The story of the handsome young Narcissus is cautionary. One day he came upon a pool and bent down to get a drink. There, he saw an image in the water, but did not recognize it as his own reflection. Enamored by the vision and instantly in love, he repeatedly reached into the water to touch the alluring face, only to have it dissolve each time in ripples. Narcissus stayed transfixed for the rest of his life, kneeling by the pool, withering away to nothing, frustrated by desire unfulfilled.
From the story of Narcissus derives the word “narcissism,” whose first definition in Merrian-Webster’s Online Dictionary is “egotism” or “egocentrism.” The second definition is “love or sexual desire for one’s own body.”
In his influential 1979 The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations, cultural historian Christopher Lasch observed (p. 5):
“To live for the moment is the prevailing passion — to live for yourself, not for your predecessors or posterity.”
While there are many manifestations of narcissism that infect American culture, let’s look at just one, the cult of the beautiful body. We should ask: How as the People of God can we smash this idol that has been set-up among us?
The everyday media message that shapes how we perceive ourselves is insidious. While we admire the talent of the sculptor, it is dangerous and unrealistic to take the statuesque proportions of a Venus de Milo or Michelangelo’s David and expect everyone to conform.
A 50-ish mother past child bearing years was on nursery duty at church. One of the toddlers came up to her, put her hand on the woman’s tummy and said: “Are you going to have a baby?” Laughing, the woman replied: “No, dear, some of us are just shaped this way.”
The proverb reminds us that “beauty is only skin deep.” Yet every time we check out at the store, the magazines shout: “You should look like this!” There we behold the twenty-something belles and beaus who are the cultural icons of physical perfection. Those who are older are more resistant to the physical beauty drumbeat, but not so the young. While many think of anorexia nervosa as confined to females, one in ten males in the United States suffer from this disease of self-perception. The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders attributes this to “social norms for males, which emphasize strength and athleticism.”
Does our careless use of language contribute to our society’s fixation with physical beauty? In the ’70s, we complimented each other for being “cool.” Now, among the most overused word in the English language is “hot.” “Wow, she’s HOT!” Or, “He’s a hottie!” Seriously? Do we really want to reduce people to a one-word description carrying sexual overtones? Surely that’s beneath the dignity of a follower of Christ.
What does the Bible teach us about beauty?
Proverbs 31:30 speaks about the virtuous woman, but could easily apply to both sexes: “Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.”
Likewise, Jesus of Nazareth was not handsome, if we believe the prophet’s description. While we have no drawing of our Lord, Isaiah 53:2 notes – “He grew up before him like a tender shoot. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him” (NIV). What does it tell us about God’s priorities that the eternal Logos was incarnated as a baby boy who likely grew up to resemble Abraham Lincoln more than Ryan Gosling?
According to Peter, true beauty is not exterior, but interior (1 Peter 3:1-5). Martin Luther King, Jr. taught this value when he called us to judge his four children not by the “color of their skin” but by the “content of their character.” What matters infinitely more than fading external attributes is what shines out from the inside, making us genuinely beautiful or ugly. In the same way, Jesus denounced the Pharisees, calling them white-washed tombs. He underscored the grotesque internal reality that spoiled the outer effect: “Inside, they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness” (Matt 23:27, KJV).
So what can we do?
As the Church strives to be counter-cultural in a salt-and-light kind of way, we must be intentional in our conversations, particularly with our youth whose self-image is still being molded. We could say to our eleven year-old daughter: “Susan, it’s so attractive how you are always kind with little children.” To our skinny twelve-year-old son who doesn’t have an athletic bone in his body but is very bright, a sincere compliment would be: “That’s incredible, Jason, how quickly you solved that math problem. Your intelligence is a beautiful thing.” In this way, for our children, we can balance-out the shallow media messages that bombard us each day, teaching those we love that beauty is a far more complex matter than whether anyone else thinks you’re “hot.”
When it comes to our self-perception, are we bringing up a generation like Narcissus, or are we teaching our children the true nature of beauty, the enduring attractiveness of a clean heart centered on God and others? Church, it’s time to smash the idol of the beautiful body.
Photo credit (Narcissus): Dream Semantics