His name was, let’s say, Mark.
We were both sophomores at a Christian college in the Midwest. I didn’t know him well, although on a small campus such as ours, everyone knew everyone.
Mark wasn’t notable. Mildly attractive and well liked, connected to all the other attractive and well-liked people. Even in college, the high school hierarchy continued.
I’d planned to go to medical school. But a come-to-Jesus altar call at a high school youth conference changed my trajectory. I wanted to go overseas, help the needy, tell people about Jesus. So I abandoned medicine and enrolled at a Christian college, dreaming of Africa or Russia or some other place where I would change the world.
Instead, my world changed.
It happened a few weeks before Christmas break. Although I’d been in college for three semesters, I still struggled to find my place. I had great grades, plenty of friends. But the “freshman fifteen” turned out to be no joke, and I’d gained my full share of allotted pounds. If my self- perception hadn’t already been skewed, I might’ve been able to accept my new physique, maybe take the necessary steps to change it. But for as long as I could remember, I’d never liked my appearance. Adding fifteen pounds to it only deepened my self-disgust.
This was the status of my self-esteem on the afternoon I overheard a male voice coming around a hallway corner: “Take Michele, for example.”
At the sound of my name, I stopped. Held my breath. The voice—which I recognized as Mark’s—continued. “She’s one of those who’d be beautiful if she wasn’t so fat. Know
what I mean?”
I couldn’t move.
I don’t know what he said next, didn’t stick around long enough to find out. Humiliated, I found my legs, ran to my dorm room, and wept.
Several days later, I confronted Mark, let him know I’d overheard his comments outside the cafeteria. His face reddened—as it should have—but he fell short of apologizing. His only offering: “I meant it as a compliment!”
Weeks later, the semester finished, I packed my college dorm room, loaded up my car, and moved back home.
I never returned. My broken and humiliated heart couldn’t risk another beating.
A part of me still wants to blame Mark, maybe even hate him. I can still feel the sting, can well remember the lingering shame. A compliment? Really? With a few careless words, he caused damage that took years to heal.
But I don’t hate him. Or blame him. Mark was a nineteen-year-old kid. He probably still took his laundry home to his mama on the week- ends. And although his words hurt, they simply confirmed what I’d long believed: beautiful was out of reach for me.
I’m now forty-four years old. I have six children and a husband and wear a size eight(ish). But in the past two decades, I’ve been everything from a size two to an eighteen. At each size, regardless of how big or small, I didn’t see myself as beautiful. Whether I passed a bathroom mirror or caught a glimpse of myself in a store window’s glass, I still heard the same words: “You’d be beautiful if . . .”
You see, beautiful isn’t about size. Nor is it about Mark. It’s about how I see me. And what I choose to believe as a result.
We all want to feel beautiful, attractive, or desirable in some small way. It’s human. But somewhere along the way, we bought into a voice that puts beautiful out of reach. Doesn’t matter if it was a boyfriend, a teacher, a neighbor, or yourself. Then and now, the voice is loud. As a result, when we see a reflection or a photo, we don’t see beautiful. We cringe and believe a lie: “I’d be beautiful if . . .”
What if there’s a better definition of beauty?
In the Old Testament, a prophet named Samuel reminds us of God’s standard: “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7).
God isn’t the one who puts a premium on appearance. We are. Height. Weight. Hair color. Clothing style. We’re addicted to beauty, drawn to beautiful things like moths to a light. Our mistake isn’t in the appreciation of beauty; it’s in the assumption that beauty equals worth. And that beauty equals love.
God says we couldn’t be more wrong. Consider Isaiah’s description of Jesus, the Messiah: “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected” (Isa. 53:2–3).
Jesus. God’s one and only. Anything but beautiful. A man people would defame and whisper about in hallways and around corners. Ultimately, a man persecuted and destroyed.
And yet a man who couldn’t have been more precious to the Father.
It is said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But too often, we choose the wrong beholder—ourselves and others, flawed beings who can’t see clearly. Only God has perfect vision, seeing beyond the false exterior to the authentic heart. And when He looks at you, He sees an unmatched creation, someone He loves enough to die for.
So what does God see as beautiful?
Beautiful is giving your life for another.
Beautiful is comforting those who hurt.
Beautiful is finding joy in the ordinary of each day.
Beautiful is believing God is with us, even when we feel alone.
Beautiful is cheering for those who struggle, and helping them finish their race.
Beautiful is seeing the best in others.
Beautiful is humility.
Beautiful is perseverance.
Beautiful is generosity.
Pulling from her experiences of raising children from trauma, a personal life-threatening illness, and the devastating identity crises that came to her family as a result, Michele Cushatt creates safe spaces for honest conversations around the tensions between real faith and real life. The words of Michele’s most recent book—I Am: A 60-day Journey to Knowing Who You Are Because of Who He Is—were penned during her long and grueling recovery from a third diagnosis of cancer during which she was permanently altered physically, emotionally and spiritually. Michele and the love of her life, Troy, live in the mountains of Colorado with their six children, ages 9 to 24. She enjoys a good novel, a long run, and a kitchen table filled with people. Learn more about Michele at michelecushatt.com.
Want to win a copy of I Am? Just leave a comment, and I’ll be selecting a winner on Sunday, February 26!