly compares us to the latest beauty queen and offers the verdict that we’re not ever going to be that. It means shaking hands with our reflection as J. Nicole Morgan bravely did. It means taking an honest look at the messages our culture has sent us, discarding those that have nothing to do with the kingdom of God. It means living courageously in the body God’s given us, reveling in the ability to live, move, and have our being. It means receiving compliments and seeking to give them to people who don’t fit the “beauty” mold. It means finally living in light of the fact that God looks at our hearts, and cultivating them is what has lasting, eternal impact.
Making peace with our reflection has far reaching implications—not simply in marriage, but in the world at large. At stake are issues of theology, kingdom expansion, and self worth for the next generation. Jesus set us in his body to be his hands and feet to a world obsessed over fame and youth.
We have a different message, an invitation to an entirely new way of thinking where the poor are dignified, the overlooked are heralded, and the less than are greater. Wisdom is bound up in those who have walked years in their bodies, and we are right to dignify them by listening.
Thankfully, the kingdom of God is full of all sorts of ordinary people, imbued with extraordinary worth. Our bodies are means to love others well, but there is no beauty hierarchy to do so, nor does our perception of our beauty need to influence the way we receive love.
The truth is, this body won’t remain—a new body will replace it. Paul describes the anticipation believers should have:
“We look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal” (2 Cor. 4:18).
Every wrinkle we see in the mirror is temporary. This body, as time moves forward, will decay. Entropy will win. But what we choose to do in the body God has given us is what will last. I can choose to receive my husband’s words. I can choose to love him well. I can choose to settle into our relationship, reveling in the beauty of two becoming one.
Or I can reject his words and believe the lies.