It would figure that the one hour I spent alone in Istanbul would land me in the front seat of a cab with a sleazy driver. With barely a word of language in common, he'd managed to cover all the hot topics of conversation: I was American, unmarried, vaguely his age. My typical warnings about large brothers dropped somewhere into the language gap between his seat and mine. He turned the heater full blast and encouraged me to take off my heavy coat, and I pretended I was still cold, as beads of perspiration condensed on my forehead. He pointed to the little dots on the back of my hand, the only skin I had left showing, and arched an eyebrow.
"Freckles," I told him.
"Fleckels," he said. I could tell he was not sold on them.
"In America," I said, "freckles are beautiful." I drew the last word out emphatically, knowing it was one of those ones that transcends cultures. But I wasn't speaking to him anymore, I was preaching to to my own spirit. The sermon was the same that time a man in India said his uncle could get me a cream that would rid me of them. "What! These? They're beautiful!"
I reacted like he'd offered me a lotion that could erase my skin. And, in a way, he had . . . These dots on my skin aren't just a portion of my anatomy, they're a piece of my personality, a part of my story. The dimples in my cheeks tell you I'm my father's daughter and my brothers' sister. The bump in my nose was the first feature they identified on my newborn niece. "The Lewis bump" they called it. If I could see it as beautiful on her, I could know it was just as beautiful on me.
It's not just those traits that I share that are beautiful, either, it's also the traits that are uniquely mine. People mention my freckles second only to my height. I've been 5'9" since I was twelve, though neither of my parents are particularly tall. While my mom has thin, straight hair, and my dad sports most of his on his chin, I have enough to outfit all three of us -- and stuff a few pillows besides!
I claim the parts I like and the parts I'm still ambivalent about. These thighs that look like they belong to a Tour de France contestant, though I've never really taken to road cycling? Mine. Ever since I was a chunky little thing showing them off in diapers (talk about claiming, I just wrote that on the Internet). My Hindi language tutor confessed she coveted them, my physical trainer in college swore she could slim them out in three weeks (she couldn't), but I am attached to them -- both literally and figuratively.
It differs across cultures, but there will always be something they want to change about you. I've been blessed to live in enough of them to know, a blemish in one culture is a beauty mark in the next. Your relationship with your own body is one of the most intimate relationships you'll ever have. That's why YOU -- and no culture, person, or tabloid -- gets to tell it's story. You tell it to yourself every time you look in the mirror or pull on a pair of trousers.
What are the words running through your head at that moment? Is the tale you're telling yourself, "Too short, too thin, too dark, too wide" or is it "This is mine, this is me, this is beautiful"? What is the beauty campaign you're buying into? Is it yours -- YOUR BEAUTY? Or someone else's?
The week my mom went into the hospital for cancer surgery, my hair turned dove white in long streaks from the crown of my head. I'm too young for this, I thought (just like I'd thought at the prospect of losing a parent) and bleached it all blond the next weekend. But even those things, the hard things, the strange things, tell our story. The lines marked on our foreheads by worry, the hands worn hard by doing work in the service of those we love, they are beautiful, too.
Your relationship with your body is not one you can separate out from the rest of your relationships, like cutting a length of string from a ball of yarn. The way you love your body will affect the way you love your children, and the way you let your husband love you. The way you feel in your body will change the way you move through the world, just as surely as being in an Italian sports car instead of a Tata Nano would change the way you drive.
The value you invest in believing in your beauty will become the vault from which you pay out beauty and value to others. But most importantly, your view of your body is intricately wrapped up in the way you view the One who gave it to you.
Paul says in 1 Corinthians that we can sin against our own bodies. Now, if calling your brother a fool is sinning against him, don't you think calling your body ugly, bad, or unattractive, is sinning against it? If hating your brother is tantamount to murdering him in your heart, isn't self-hatred a form of suicide before God? Paul goes on, into great detail, about the worth of our physical bodies to God. He says that our bodies were meant for the Lord, and the Lord cares about our bodies (1 Corinthians 6:13). Your body is precious to God. Is it precious to you?
After some healing for my mother and some rest for me, my hair is growing out brown again, though I will welcome the change of shade when it comes from age and not anxiety. My Hindi tutor knows exactly how I feel about her thighs, and mine, though I will never be sure whether moti, applied to a person, is an insult or a compliment. A physical trainer somewhere in New England will always remember me with frustration, and a taxi driver in Istanbul now knows one useless word of English. All because I am staging my own beauty campaign.
A campaign -- for MY OWN BEAUTY. Mine.
When I was young I believed that when the bible said we were created in God's likeness, it meant physical likeness. That we had ten fingers because God had formed the world with as many, that He had our hairs so precisely counted because He had his own head of them, that He collected our tears because He cried the same salt-water steams over us.
In short, that we were precious in body to Him, because we were like in body to Him. I know now that likeness in that context means something much more complex. But, though the theology wasn't spot on, I don't think the heart was that far off. God may not bear his own freckles and frown lines, but He claims every one of ours as His own.
"Don’t you realize that your bodies are actually parts of Christ? . . . Don’t you realize that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God? You do not belong to yourself, for God bought you with a high price. So you must honor God with your body" (1 Corinthians 6:15, 19-20).
Our lives are made up of the stories we tell ourselves. So let this be the sermon you keep preaching, whether it's to the mirror, or an unhelpful stranger, or the jeans that just won't fit. It's what your heart hears that matters. Keep claiming as yours, and as God's, every part of you.
"Give yourselves completely to God, for you were dead, but now you have new life. So use your whole body as an instrument to do what is right for the glory of God" (Romans 6:13).