I have a fear of being known; of being perceived. It is one of the many things in life I cannot control. It bothers me that I do not know how I am perceived. All I know is that most of the perception comes from my physical appearance.

I have stretch marks. I have pits in my face from acne and scars from surgery. I have dark circles under my eyes and a few extra pounds that I might like to get rid of. Does this make me ugly? Maybe, in a worldly sense. There are people’s opinions who I will never be able to control or live up to.

But I cannot concern myself with them. I cannot stay up at night stressing about how others see me, or about “society’s unattainable standards for women”. We were not created to worry about things such as these. We were not created to “worry” at all.

Learning to look past my physical flaws has been a process. Of learning what love is, and is not.

Teenage years are, and were, for me, the hardest in this regard. Everyone developed at different rates. Their timelines for shaving, wearing makeup and choosing their own clothing was set in place by their parents. And mine were more conservative in terms of mine and my sister's appearance.

Middle school was difficult in terms of self-expression. I remember times when I would sneak the reddest lipstick and the bluest eyeshadow away from the house, and keep it in my locker so that I might parade around school in it, only to be caught at home because I had failed to wipe it off before my mom picked me up. I remember the bright orange sweat suit my mother insisted on sending me to school in, and how much it made me feel like an oompa-loompa. I also remember the cute outfits that made me feel like I could conquer sixth grade. Aside from the occasional mean girl, I escaped middle school unscathed by feelings of inadequacy.

It wasn’t until high school that I began to notice a difference in my self-perception, as well as that of every other girl around me. It seems they, for the majority, went one of two ways.

The first was to hide behind their facades of makeup and clothes. Trying to sweeten themselves with colors and shapes pleasing to the eye as to garner some form of praise or attention. Attempting to make themselves so beautiful, they could not help but be loved.

The second was the polar opposite. Girls who tried very hard to not put effort into their appearance. Hair tied up, baggy t-shirts and sweatpants served as a barrier, daring the world to love them, in spite of their appearance, and being unsurprised when they got the response they expected.

I straddled the line. I wasn’t allowed to wear heavy make up. I didn’t have time in the morning to do my hair any certain way. Still, I did my best to look presentable, yet different enough from the other girls to be noticed. It would be a lie to say I wasn’t a bit heartbroken when my efforts yielded no fruit.

All in all, I realized that every girl in high school, myself included, did not truly associate their beauty with physical perception. Through conditioning from various sources, we all somehow tied our appearances to our perception of love, and our worthiness of that love being not only reciprocated, but unconditional.

Which is bogus. Everyone is capable of being loved unconditionally, regardless of their “beauty”. God’s love for us transcends society’s beauty standards, and is unwavering.

No one’s appearance in this fallen world has nothing to do with their salvation. No place in the Bible or the writings of the church fathers does it say “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for an unseemly woman to enter the kingdom of heaven”. Therefore, we should ignore the worldly calls of the beauty industry and their “solutions” to problems that should not concern us.

And sure, I like to do my makeup and hair. It’s not a sin to feel pretty (pride in one’s appearance is a little different), but I don’t feel an overwhelming need to do so before leaving the house. And I will don’t feel the need to erase my natural imperfections in order to conform to secular society.

What do I mean by “secular society”? I mean the society that pushes self-worship. Living in such a society, we are bombarded with media that simultaneously encourages us to take pride in aspects of ourselves that warrant no such praise, and breaks our spirits with advertising that forces us to view ourselves in a negative light.  In this cycle of self-deprecation and self-glorification, we are left stranded in what is dubbed a sea of “self-discovery”. This is where we are encouraged to do, and more importantly pay for, items and programs to increase our feeling of self-worth, only to be rewarded with anxious and depressive thoughts when we fail.

It’s the same society that pits men and women against each other in terms of achieving happiness. Men pose obstacles to women who think that being “equal” to a man (however that can be defined) will make them happy. It is advertised to women that men only like women who think, act, and look a certain way. Oddly enough, they often list every single type of woman in these discussions.

“Men want something to grab,”

“Men want a slimmer, hourglass figure,”

“Men want a woman who is submissive,”

“Men prefer women who approach them first,”

“Men don’t want a prudish, conservative woman,”

“Men shy away from women who are more progressive,”

Women, on the other hand, are made to feel less than by these comments. Comments which ultimately encapsulate all women. They then emasculate men and form distrust for them within themselves, leaving men at a loss.

Ironically, I’ve never really been made to feel bad about my appearance by a man. There were just a few stupid guys in high school that felt the need to tell me they didn’t like certain aspects of my appearance. Maybe I’m just lucky.

Overwhelmingly, it’s been women who have made comments or given me the side-eye. Women I worked with have told me I need to eat more. Female doctors have recommended treatments for my stretch marks and cellulite. No matter if it has been a man or a woman who has made the comment, I haven’t taken it to heart. I’m not trying to appeal to everybody because I’m not for everybody. That’s why I’ve only ever been in a relationship with my husband.

He’s never made me feel bad about any of this. He has never said a single negative thing about my appearance.  He loves my bare face. He loves how I look. And he’s the only person I want approval from when it comes to my appearance. Everyday, he tells me I’m beautiful. And I believe him.

Because love is not based upon beauty, but upon trust. And beauty is not based upon outward appearance, but virtues that are cultivated internally.

“During transitional phases of human life, men and women alike return to sound women for strength and support… Response to such an action is an important function of women, requiring a sound religious foundation and appropriate education.” – The Bible and the Holy Fathers, pg 879

This is the beauty of being a woman. We are the hearths of our homes. We are the soft places for our family members to rest. While men are Christ, we are The Church. Welcoming those who are weary and comforting those who are lost. Not self-expression, self-discovery, or self-glorification, but selflessness.

So when we look in the mirror, we should not look for acne, wrinkles or sagging skin. We should not feel ashamed of our figures and faces. We should see imperfections as necessary junctions in stained glass, the brush strokes of our Iconographer, and the wear and tear of showing love to everyone we meet. Our mirrors reflect back the prayers we say each day. The care and concern we have shown to others. The icon of Christ within us.

Do not look at yourself as a fallen creature, but as the unwavering and ever-beautiful Church. Such beauty is timeless, and will always be a fountainhead of love to all those who seek her. And everyone shows her love and gratitude in return.