I am going to marry the most beautiful woman in the world. Just watch me. Who is it, you may ask? Well, I can’t tell you.
Why? Because I don’t know who it is. How can I be so confident I’ll get such a beautiful woman? Now that is something I can tell you.
First, though, let me say I think we in the West have some fractured paradigms in regard to finding a spouse. Even though no one says it, we seem to think that we have to find someone that fits our beauty standards, whatever they may be, and then marry them. Or, for those of us who aren’t exactly A-list movie stars, we have to find the closest thing to that we can actually catch. Now, don’t pretend that never crossed your mind!
Is there another way? Evidence suggests there is. Look at South Asians and their, as we Westerners seem to view, unthinkably archaic and suppressing “arranged marriages.” In this model, the parents or family find the marriage partner for the son or daughter. How many American dramas or Hollywood romcoms have this element of trusting parents? Few, if any. Exactly. Coming from such a vehemently individualistic and independent place like the USA, it takes everything with me to wrap my mind around it when my Pakistani and Indian friends talk about how confident they are in their future arranged marriages. Surprisingly, though, there is research to back it up. More than one study has found that, over the long term, overall happiness and satisfaction in arranged marriages equal or even surpass that of “love marriages” (1). Yes. Really. I bring this up to provoke thought and challenge our ideas of beauty and attraction. My ideas were seriously challenged and redefined a couple years ago from a different source.
One of the best decisions I made in 2015 was to begin counseling, which prepared me for my current occupation perhaps better than almost any other decision I’ve made. Processing pain and emotional struggles helped me get a biblical perspective on many things, and when it came to my unspoken standard of beauty, something no one had ever asked me to unpack, the story was no different.
As I processed with my counselor one day, one of my unspoken paradigms got exposed. “You know, I feel really attracted so-and-so, but I’m just not sure if I’m tall enough for her. I mean, like, we are the same height.” Fair enough, right? His next question stopped me cold in my tracks. “Who told you the guy always has to be taller?” Umm, well, that’s just the way it needs to be, right? Right?
I realized that I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, actually. The news media? The video games I’d played? Television? The small town in which I was raised? The social media on which I still spend more time than I should? The hundreds of thousands of advertisements that had flooded my pupils since the day I was born into this consumerist economy? I still can’t tell you from whom I just accepted this “truth” at face value.
Have you ever really questioned your unspoken beauty and love standards?
“Who told you ______________?”
You see, I grew up in a world with a lot of black-and-white. The church environment in which I was raised had very objective standards for right and wrong, good and bad. In the school, there was passing and failing… and I was one of the kids who got straight A’s, especially in math, my best subject. As if that wasn’t enough, my brain typically works in a pretty cut and dry way. As I continued the appointment with the counselor, he articulated a concept that had never crossed my mind before. My counselor said, “When I married my wife, she became my standard of beauty.” Became the standard? Umm… What do you mean? Aren’t there objective beauty standards? I grappled to understand as he continued to explain. “Everything that she is – that is the definition of beauty to me. She is the hottest woman in the world.” What? As if that wasn’t enough cognitive dissonance, he added, “As a matter fact, when I’m 80 years old, saggy is what’s going to be hot to me.” What!?
It’s difficult for me to communicate my shock at that moment, and it took me well over a year to begin to grasp what he was trying to communicate.
Let me state it clearly now: there is no such thing as an objective beauty standard. What we deem most beautiful is informed by culture and biology, yet it is ultimately a choice, one that we all make, either mindfully or passively.
Don’t get me wrong. First, I must clear up a few potential misunderstandings. I’m not telling you to think everyone is beautiful. Beauty is supposed to be an exclusive club. Indeed, the rarity of the thing is often the definitive reason it is considered beautiful. Just think of gold and diamonds. But I don’t think our standard should only have room for the tallest, thinnest, cover models. No… even more strictly, rather, when it comes to romance, it should only have room enough for the one person who is the standard, the spouse.
My counselor would likely advocate this principle: the most satisfying marriages are where you marry someone and then fit your beauty standards to them.
However, I don’t think he was advocating for me to choose the very first compatible person I come across even if there is not natural physical attraction. You can imagine my surprise when my counselor, this person I considered to be a man of God and a spiritual voice in my life, said, “You know the first thing I ever said about my wife? I was 15 years old and saw her from a distance. I turned to my friend and said, ‘She has a cute butt.'” Ha! When he told me that story, I can’t remember if I laughed out loud or blushed. Perhaps that’s all a bit immature, but there is truth to it. There’s certainly an aspect of physical attraction when it comes to beauty and relationship, though in the long term, it ultimately falls on what we choose.
Lastly, neither do I see him trying to push arranged marriages. I simply think he articulated clearly the principle that allows arranged marriages to work so much better than Westerners imagine.
Perhaps it’s not so much that we find who we consider beautiful and then choose that person. Perhaps it’s that we find the person and then choose what we consider beautiful. The simple fact is, all our standards are fluid and ever-changing.
Here is some final food for thought. I don’t really believe in falling in love. If you can fall in love, you can fall out of love. You choose love, and that choice will stand the test of time. The choice of love lasts a lifetime.
Stay mindful, my friends.