Why my book won’t change your life…

butterflyTonight, I’ll be standing in front of friends, family, colleagues, publishers and journalists at the launch party for my book Am I Beautiful? which was unleashed on the public a fortnight ago.

I’ll be standing in front of them and talking about the book: this book that is a rallying call for Christian women to wake up to society’s beauty myth, to think less about what they look like so that they can find freedom to be the women they were created to be.

I’m passionate about all this – that’s why I spent months obsessing over it and confronting some of my own body image baggage, spilling out some of my darkest, most private thoughts to give permission to other women to do the same. So that we can move past all this together.

Am I Beautiful? is very much a journey.

But here’s the thing: I’m still on it. The journey has only just begun.

Because as I stand there as the author of this book, they won’t know that I’m still struggling in this area. Big time. They won’t know that I’ve cut down on carbs in the weeks before my holiday. They won’t know that I’ve been waking up at silly o’clock to do a ridiculous US workout DVD. They won’t know that I’ve agonised over what to wear this evening.

I may be passionate about dispelling the beauty myth; but I still live in a world where I’m bombarded by images of outstandingly beautiful women, where both online and offline I’m forever seeing advertising aimed at making me feel bad about the way I look and offering a solution.

Writing this book has not instantly changed my life and the way I see myself. When I look in the mirror, I’ve not yet got to the point of always being completely content with what I see. Because I’ve lived in this looks-obsessed world for 29 years and been smothered by it. I haven’t been transported out and I haven’t instantly unlearnt all society’s beauty messages. But it’s only through having written the book that I’ve become aware of just how much – and how deeply – all this has affected my life and the lives of the women around me.

I’m committed to the eventual eradication of these negative thought patterns, but it’s very much a process – a continual, minute-by-minute choice to work on the complete renewal of my mind (Romans 12:2).

When I started the journey, I was one of the 96 per cent of British women, according to a Dove survey, who was not able to bring myself to believe and say that I was beautiful. But when I ask the question ‘am I beautiful?’ now, I know the answer is absolutely, yes. But this beauty isn’t necessarily anything to do with looking hot. I’m convinced of my beauty because I was created in the image of the one in whom the essence of beauty is found.

Writing the book was not like some magic, instant solution to the body image thing. So reading it won’t  be. But I know that reading it will mean you’re joining me on that journey towards recognising our true beauty and being content in it; of being more aware that inner beauty is far more important than the outer; and of recognising that the ultimate essence of beauty lies far outside any arbitrary, man-made societal standards.

Reading this book won’t change your life instantly…

… but it will start the process. 

Am I Beautiful?, published by Authentic, is out now priced at £7.99.

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Why I’m not surprised by Inverdale’s ‘looker’ comments

ImageOver the weekend, BBC commentator John Inverdale landed himself in hot water when shortly after French tennis player Marion Bartoli had won Wimbledon, he took it upon himself to remind everyone watching the champion that she was not very hot.

The Radio 5 Live presenter’s comments came as Bartoli went through the crowds to celebrate with her dad. “Do you think,” he said, “Bartoli’s dad told her when she was little, ‘You’re never going to be a looker, you’ll never be a Sharapova, you’re never going to be 5’11”, you’re never going to be somebody with long legs, so you have to compensate for that.

“You are going to have to be the most dogged, determined fighter that anyone has ever seen on the tennis court if you are going to make it,’ and she kind of is.’”

I’m angered by John Inverdale’s comments.

But I’m not surprised.

Because that’s the world we live in, folks.

The sentiments behind Inverdale’s outburst – though shocking, hurtful and outrageous – are all too familiar. In a world where women are objectified, as if their primary goal in life should be to be pretty, perhaps Inverdale was merely saying what so many people had taken as a given.

Germaine Greer writes in The Whole Woman: “Every woman knows that, regardless of all her other achievements, she is a failure if she is not beautiful.”

Every woman has that suspicion that beauty is the standard by which she is being judged; it is a marker of the elusive ‘complete package’. Many women feel there are many things they would trade in, just to be considered beautiful. So many intelligent, potentially world-changing, kind, compassionate, talented, championship-winning women are all too aware that they live in a world that will judge them – regardless of their achievements – on whether they conform to a rigid and arbitrary standard of beauty.

