I Searched the World for the Definition of Beauty. Here’s What I Learned.

image of female with long dyed red hair, wearing a colorful dress in oranges, yellows, and reds, holding a yellow and black polka dotted umbrella over her head, looking to the side, for article on the definition of beauty

Oh, you get fat, no?” I was sure I must have misunderstood her. Being in Thailand was a new experience for me. Maybe this meant something different than I though it did.

“What?” I asked, in her native language, hoping for clarity. I could already feel the old eating disorder mantras starting up in the deep, dark corners of my mind.

She motioned her hands out wide and puffed her cheeks out. Yep, no misunderstanding. She continued in her broken English by saying.

You get so fat, no? I just say.

She shrugged her shoulders nonchalantly to my stunned face and then walked away.

It’s comments like this that have made me wonder, what does beauty look like?  Here are some take-aways I’ve had about beauty as I’ve traveled around the world. 

Beauty in Thailand

Situations like that were common in Thailand, where I moved for awhile to teach. So were many other comments related to weight and food. Some could be conceived as flattering. Some, like the above, definitely were less than flattering. Both could trigger my eating disorder thoughts.

The culture was friendly, helpful, fun, and a wonderful mixture of feisty and demure. But, it was also obsessed with weight and image. Growing up in California I should have been used to this–image obsession is common in the land of golden cinema dreams.

But what possibly made it harder in Thailand was that it was difficult to find women who fit my more natural curvaceous, Beyonce-inspired looks. Most women there are not quite at my size.

I had never been called tall before, but there I was statuesque. My curves were a bit of an oddity. Department store didn’t even carry my bra size.  Strangers would literally  come up and pat my backside or my breasts, I guess to see if they felt real.

Perhaps in other areas of Thailand my body size would have been considered more average, but not where I was. The women were there were both naturally and unnaturally thin (eating disorders–as well as bleaching the skin and plastic surgery–were quite common).

Sadly, no matter who I compared myself to in Thailand, my anorexic-bulimic side whispered, “You lose, too big”.

Beauty in Africa

Fast forward a couple years, and I was in Africa to teach again. Within a few months of African cooking, French-inspired baked goods, and a lot of wonderful hospitality, I had gained two dress sizes.

The reaction was decidedly more different, as the “ideal size” is quite different in Africa than the “ideal size” in Asia. It still threw me for a loop, nonetheless. Most women I saw walking down the street looked, size wise, a lot more like me. Therefore, there were less comments on my size. I was usually told simply I looked beautiful, in native language.

Occasionally I would get a negative comment from my students-

I didn’t have a husband yet because I was too skinny.

Though my size was a bit more acceptable in Africa, I wrestled with my own inner worries, thoughts, and comparisons about beauty.

Beauty in California

A few years later I was back in California. Many of the people I knew from my past were striving to be a certain size. It was fairly normal to be on unhealthy “juice cleanses” (read–crash diets or other EDNOS style days) or taking weight loss pills. People were lying out in the sun or in tanning booths for hours, slathered in oil, baking their skin to a golden crisp.

They looked at me in consternation, down at my non-appropriate-sized sarong-swathed hips, and made a faces saying, “How can you eat all that oil in African cooking? Where do you go to get your nails done? When was the last time you cut your hair?”

All of these different views and commentaries in different places did, I admit, send me into a tailspin. I had to spend some serious time in prayer, study, yoga, journaling, rewriting, and sticking to meal plans and going to therapy to bring myself back out of an eating disorder relapse.

But in the end I learned a few lessons…

1. Beauty is often defined by culture

So much of what we perceive as “beautiful” or the “right size” or the “right look” or “right color” is influenced by our culture. And our culture changes with the times and fads. Perhaps our cultures-ever trying to change a woman’s outward appearance-get some things wrong. Variety exists the world over.

How can we say only one small selection of that wide range is truly beautiful?

And if your culture doesn’t like your natural looks, find a culture that does! Just kidding! But point being–if someone doesn’t think you’re “beautiful,” I can assure you I’ve seen someone with the same look as you getting a thumbs up in a different part of the world, or even a different corner of your own land!

2. Beauty looks different on everyone

So, if culture can get it wrong or partially wrong, how do we know what is truly “beautiful”?

Well, I think it comes down to– are you healthy? What is your body’s natural set weight range, when you are eating enough, being active, sleeping, and finding balance in your life? Can you look at yourself through the eyes of love, which beautifies? Just because you don’t look like that person over there doesn’t mean you aren’t beautiful too.

3. Try a new perspective

I find when I struggle looking at myself through the eyes of love, I find someone else’s eyes to look through.

Reading bible verses like Psalm 139, Psalm 90:17, Psalm 45:11 help give me a new outlook. Even looking at beauty through the eyes of a friend or a child I have helped. Remember the compliments of a lover. Delight in the affirmation, love, or laughter of a cherished one.

Another great thing to do is making a list the positive attributes you have aside from my physical appearance. It’s these things that create authentic, long lasting beauty anyway.

4. You can’t please everyone

You seriously just can’t. Not everyone is going to think you’re fantastic all the time. This applies to outward looks as well. I might not be everyone’s ideal.

Not only can I still love MYSELF–I am in fact beautiful, inside AND out, even if not everyone sees it. Being content in my healthy skin is much more satisfying than making others happy anyway.

5. Don’t let comments throw you off track

A comment, especially when also going through a life stressor, can really tempt us to throw ourselves off the balance track and back into the arms of an eating disorder. Resist! Stick to your health plan, don’t under or over exercise, but celebrate how your body can move. Go back over your affirmations you may have created in recovery. Remember to thankful for how amazing your body is and what it does for you.

If you need to go back to old lessons or stepping stones you thought you already skipped over, then do so. Go back to the basics and reorient yourself.

6. Don’t forget to live life

Finally, life is too short to worry about attaining a stringent “ideal” (that, as mentioned, doesn’t fit everyone or every country’s mold anyway!). The world is a naturally BEAUTIFUL place. Focus on the beauty of the people, culture, and land around you. This world is at your fingertips!

You can’t fully soak up all this lovely, unique planet has to offer if you are being obsessed with your eating disorder.

Discard the ED and focus on the world around you instead!

Remember most of all that you are worth healing and recovering. Take time to care for yourself, and don’t feel guilt about this!

Carry on, you beautiful warrior!

Image: @veronezcaroline

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