Self-respect, appearance, and looking for potential beauty in unlikely places

by pentacs,

“Dress like you respect yourself.”

I read this on a blog post recently, and I reiterated it to my tween daughter this morning. Little Esmeralda is the opposite of the Disney princess-type; she’d wear baggy t-shirts and jean shorts 4/7 if I let her. No ballgowns or tiaras for her, thank you. She has a uniform for school (thankfully!) but today was “wear-a-normal-shirt” day. She choose her P.E. uniform shirt.

“No,” I said, and explained my reasoning.

People judge others by their physical appearance, including their clothes. (Unfair but true.)

What we choose to cover our bodies sends a message about how we view ourselves.

Therefore we need to dress, not to impress, but to convey the idea that we have self-respect, and want to be treated respectfully by those around us. It shows that we’re sensitive to what’s appropriate behavior and appearance in any given environment. (School demands a different “look” than yard work does, and the swimming pool or a church or dinner at the White House demand yet even more varied looks. No bikinis at church, no ballgowns at the neighborhood pool.)

Look at celebrities, I pointed out. A celeb who walks around in super-revealing clothing looks A) desperate for attention, and B) as if she doesn’t know when enough is enough. To quote P.G. Wodehouse, “She looked like she’d been poured into her clothes and had forgotten to say when.”

But it’s not just the skimpy outfits that are an issue. Wearing sloppy, unflattering clothes conveys that you don’t care about yourself or take care of yourself. (In certain contexts, you might look depressed or homeless.) A college friend of mine is a good example. Unkempt hair in an unflattering style. Clothes from a decade ago. No effort to look nice. This told me, long before I knew her background, that she didn’t have respect for herself, had been dumped on by men, and was generally at odds with the world.

Appearance is a double-edged sword.

On the one hand, people are judged and judge others in ways that can be accurate or inaccurate, charitable or snarky, and superficial or perceptive.

A woman dressed in sloppy clothes, hiding behind a ragged-edged mane of hair, may be depressed. She may even be frightened of looking beautiful because of past abuse. Or she may really not have a clue how unflattering her appearance is (and need a little help from friends). But without knowing anything else about her, it’s easy to stick with the shallow interpretation.

On the other hand, beauty isn’t evil. A pleasant appearance isn’t bad. A healthy, beautiful body isn’t something to shun. Wanting to wear well-fitting, flattering clothes isn’t sinful. There’s no virtue in deliberately looking one’s worst just because “people shouldn’t judge me on how I look!”

People do judge, and it’s easy for the object of the judgement to lose self-respect because of that judgement.

Here’s where we need to step in. A few ways:

For anyone and everyone: Giving a word of encouragement. (“You look nice today.”)

For those who know about fashion: Nudging in the right direction. (“That’s color really brings out the blue in your eyes! Have you ever thought about buying a shirt in that color?”)

And then there are some people who have the gift of seeing potential beauty, even when the rest of us cringe at someone’s appearance.

Recently, I read about two people who have that gift. The first, Mark Bustos, is a hair stylist in New York City who gives free haircuts to the homeless. On his day off, he wanders the streets, looking for potential clients. One man looked at his mirrored image and had one question.

Do you know anyone that’s hiring?” –Jemar Banks, client of Mark Bustos

This small act of kindness helped restore a man’s self-respect and dignity. He no longer looked like stereotypical homeless bum but like a man who was capable of hard work and taking responsibility. The hair stylist looked beyond the stubble and overgrown hair and saw this man’s potential. He used his skills and talents (and scissors!) to reveal it to the rest of us.

The second man is a photographer in India. Rahul Saharan, a professional photographer, took a series of fashion portraits with women who have survived acid attacks. Their faces are scarred. Their souls are hurt. Many have been afraid to leave their homes because of their facial deformities. But they dressed in beautiful clothes (designed by Rupa, one of the survivors) and posed for him. The result is more powerful than any glamorous photospread in a fashion magazine.

“. . . I want to go out meet more people.” –Rupa, acid attack survivor, clothing designer, model

Through the photographer’s talents and her own courage, she’s been given freedom to rejoin the world. (She hopes to open a boutique to sell clothing she designs.) And we’re given the freedom to reconsider what physical beauty is.

Physical beauty, whether that’s in our bodies or art or the world around us, helps point us to a God who delights in the creation of beauty. As a Christian, I need to open my eyes and look. There is potential beauty all around us. Let’s look for it, even in the unlikeliest places.


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