But what upsets me most about sentiments like those made by John Inverdale is their potential impact on the future generation. My hope and prayer is that what Naomi Wolf calls ‘The Beauty Myth’ will be less prevalent in the lives of future little girls. But I fear that little girls who might for a split second have watched Bartoli’s victory and dreamed of being just like her one day would have heard the message that their future dream victory would be meaningless if they did not grow up to be ‘a looker’.

Whether we’re parents or not, it’s our responsibility not to follow John Inverdale’s parenting tips: telling our daughters all the things they probably can’t be (beautiful), or can’t have (long legs). But instead telling them what they can do … (everything).

Maybe there’s hope. Because people  are talking about this issue. We are no longer accepting comments like John Inverdale’s. More than 600 people have complained to the BBC over the comments. Outrage has spilled out in social media. We’re saying enough is enough.

The revolution has begun…

But there’s is such a long way to go. Take a look at some of these horrendous tweets if you’d like some evidence)

On judging a book by its cover

ImageSo, here it is, the front cover of my book Am I Beautiful? 

What do you think?

Do you like? Does it draw you in and make you look forward to reading it? Do you dismiss it as too pink, too girly? Were you wowed by its font? Did you make assumptions about me, the author?

It’s ironic that in a book that tackles society’s obsession with appearance, the publisher and I have agonised over the front cover. Because there’s no pretending about it: people do judge a book by its cover. Book buyers browsing book stores make up their minds within a few seconds about whether or not they want to buy a book. So your front cover – the window to the rest of the book – is the place you entice the reader, but also give some clues as to what lies inside.

We do the same thing with human beings.

We make snap judgments about people’s characteristics, their background, their capabilities, their class and their intelligence based on a few seconds of scanning their faces, their mannerisms, what they’re wearing.

According to Malcolm Gladwell in Blink, our judgments about people’s physical appearances can even determine who gets the job and who wins in presidential elections. He writes that CEOs and US presidents are on average a lot taller than the general population, for example, with taller people giving off an air of capability.

“Most of us, in ways that we are not entirely aware of, automatically associate leadership ability with imposing physical stature. We have a sense, in our minds, of what a leader is supposed to look like, and that stereotype is so powerful that when someone fits it, we simply become blind to other considerations.”

There’s a famous leadership story in the example of David and Saul found in 1 Samuel. I expect King Saul was … fit. Like an Eric Bana or a Henry Cavill (the new Superman) towering above his counterparts like some kind of superhero. He looked the part. We’re told he stood head and shoulders above the rest. But we’re also told that that whole judging a book by its cover thing is not really how God plays things.

But the Lord said to Samuel: “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”

Over the past few months, I’ve enlisted friends and family members to give me their opinions on the various different designs and iterations. And what I’ve found is that getting every person’s opinion on a good book cover is tiresome. Because everyone has a totally different opinion on what constitutes a beautiful book cover. Because beauty is totally subjective. One person’s bestseller is another person’s bargain bin. And all this reminds me once again that beauty-with-a-small-b cannot be confined within some narrow definition constructed by a society intent only on making us feel inadequate and making money out of us; the one that requires each of us to conform and squeeze into it.

Looking for the intrinsic value and beauty in each human being is far from easy. As visual beings our tendency is to judge books by their covers. But let’s be aware that’s what we’re doing – and maybe some day the covers won’t matter anymore.

Beauty as good: why we’re confused by handsome on-screen villains

ImageJamie Dornan is a beautiful man.

The former model, with his brooding eyes and chiselled features is far from the stereotype of what an actor playing the part of a serial killer should look like.

Serial killers are supposed to be weird-looking, as if the inner darkness is supposed to manifest itself in their appearance.

Maybe that’s what made the Dornan character in the five-part BBC drama The Fall whose first series came to an end earlier this week so disturbing.

We don’t associate beauty with evil.

Evil is supposed ugly.

So as we watch this gorgeous man brutally kill women on screen, we are confused, searching for a reason; desperately trying to find some good in him. Because the images on our television do not compute. He doesn’t look the part.

