Physical Beauty and the Cup We Never Fill

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By Carey Kirk

As I was catching up on the recent Oscar wins and acceptance speeches, I stumbled across a video of an inspirational speech given by now Oscar-winner LupitaNyong’o at a banquet in Hollywood. In her speech, Lupita addressed the topic of beauty in a way that simultaneously captivated my admiration and reflected back the hard truth about society.

It is true that many of us strive to be beautiful people. There is nothing inherently wrong with this. The question is: what kind of beautiful? In today’s world – where plastic surgery, skin lightening products, and overall dissatisfaction with ourselves is on the rise – it is clear to see that our definition and pursuit of beauty is focused externally.

We are sent messages day in and day out (whether we are aware of it or not) by magazines, TV, and any number of the billboards lining the streets of Dubai, about what our hair should look like, what types of clothes we should wear, what our bodies should be shaped like, or how our faces should appear. Research into the messages and values espoused by our ‘popular culture’ TV shows today demonstrate a disturbing shift away from themes such as “togetherness” and “kindness” to themes such as “getting ahead at all costs,” “fame,” and “attractiveness.”

This focus on external beauty has tangible costs. Nearly half of adolescent girls and more than a quarter of adolescent boys report experiencing “significant distress” about their body size and shape. The number of calls we receive at The LightHouse Arabia about teens and young adults with eating disorders is increasing and the general trend globally is that eating disorders are on the rise for both genders. On a broader scale, this focus on physical attractiveness has created a “look at me” culture that can be seen in our social media, selfies, and celebrities.

In my work with teenagers and adolescents at The Light House Arabia, beauty is consistently voiced as an indispensable value that guides actions, choices, and hopes for the future – with often detrimental consequences. Friendships are made on the basis of boosting our “image” (rather than our true self) and decisions are based on how they will make us “look” rather than how they make us feel or what they really mean to us and our future.

The upside is that the adolescents and teens I work with know that this infatuation with external beauty is not the answer. When exploring the importance of beauty in their life, one wise teenager stated, “I’d rather something else be important.” We often say at The LightHouse that popular culture is a giant – a proverbial Goliath that we are up against. And this is true in the case of beauty. While we and our next generation know that “other things” should be more important, there is still a pervasive pressure to accept culture today with an attitude of “well, that’s the way it is.”

But relying on physical beauty is like continuing to decorate a cup that we never fill. It is distracting and enjoyable but it will never quench our thirst. In society today, we keep pursuing the fountain of youth with cosmetics, supplements, and facelifts, while forgetting that real, timeless beauty is that which embodies and enriches the soul. As Oscar winner LupitaNyong’o shared in her speech: “You can’t eat beauty. It doesn’t feed you…What actually sustains us and what is fundamentally beautiful is compassion: for yourself and for those around you.” Real beauty is reflected in our actions, not our skin colour; our presence, not our physical size. And the essence of compassion is love.

If I have one wish for all of us – myself included – it is that we could all spend just five minutes a day meditating on love. Love for who we are, love for who we’ve been, and love for who we can become. Likewise, love for the people in our lives: near and far, past and present, and those we have yet to encounter in our day. It is a small commitment (or shall we say “slingshot”) in the face of a giant, but we have more power than we know. With this refreshed perspective, I hope we can put down our cups and, as Lupita said, “get to the deeper business of being beautiful inside.”