According to Jean Anouilh, “Things are beautiful if you love them.” Love opens our eyes to beauty. In our culture, consumerism, materialism, and superficiality have created an epidemic of insecurity and distorted notions of beauty and attractiveness. And racism is intertwined with these lenses that warp the perceptions of many.
I recently ran across a terrific speech by Lupita Nyong’o in which she spoke about being younger and feeling unbeautiful—being teased about the shade of her skin and praying to God to have lighter skin. Her mom provided her with the wisdom that beauty was not something that she could consume, but something she just had to be. And she came to identify beauty with compassion.
When famous black women like Lupita Nyong’o are held up as symbols of beauty, it can perhaps help to alleviate some of the insecurity that young women with dark skin might experience, but her own story points to the limits of this. And she herself recognizes this, which is why she counseled girls to “get to the deeper business of being beautiful inside.” This focus on compassion and character is an important, valuable message.
But even beyond this, there is a need to move past the artificial divide between external and internal beauty. When we love someone and recognize their beauty, we see the whole person. To divide them and focus on their internal or external nature is to depersonalize them, to strip them of their fundamental unity, their integral nature.
The reason Lupita Nyong’o’s mom could recognize her beauty was not because she looked at her internal beauty rather than her external appearance. It was because her mom had the ability to see her as she truly was, as one whole person. Love does not blind us to real beauty; it opens our eyes to it. The people who completely love the way their loved ones look are the ones who are right, not the ones with distorted vision. They become capable of seeing the beauty of this human person who has been made in the image of God—closer to seeing this person the way the God of Love sees each of us.
The way we see our loved ones should teach us about the worth and preciousness and beauty of each person. It should motivate us to dispense with notions of beauty and attractiveness that are inevitably dehumanizing, rooted in prejudice, and deeply harmful to others.
But if love cannot motivate us to do that, perhaps the desire to eradicate racism can. Even if the colorism and racism of aesthetic preferences that so many consciously and unconsciously accept feels uncontrollable or inevitable, it is not. There is a responsibility to dig deep into oneself and root out that bigotry, even if the majority of people casually accept it, and to view people as they are, as unique whole persons who are made in the image of God.
When I see little black girls express shame or disdain for their hair or the darkness of their skin, whether on the playground or in viral videos, this wounds me. I am physically sickened by the racism that generates deep insecurities and self-hatred. And my heart aches, not just because of the hurt experienced by these little girls and the pain their loved ones must experience when a precious child of God is blind to their own beauty, but also because of how casually our culture accepts this.
It’s time to start caring. It’s time to eradicate this bigotry. It is time to treat all human beings as whole persons.
One of the great champions of this type of personalism—of seeing and valuing people as they are—was Fred Rogers, the subject of the recent documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor. And in one of his most famous and beloved songs, Mr. Rogers expressed what it’s like to truly see someone and appreciate them:
It’s you I like,
It’s not the things you wear,
It’s not the way you do your hair–
But it’s you I like.
The way you are right now,
The way down deep inside you–
Not the things that hide you,
Not your toys–
They’re just beside you.
But it’s you I like–
Every part of you,
Your skin, your eyes, your feelings
Whether old or new.
I hope that you’ll remember
Even when you’re feeling blue
That it’s you I like,
It’s you yourself,
It’s you, it’s you I like.
A loving parent knows what it is like to love every part of a person, just as Mr. Rogers describes in the song. A truly loving spouse does too. Once we see that we are perfectly capable of seeing people as whole persons, we can turn our backs on a culture of objectification. When we recognize that love opens our eyes to beauty, we can set aside those prejudices that we call preferences, and more and more people will feel comfortable recognizing their own worth and beauty.