In the programme, when the investigators first see the e-fit of the serial killer, even they are taken aback.

“Could he really look like that?”, one asks.

And detective Stella Gibson (played by Gillian Anderson) replies, mesmerised by the sketch: “Even a multiple murderer can have his share of good qualities. Or a pretty face.”

Psychologists call our ascribing positive characters to good-looking people and negative to those society considers less attractive as the What Is Beautiful is Good effect.

In Hollywood films, the heroes are the best-looking people on the screen. And the ‘baddies’ do not conform to our pattern of beauty and often display physical characteristics that are out of the ordinary – you only have to do an image search of Bond villains to see what I mean.

And Disney cartoons are also to blame for exaggerating the positive physical attributes of the characters we are supposed to like and making the bad guys less attractive. A study by Doris Bazzini published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology in 2010 found that in Disney films, friendliness, goodness, moral virtue, intelligence, romantic involvement and socioeconomic status where attributed to the physically attractive.

In thisbeauty bias that exists in human societies, people deemed more attractive do better in just about every area of life. Attractive people earn more, they are assumed to be more friendly, they are less likely to be found guilty in court and are given more lenient sentences when they are. Psychiatrist Dr Igor Elman has even suggested that ‘prettier’ babies are more loved by their mothers.

But here’s the thing about the What is Beautiful is Good effect. It means we are judging a book by its cover. And we’re judging that book based on arbitrary standards society defines as beautiful. When we do that, we make assumptions about who the goodies are and who the baddies are. And the danger is, it will cause us to overlook those who might not look the part.

It is only Beauty in its original form that is the ultimate in goodness. All else falls short.

To all the dark girls

Image“Dark am I, yet lovely.” – Song of Solomon 1:5

When I was five years old and asked to draw a self-portrait in reception class, I drew myself with long, blonde hair, blue eyes and white skin. In case you don’t already know what I look like, here is me aged five:

Image

 No blonde hair, no blue eyes, no white skin.

It was pointed out to me by a clearly more aware fellow pupil that the picture I had drawn of myself looked nothing like me. So that self-portrait turned out to be the first time I became aware of what I looked like; became aware that ‘I’ did not look like the white-skinned children in my class. My hair was different, my eyes were different, my skin was… dark.

And I remember being disappointed.

Because darkness – blackness – never, ever represented anything good. Fairy tale princesses were white – and they were beautiful. Nobody wanted to be the black sheep of the family. The darkness of the night-time represented fear and the unknown, while daytime brought lightness, safety and goodness.

In the 1980s, there were even fewer representations of beautiful black women in films and in the media than there are today.

At the time I was drawing my self-portrait, not much had changed since 1954 when the famous Clark Doll Experiment took place. In the experiment, held in Harlem in New York City, black children aged between six and nine were shown a black doll and a white doll and asked to choose between them based on which doll was the ‘nicest’ and which one they would prefer to play with. The majority chose the white doll. In a re-creation of the study in the mini-film A Girl Like Me by Kiri Davis in Harlem in 2005, the situation hadn’t improved much. The black children still chose the white doll, and agreed the black doll ‘looked like them’ even though they identified it as being the ‘bad one’.

This feeling that black women are not beautiful is not just found in Western societies either. The number of skin-bleaching products available in Africa has increased significantly in recent years. The World Health Organization reports that 77 per cent of Nigerian women have used these potentially dangerous skin-bleaching products, while 59 per cent of those from Togo have, 35 per cent of South Africans and 25 per cent of Malians.

People are finally waking up to the fact that this is not ok. That beauty is found in all of God’s wonderfully diverse creation. That beauty is found in blonde hair and blue eyes and red hair and pale skin and brown hair and brown skin and black hair. And hourglasses and washboard stomachs and flat chests and long legs and ‘cankles’ and bingo wings and double chins and high cheekbones. That beauty cannot be defined solely by some narrow interpretation of culturally-relative biases towards certain traits. That Beauty comes from somewhere far greater.

