Behold-Her Beauty presents: “Redefining Beauty” with Melissa L. Johnson. How do we trade broken beauty culture for beauty defined by God? Be sure to scroll down and enter our BOOK GIVEAWAY for a signed copy of Melissa L. Johnson’s book Soul-Deep Beauty: Fighting for Our True Worth in a World Demanding Flawless.
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“Redefining Beauty” with Melissa L. Johnson
DEBORAH: Hi Melissa. I have your book – Soul-Deep Beauty: Fighting for Our True Worth in a World Demanding Flawless. This is Beauty is in the Eye of our Beholder Series. And we’re discussing what it means to be seen as beautiful in the eyes of God. And there’s just so many reactions that I get. When I read your book, I was like, okay, this is definitely a book that is going to help a lot of women navigate this. So, what I wanted to start with is for you to tell us about yourself and what led you to explore beauty.
MELISSA: So, a little bit about myself. I’m a marriage and family therapist here in Minnesota, and I teach a course at Bethel University here in the St. Paul, Minnesota area. And I teach a course on, essentially, soul wellbeing. And so, both those things that make up my work as well as hosting the Impossible Beauty podcast about redefining beauty.
A little bit about my story and how I got into writing “Soul Deep Beauty”, which was not my original plan. So, it’s been really interesting to see how this has developed. I was working as a marriage and family therapist about eight or nine years ago now, when my own therapist let me know that my own thoughts and behaviors around food and movement were in line with a diagnosis of an eating disorder. And, you know, I think there was some denial there, but also, I was really taken aback by her diagnosis and telling me that largely because I think a lot of the beliefs and behaviors that I had adopted are so lauded in our culture.
And so, I ended up having to actually pause my work as a therapist and do my own intensive work around this eating disorder. And it ended up really shifting my trajectory of my, of my work and where I spend my time because about, I would say, I don’t know, six months. Or later into my intensive treatment for an eating disorder. Which I ended up doing actually full-time. I started to see that so many of the beliefs that I was seeing in the therapy rooms were also the beliefs that our culture was praising and teaching us. These same beliefs were, and struggles I would say were, very prevalent in my own friend groups, and in casual conversations.
And so, I started to see just how warped our ideas of beauty have become. Also, I started to see how it was diminishing me and taking me away from who I thought God was inviting me to be, who He created me to be. But also, so many women and girls, and I think the conversation is larger than women or girls.
Just talking about the impacts on the female is already huge. And so, I, and obviously I’m a female I’m more common with, with those pressures, but I, I started to see that, I couldn’t not speak out about how this is impacting our souls. This is like disintegrating us at a very deep level.
And I didn’t think people were warning. No one had warned me. And I really wanted to raise the red flag on this. And, increase awareness so we can choose something different.
How do we fall back in love with our bodies?
Deborah: I think that’s great because when I was in high school I always kind of felt awkward about how I looked.
A little shorter, curly hair, and I never felt like I was thin, although now I look back on pictures. I’m like, wow, you look really good. It’s always been chasing the past, which you talk about too. And so, I was reading Seventeen Magazine and the models talked about purging their food to keep thin.
And one of my girlfriends and I, we, thought, well, maybe we can look like them if we do what they do. And so, I went through about a four-year period of being bulimic and thankfully I wanted to sing and I knew that would hurt my throat and it took me about a year to quit.
But I realized after reading your book that I still have a lot of body; I think you call it dissatisfaction. And then problems with how I fit in. Am I good enough with my body? Especially as I’m getting older now.
Going into another, you know, age, time, season. So, when we talk about that, how do we, in a sense, fall back in love with our bodies?
Melissa: Yes. Such a good question, Deborah. First of all, thank you for sharing your own story. And that’s, that’s huge. Also, I’m like taken aback by the fact that Seventeen Magazine shared that, and oh my gosh, like I’m already like, oh my God.
Deborah: Especially at that age, you know, so impressionable, when you’re just discovering yourself as a woman.
Melissa: But, how do we fall back in love with our bodies? I think that’s an amazing question. What I do think is helpful, and this is what I try to do in the book too, is help us gain some media literacy and start to see, first of all, how so many of the images that we see are fake, like literally fake images and have been retouched and changed. And so, for us to have a new lens that we view media through to see, first of all, much of this is fake. You know, in the book, I reference additional reading information.
