It's amazing what you see when you do.
I have a new resolution tacked on to my 2017 goals: to look people in the eye—and turn a blind eye to their physical appearance. No quiet tallying of weight gained or lost. No paying attention to size, shape or muscle tone. No silent judgment of clothing ensembles or unruly hair. I want to look at someone and strive to see the real person. I want to give a person my undivided attention without sizing them up or lingering on physical appearance. Want to join me?
This new resolution is partly motivated by my own realization that I draw far too many conclusions about people based on physical appearance, and partly by a growing, unsettling awareness of how often the discussion of physical appearances seems to pepper our everyday conversations.
My endeavor to change is also motivated by Dr. Meg Meeker’s comments in her terrific book The 10 Habits of Happy Mothers. In it, she describes a personal experiment where she consciously refused to comment on another woman’s weight for one entire year. She said, “After a few months, an extraordinary thing began to happen. I stopped noticing people’s weight. After even more months, I literally had difficulty seeing if someone had gained or lost a substantial amount of weight because weight became a nonissue in my mind. I felt free from thinking about it.” It seems we can change our mental habits, and in doing so, our attitudes eventually change too.
This is easier said than done, of course. Our culture places excessive emphasis on physical appearance. Noticing—and passing judgment on—someone’s physical appearance is so easy to do. But why do we care if someone gained or lost a few pounds? Why do we so easily make assumptions about what an individual is like—their social and financial status, education, health, personality, habits—solely based on appearance?
Yes, it’s arguably the most human of traits, but also a wretched one, to be sure. Because when we so quickly put another person into a mental “box” of our own making, we limit them. We miss an opportunity to gain any true understanding, or a real connection with another human being. That is the goal: to give others the gift of being recognized, paid attention to, and valued for who they really are, and not be categorized because of their appearance. Plus, all those labels we apply to others are usually pretty wrong if we ever care enough to scratch below the surface.
As a busy mom I often feel a bit self-conscious when I go out looking less than my best. I hardly ever wear makeup or spend more than a few minutes getting ready in the morning. I usually have a baby or toddler at my side and often a bit of someone’s messy snack on my shoulder. I have gone through the wild changes of body shape and tone that come with multiple pregnancies.
And yet, I would like the people I meet to see more than just a frazzled mom with hair out of place and the same old jeans and sweatshirt ensemble; I want them to look deeper. To see someone who loves her children and who is working hard to keep her family’s home life stable and happy; someone who wears a lot of hats and is trying her best.
I’m not alone. There are lots of us around. I love it when someone I run into—especially on a harried, hectic day—looks me in the eye and smiles with warmth and acceptance. And it is the least I can do for others.
How can we expect our daughters to have a healthy self-image if we are constantly commenting on the appearance of others, and in doing so teaching them that appearance really is as importance as our society insists?
My oldest daughter—at 12 years old—recently gave me an unpleasant surprise when she casually said, “Boy, X sure sure gained a lot of weight.” I quickly realized that she was simply repeating what she had overheard earlier that day in an adult conversation. All around us—in the media, in retail and in the public arena—we are bombarded with the clear message that looks matter. A lot.
But what if we go a little deeper and change the message? I want it to say: Looks matter … a little.
I want my sweet daughters to take reasonable care of their appearance, for sure. But not to judge another person’s character by how they dress or the makeup they wear. And not to place physical appearance on the inflated pedestal that the glamour magazines would have us do.
“Man looks at the outward appearance [do we ever!], but the Lord looks at the heart” (I Sam. 16:7). We can do better if we are intentional about it. We can give the gift of our caring presence, not our judgment.