But first we are addressing the hurt that so many of us have felt because we have believed we fall outside of these arbitrary standards. This heartbreaking trailer for upcoming US documentary Dark Girls shows the pain that so many black women have lived with, but have kept hidden for so long: 

The film by Bill Duke and D. Channsin Berry explores the deep-seated biases and attitudes about skin colour, particularly dark-skinned women, outside of and within black American culture.

This feeling that we do not fit into to a narrow definition of beauty lies deep within a woman’s psyche, regardless of her skin colour. Sometimes we look at ourselves and think that we are the ‘bad one’. That we are not good and that we are not beautiful; that the description ‘beautiful’ applies to someone else, despite our craving for it to be used to describe us. With every image, every doll we create that leads a little girl to think that she is not OK as she is, we are robbing her of her childhood. We are force-feeding her insecurity when, instead, she should be made to feel secure, at home in her own body.

Let’s make it our duty to ensure that no girl or woman feels that they fall outside the realms of beauty. 

The ugly truth: why self-confessed beauties make the news

ImageEnough, ok? Enough already. Enough with the putting women who talk about being ‘too beautiful’ up in the media for the sole purpose of being shot down.

First there was Samantha Brick, and now Laura Fernee has become the latest woman to be put in the media spotlight because she thinks she’s far too hot.

The 33-year-old, who studied science and medical research, was interviewed in the Daily Mirror yesterday and subsequently on This Morning after saying she was quitting employment because her good looks made her work life so unbearable.

She claimed her female colleagues hated her and her male colleagues just kept on asking her out on dates.

“I wanted them to recognise my achievements and my professionalism but all they saw was my face and body,” she told the Mirror. “Even when I was in a laboratory in scrubs with no make-up they still came on to me because of my natural attractiveness.”

I could talk about why it is that her male colleagues were asking her out – was it because they were attracted to her self-esteem? I could talk about the fact that she is not doing herself any favours by probably alienating her female colleagues – beautiful women (and there are lots of them) are somehow capable of having female friends. I could talk about how neither Fernee nor Brick’s super-confidence about their own beauty should be worthy of national press coverage.

And this brings me on to what I really want to talk about – the motives of the media. There’s something disturbing about why in fact such stories do gain such huge attention; the Fernee story is currently the most read on the Mirror’s website, for example. And it’s because the media puppeteers know that such stories get women’s backs up; playing on their insecurities about their own beauty or perceived lack of it. Would a story about a woman who claimed she was ‘far too clever for her own good’ have hit the headlines? I doubt it.

And the message that the media who profile such stories are sending is that women are supposed to feel rubbish about themselves. And anyone who feels really, really good about the way she looks is to be hauled before the firing line of online comments and bitchy backlash.

This is not ok.

We need to wake up to the realisation that we live in a world where that quest for physical beauty is seen as a woman’s primary goal in life; but yet she is never to achieve this beauty because a woman who is content and comfortable in her own skin does not spend money keeping the fashion, anti-ageing, diet, self-help and cosmetics industries in business.

In The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf calls for a “non-competitive” version of beauty in which women are free to appreciate each other’s beauty and celebrate together.

“We have to stop reading each others’ appearances as if appearance were language, political allegiance, worthiness or aggression,” Wolf writes. “Why must one woman’s pleasure and pride have to mean another woman’s pain?”

I hope that one day the media’s attempts to expose women’s insecurities in this way fail; that their quests to get web hits and fill comments boards by sacrificing self-confessed beauties flop.

Because I hope that one day, when we see such stories, we’ll simply turn the page. And get on with that world-changing business.

On Palm Sunday, Giles Fraser and being a loser

ImageI’ve been knocked sideways this week by a simple, profound and totally liberating realisation: I’m a loser.

Let’s take a few steps back.

On Friday night, I was raging. Utterly fuming. Because I’d made an unfortunate bedtime reading choice: Giles Fraser’s Guardian column in which he makes some pretty sweeping generalisations about evangelical Christians. We apparently talk about “Cheesus” instead of Jesus and profess to have a “creepy sort of chummyiness” with this dude who we have made into our “boyfriend or best mate”.

He adds: “And when such people speak of Cheesus they have to wear that sickly smile too. It’s that I-know-something-you-don’t smile. Patronising, superior and faux caring all at the same time. And if you disagree with them they will pray for you. It makes you want to bang your head against a brick wall.”