I referenced one of Jean Kilbourn’s talks “Killing Us Softly”, where she shows some of the photo editings where literally parts of people’s legs or torsos are taken out. And also, we just live in a really media-saturated culture. One of the statistics I like to talk about is this documentary called “Illusionist” and the creator and producer of that Elena Rossini talks about how it was estimated during the year 2020, we’d be at the point of 80% of our waking hours we’d be exposed to some kind of media. So, we’re media-saturated. And so, if so, much of our head and our hearts are looking at these images that are fake, of course, we’re going to, it’s just like this natural human tendency we have to then compare ourselves to it. So of course, if it’s a fake image that is quote “flawless”, we are going to perceive flaws within ourselves. And so, I think having some media literacy and knowing, okay, when I look at this, you know, even asking ourselves what has been likely retouched here, what body parts have been enhanced or changed.
And I think on top of that, there’s a whole another layer when we think about advertising especially in our very consumeristic culture. Oftentimes I’ve seen how shame, especially when it comes to beauty and body image, shame is used as a tool to sell products. We are purposefully being made to feel bad about our bodies that in some way, our body or our face or whatever, we don’t reach the bar- we’re not living up to being quote “beautiful”.
And so I think when we can start to become more aware of the forces that are at play, we can perhaps see those things differently so they don’t have the emotional punch and maybe don’t internalize them as much. Also, I think it can be really helpful to turn the volume down on viewing those images. And I think that’s one piece.
Another thing that Dr. Hillary McBride talks a lot about is this idea of embodiment. And there are a lot of other people who talk about it as well. But essentially, it’s this idea of focusing on living in our bodies versus looking at our bodies. So much of our, like when I consider my own body, and maybe this is the case for listeners or readers as well.
We have been taught to consider our bodies from a third-person perspective. So, like what my body looks like on my Instagram feed or in a picture, whereas what, Hillary McBride and others are encouraging us to do is actually living into the experience of being a body. Like what does it feel like when I am, well, my body feels strong and I’m like, I don’t know, like on a hike or I’m water skiing and I am like filled with joy in this moment for what my body can do and the function that it has.
And like, since we’ve probably started this interview, Deborah, I don’t know how many times my heart has beaten or how many breaths I’ve taken, but like. Every time that happens, it is literally a miracle. And I have not done anything for my brain or, well, it’s true for my brain too as well, but for my heart or my breath to just keep going.
So thinking more about our bodies in terms of what they can do and the miracle that they are versus how we’ve been taught to think about our bodies as a problem to solve. Or, what is wrong with them versus if we were to make a list of what is right with our bodies, that list would be far away from the perceived flaws. And I want to be really specific about these perceived flaws. Problems have been invented to make money. For instance, cellulite was I can never remember the year it was 69 or 70, but Vogue used cellulite. For the first time in the way that we now know it to make this a problem so that people can sell products to quote, “solve that problem.”
Our bodies are not the problem. I think how we have been made to think about our bodies so people can sell products is ultimately the problem.
Beauty has been warped to create shame –
Deborah: That’s what’s so great about your book is that if we have these questions about ourselves and our body, you lead us in the book in different ways, through your journey, personal story. One of the things that really stood out was the shame the American beauty culture sells us. But then also you went very deep with that, which was really the crux-it’s spiritual. That was important for me to understand that, so when any of those thoughts are coming take them captive and question them.
Melissa: Yes, thank you for bringing that up. That’s such an important part to me. What I talk about is how Dr. Curt Thompson is a psychiatrist and an author, and he calls shame a minion of evil, and I think that that is just so spot on because I think that however you want to say it, the evil or you know the enemy uses shame to diminish us and distract us. Curt Thompson would say it becomes the artifacts of beauty that we are and make artifacts of beauty or become the outposts of beauty that we have been created to be and live into our purpose and our true identity.
And so, what I have seen is if there is any industry or any misunderstanding in our culture, I would say how beauty has been warped to create shame.
Shame is not out for my good. It is actually out to literally destroy me. And I saw me how I was viewing beauty, my body, my relationship with food and exercise, it was really destroying me. And I saw how it was destroying other people. Sometimes literally, and in terms of maybe an eating disorder was literally taking their life.
Or, and then sometimes perhaps more in other ways when, you know, mental, emotional energy, et cetera. And so, I think when we can kind of take a step back and see you know, you think that we oftentimes know how good something is by its fruit. And I started to evaluate American or societal beauty and I saw the fruit of it was anything but actually beautiful.
And so yes, I think framing and seeing the effects of beauty from that shame perspective and as a tool of evil has made all the difference in my own journey.
Deborah: Well, then you go into that, which is such a beautiful invitation is that God invites us to go on this mission with Him because not only is shame trying to destroy us, it’s spiritually keeping us from helping God reclaim the beauty of this fallen world. And that’s so powerful. If women can remember that will help tremendously when you have doubts, shame, or worries. You know, how you look and talk about internally and say, wait a second, that’s not God.
Melissa: What can be helpful with that is paying attention to what I believe about myself, about my body, about beauty and almost doing a mental audit. And is this life-giving, is this shame? And is this shame speaking or is this voice or is this belief life-giving?
And so, I love what you said, like noticing that and then being like, actually this, no, this isn’t. This isn’t God. And so that we can choose something different and not keep playing into the ploys of shame.
A face of compassion –
Deborah: One part in your book – it’s a turning moment for you which I think will be for many people is when you had your prayer partner and then you receive something you didn’t expect.
Melissa: Yes. Yeah, no, thank you, for bringing that up. I yeah, it was interesting because I was someone who I’ve grown up with a deep faith. It’s been something that’s always been important to me. And so, when I had this struggle with noting that something was off in my relationship with food and, and exercise is how it showed up in my own life was I felt guilty about it.
And I was like, I, I don’t know how to be integrated in this area. Meaning, I didn’t know how God fit into it at all. And I would say even, even more so, I know for me, sometimes when messages would come up in the church around those types of struggles, it would be, like, framed as, like, an idol, like, thinking about your body too much or beauty is, like, bad, so just don’t do it.
And so, those weren’t very helpful messages, and I shouldn’t generalize, not all church places in the church, but that was oftentimes what would come up in the places I found myself hearing messages about those things. But what was really significant about this prayer experience was that I was led by my prayer partner to envision the face of Jesus.
And what really was striking to me is I, I like saw no, no judgment. I expected maybe God had some judgment, I think toward this struggle that I had, but that is not what I experienced. I experienced eyes of compassion and empathy and this deep sense that God or Jesus was like totally in this with me and He knew every step of my journey. He knew the struggle. He saw the struggle and it was just like this deep withness and like oneness that I experienced, and it felt palpable and I started to see that God was with me and He was for me in this and He was going to help walk out of it with me.
And so that was such a total restructure of how I had like the posture that I had previously held and my own understanding of how God was with me in the experience.
Can the church do better?
Deborah: Do you think on those lines that is an area that the church can be better at because there are so many women struggling against this? We know we’re told to take our thoughts captive.
Live in the world, but not be of the world, but is there more to help guide women through this because like you said, we’re going to be exposed to it.
Melissa: Leslie Schilling just wrote a book about this and is specifically about how diet culture has infiltrated the church. Which I have seen numerous times. And so, I think this has gotten so tricky because sometimes the messages that are being, you know, like ways that certain passages are being framed Is actually shrouded in diet culture.
And of course, this is not, I don’t think anyone is meaning ill. I think that people’s intentions are good, but I just think we have become so saturated in diet culture in trying to shrink our bodies and upholding thinness. I think that absolutely, it could be very helpful to have a different stance toward these issues in the church.
I think largely perhaps having, first of all, maybe a lot of compassion toward the struggle for women because we have been so inundated with diet culture advertising, and beauty culture. And so, I think having that stance of compassion and just seeing how we’ve been played as a society and when it comes to beauty and body image and diet culture. Seeing how those things have been at work and seeing how we can separate ourselves from those things. But then also kind of, maybe this is a weird way to say it, but like almost like treat, tend to the effects of it and the wounding that has happened. Also, I would say, as I talk about in the book, choosing a different kind of beauty to absorb ourselves in after. First of all, I think there’s a lot that that we can do in the church to help women have compassion toward women in this area, but also help us move away from shame in this ground that I, I do think that the enemy has a lot of influence.
Finding a balance –
Deborah: Well, that is true. It is a balance. I mean, I do think Jesus wants us to take care of ourselves. I work as a makeup artist for film and television, and that’s why it’s been such a struggle for me because I was in it halfway when I gave my life back to Jesus and I say that only because, as a child, I knew Jesus and I walked away at 16 to dysfunctional family and trauma and things.
And I associated God with that, although He wasn’t, and He understood the whole time. So, when I came back to Him, my eyes were undoubtedly open because I’m in this industry that is promoting this. I mean, when you see a beautiful actress on screen and she shows her body, most of the time, it’s a body double. Hands are a hand double- the woman with the best nails and the best hands. I often would say to God, “Why do you still have me there?”