Fraser claims that evangelicals don’t understand the idea of the suffering non-triumphant servant and caricatures us as the very un-cool Ned Flanders-type in The Simpsons.

I stand by my view that the article was poorly executed, vicious and mean and that it was absurd in its sweeping generalisation. But it upset me more than it should. I voiced my anger on Twitter. I wanted to show him a piece of my mind and became obsessed with looking at his @ replies to see just how many people agreed with me and not him.

I really was angry. So angry that I started to analyse just why I was so. As someone whose job it is to basically say how great the evangelical Church is, the article clearly wasn’t helping me professionally. Was I jealous of Fraser’s Guardian platform? Do I just hate sweeping generalisations about any people group? Or was there something else?

And then I realised that crumpled underneath my rage was my ego.

The evangelical Church of which I’m a part was being ridiculed in public. We were coming off as losers, outsiders, weirdos, not part of the cool crowd; not part of the liberal, rational, Guardian-reading crew of which I so desperately want to be a part. Flashbacks to school and that crippling need to fit in, to be accepted, clever, successful, beautiful – a winner. Or at least to be seen as a winner.

I have always been extremely competitive. I love being the top of the class. I like to be right. I love to win. I thrive on being liked. And as a classic ESFJ in the Myers Brigg personality test, when I think I’m being criticised, or not liked, or when I don’t come out on top – it hurts. I take criticism and failure extremely personally.

But the things that crush me the most are the criticisms that are closest to the truth.

So I read and re-read the Fraser article. And I realised that maybe that drive to be ‘a winner’ is exactly what he was getting at. Maybe there are times when I reduce Jesus to the one who makes me feel better about myself, who whispers that I’m beautiful, who gets me that job or that car park space; the one who makes everything ok, the victorious warrior-saviour. Maybe I’m not too dissimilar then from those Christians I myself judge who claim God is on their side politically and socially. The Fox News-watching evangelical American caricature who wields Jesus’s might over the nation.

And then I get to Palm Sunday.

And as I hold my Palm cross in my hand, I get it.

This Jesus, on this day, doesn’t stride into Jerusalem like a mighty winner. Not like any winner the crowds would have expected anyway. Humbly, he rides in on a donkey; with each step he is coming closer to losing. Inching nearer to being mocked, ridiculed, beaten, shamed, battered, murdered.

Yesterday, I attended the National Secular Society’s Secularist of the Year awards with a friend who had invited me along. Not usually the place you’d expect an evangelical Christian to be. And I was prepared for battle. I sat opposite an older man who was wearing a t-shirt with an atheist slogan on it [NB not all secularists are atheists, but this one was very much so]. Within minutes, he had told our table that he was proudly hostile to all religions. I gulped. At some point I would have to reveal my true identity. And when the moment came, I babbled on about how I may be a Christian, but I’m actually very rational, you see, I’m inclusive, open-minded and clever really – citing my Cambridge degree like some sort of proof that I was not insane, stupid or illogical. Because even in that place – where many secularist atheists spoke about their ideologies with evangelical fervour – I wanted to be a winner. I wanted to be seen in a positive light. I wanted to be seen as alright.

But being a follower of Jesus Christ has got nothing to do with being a winner. In fact, it’s the total opposite.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes in The Cost of Discipleship: “The messengers of Jesus will be hated to the end of time. They will be blamed for all the divisions which rend cities and homes. Jesus and his disciples will be condemned on all sides for undermining family life, and for leading the nation astray; they will be called crazy fanatics and disturbers of the peace. The disciples will be sorely tempted to desert their Lord. But the end is also near, and they must hold on and preserve until it comes.”

If I’m to take up my own cross, I’ve got to lay down that drive to win; that need to be beautiful, clever, good, liked, right, popular, cool. I’ve got to accept that I might take the blame for things, that I’ll be condemned, and called crazy. Because the cross of Christ is foolishness. It’s absurd. And those who follow this Christ have got to be prepared to look foolish, to lose, to be ridiculed in public, and even to be a loser like Ned Flanders. So be it.