So, over time though, I see why He’s placed me there. And part of it’s doing this, part of it’s when I’m working with women, and they are insecure, even a very beautiful woman sitting in front of that mirror and looking at all their flaws, and then they have to go in front of that camera. And then that nurturing and gentleness and love that you can give to somebody going through that. And then redirect them to spirituality and faith and how that is the focus and how if we start there, we can bring that out.
We can find a balance there. So, what you’re talking about really helps me come to terms with my experience-what I do for a living.
Melissa: That’s super interesting. This is a super interesting conversation to have from your perspective. Wow. I’m thinking of different questions for you now.
Deborah: I had this one older lady, and she was like, oh, you got anything for these under eyes? And she was gorgeous. I’m like, you’re so beautiful. You know, it’s about inside, it’s about what you eat and exercise and, you know, drink lots of water. And it’s also about whether you’re happy. And then she said, well, I have my faith. And she was a Christian woman. And then by the end of the conversation, she was no longer focused on her, and she was glowing, and she was ready to go be on camera. So those moments, you know, they’re not all the time, but those few moments. Okay. I see. I see the plan, you know, I see, you know, where that is.
It has been quite a journey to see it through that filter and God put you through your journey to see through your filter. And have these discussions because I think it’s important now, and I see it everywhere, not just with Christian women.
I do see it with non-Christian women too, and men too, you know, and teens and, just people questioning, this can’t be all there is, like searching for something more inner, you know, inner beauty. What are your thoughts on that?
Melissa: Yeah, I mean, I do think it’s interesting. I do see perhaps in certain circles, maybe like a new emerging openness to spirituality, and in some ways, I’ve been really interested to see the popularity of “The Chosen” series, and I’ve been following a researcher on spirituality and just certain conversations about spirituality being highlighted. Perhaps I haven’t seen as much previously. I wonder too, if maybe post-COVID – Whoa, like the world can fall apart pretty easily.
And you know, the things that, that one seems so certain, like the, whatever, like going to my office every day and that all seemed so like that was going to be how the world was. I think that maybe we saw the fragility of life, of our way of life. And so, I wonder if that has maybe opened a little bit. There’s been a little bit more emergence or openness to spirituality and like, yeah, what else is there if this is all kind of a little bit more fragile than we previously thought?
Eternal beauty –
Deborah: I want to take the inner beauty to your chapter about eternal beauty. Because I think that’s so important to, you know, at least in my own journey is, is realizing that’s what I should be living for.
But then, when you wrote that we’re not just mere mortals, that took it to another level for me.
Melissa: Yes. This all gets a little mystical and like even beyond, I think, like what we can understand, but I’ll say which I think is actually kind of cool and like mysterious, but so my new definition of authentic beauty through this process, my definition is the life of God at work in us and among us.
And so, I should say a little bit about this, the theologian where I started to think about this or where I got this idea. His name is Baxter Kruger, and he wrote a book called “Great Dance” and he talks about how there is this interplay. This dynamic interplay of love that has always been, and still is, and will always be going on between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
So, there’s this like dynamic energy. The dance is happening everywhere, all the time. And so, I started to realize that dance is in me. I was created out of that dance of love like each of us is, and so I think that is the kind of beauty that is eternal and is worth our life, whereas cultural societal beauty is fleeting in terms of how it is defined.
And it’s very fickle in terms of like, do, are we accepted by society? Are we not? And I just don’t think it has a leg to stand on in terms of eternality and even you know, culture changes as well, whereas this eternal beauty like I, and you, we are already a part of it. We always have been.
I was just talking with a friend, what does it mean to be made in the image of God? Like, that’s a really big topic. And I think to even consider that we have been made in the image of this, unbelievably loving God who created this cosmos that we don’t quite understand. We don’t even know where it ends. God created us and we are made in that image. Like that is glorious and beautiful and mind-boggling. But to even begin to grasp that, I think is not even grasp it, but like begin to think about that. We are like, I think much more, there’s much more glory and beauty in us than is reflected in us and through us than we can even imagine.
Deborah: I think that is so beautiful. And I think that is, for me, it helps reframe it. It’s just saying, no, I am a beautiful daughter of God, and I’m made in His image and beauty. And then another part to that that helps me. And I want to get your thoughts. I was thinking about this on this term of feeling flawless and then in Songs of Solomon. I think it’s vs. 4:7, where it says, you’re beautiful, there’s no flaw in you, right?
Whitney Atkin wrote in her book Overlooked about how when God looks at us, He sees us as the beauty of Jesus because we’ve been washed clean by Him. We are flawless because of Christ. We’re beautiful because we’re made in God’s image. That is so powerful.
Melissa: Absolutely. Yes. And that’s a very different flawless than our culture. Our culture teaches us to work toward a flawlessness that is a physical or aesthetic flaw. Whereas, this flawlessness that God – that’s crazy that when God sees us like all He sees is, is love and not our sin or our flaws – that concept is like mind-blowing.
A conversation for the younger generation –
Deborah: I think that the younger generation really needs these guidelines, help, and this kind of conversation. They’re going to see these things. You could control their input, which is the television or their social media. But they’re going to see it, they’re going to see it even reflected in the way people dress at school. How do we have this conversation?
Melissa: That is a great question, Deborah, and I’ve been thinking a lot about that. One thing is teaching some of the things that I talk about in the book, like about media literacy, and expanding our definition of beauty.
Maybe raising some awareness around why this kind of beauty that we are being sold is actually broken and not good for us. I think raising awareness around those things can be helpful. You know, I think oftentimes it was so one of my taglines for the podcast is let’s redefine beauty together. And the reason why I say together is because I can talk all I want on podcasts or, you know, write, write this book. But I really am hoping to influence other people that come alongside me. And you know, culture changes when it is just like one person at a time. And so, if we can start to redefine beauty in our own hearts and in our own homes my hope is that those shifts will start to make a difference and we can start shifting the current in certain subcultures. I think oftentimes we’re so influenced, and I think this is even more true for younger people just being influenced by our peers.
And so, the more like safe and true spaces we can have when it comes to beauty. And speaking into young people’s lives about, what makes them beautiful and their purpose, and how God sees them. The more I think we can have these types of conversations that you and I have been having.
I’m hopeful that can help us start to shift this. Yeah, I think we’re up against something big, especially with social media. And so, I think there’s even more reason for us to start shifting the cultures we’re a part of. So, we can start shifting how we think about beauty for the younger generation.
Deborah: I love that so much. I want to say thank you so much. This has been so amazing and such a wonderful moment to be here with you and share this with you. And I’m so happy for your book and I know it’s going to change so many, so many hearts and minds and the culture. People are, and maybe it is the shift after COVID, but people are looking for something real, something authentic, something true.
We do have a God who can help us with this- He’s there, the compassion, the grace, the love, and sees what we’re all going through.
Living for an impossible beauty –
Is there anything else you want to tell us about that we can keep an eye out for?
Melissa: I would love to invite people to the podcast Impossible Beauty just because this is, I think we have been taught to think about beauty in a certain way for decades, most of us.
I think it takes a lot of time and shifts to start having a different perspective around beauty diet and beauty culture. And so, I would invite people to come over to the “Impossible Beauty” podcast. What I try to do there is have guests to help me define what beauty truly is, what it is not, and how we go about finding beauty in a broken world.
I would love to have people join me there and I’m doing some smaller group-type things around redefining beauty this fall. And then I’m looking into maybe doing a couple of retreat-type things in the spring. So, nothing ready to announce yet, but, so the podcast and then the book Soul Deep Beauty: Fighting for Our True Worth in a World Demanding Flawless would be another great place for people to continue to unpack these ideas.
Deborah: And then if they sign up for your Instagram and your blog, and your podcast, and they can see when these retreats or whatever you have coming up for, for people.
Melissa: Yes. Oh, and I should probably say, so on Instagram, I’m @melissa.louise.Johnson. And then also @impossible. beauty. And then Facebook, it’s Impossible Beauty Podcast and Blog.
Deborah: Lastly, how did you come up with impossible beauty?
Melissa: Yeah, that’s a really great question. I think the interesting part and if this totally makes sense that people I think oftentimes that impossible beauty means like impossible beauty standards.
That’s a really great question. I think the interesting part and if this totally makes sense that people, I think oftentimes that impossible beauty means like impossible beauty standards.
However, I actually mean that the way I came up with it, I was in my living room and it was in the morning time and I was having a prayer time and the light was pouring in and it just seemed like too good like a beauty that was so huge it’s like too good to be true and so it’s like if we see the fullness of who God is like it seems It’s like this love and this goodness is overwhelming to our senses.
It seems too good to be true. It feels like an impossible beauty, but it actually is real.
MEET THE AUTHOR
Melissa L. Johnson is a licensed marriage and family therapist, spiritual director, and the founder of Impossible Beauty, a blog and podcast dedicated to redefining beauty as “the life of God at work in us and among us” (www.impossible-beauty.com). Melissa’s writing and podcast interviews seek to uncover what true beauty is, what it is not, and how we go about finding beauty in a broken world. She also teaches a course on soul wellbeing at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota.
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