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I was at a homeless shelter in San Diego, trailing a gruff nonprofit CEO around, when I met Liz, a 24-year-old woman with ashy blond hair and a bright smile.
For more than seven months, Liz had been living in a tent in one of the roughest parts of town due to some mental health issues. Liz may have been sleeping on the concrete pavement and gotten her cell phone, handbags, and clothes stolen, but it seemed nobody had been able to steal her confidence in her God-given beauty.
“You want to see something beautiful?” she asked.
I nodded, puzzled, and she leaned in with her eyes widened: “Look at my eyes. You see the colors?” I looked, and saw an iridescent globe swirling with rings of forest greens, ocean blues, chestnut browns, and amber golds. “Wow, they are beautiful,” I agreed. Liz smiled proudly.
As I hugged her goodbye, the last thing Liz said to me was, “Can you remember something for me? Remember that you’re beautiful—inside and out.” Then she beamed, as though she’d given me a precious gift.
It had been a while since someone told me I was beautiful, and at first, the words sounded foreign and jaded to my ears. After all, Liz barely knew me. She didn’t know the ugliness of my unspoken thoughts, or my well-hidden physical and emotional scars. My own boring brown Asian eyes were nowhere as interesting as her multicolored ones, plus I was no longer in my 20s, no longer able to run miles without my knees creaking. What’s more, I’d had little sleep the night before. My hair was unbrushed, and my face bare of makeup. It was one of those days when I wished I had a big grandma hat on because I knew I looked u-g-l-y.
But for some reason, I couldn’t forget what Liz said to me. Those words meant something, even if I didn’t know what, couldn’t quite receive them, and didn’t know if I wanted to. You see, I always questioned why people feel the need to tell women they’re beautiful. Men don’t go around telling other men they’re beautiful, so why do we women? Are we such a shallow sex, that the most common encouragement to us has to regard our looks?
Last week, I thought of Liz again when I met a homeless woman who lives in a women-only shelter in Orange County—and it wasn’t her homelessness that made me remember Liz, but her brightness and confidence. She was the kind of interview in which I didn’t have to ask many questions, because she was bursting to tell her story—the bad, the ugly, and all—with the excitement of someone who has discovered something too amazing to keep for herself.
Linda is 53 years old, with shoulder-length blond hair, green-blue eyes, and a smile that reveals many missing teeth due to years of using meth. Before she ended up at the shelter, Linda had been dwelling at a large homeless encampment in Santa Ana for five years. “It was embarrassing,” she recalled. There were no bathroom facilities, so she had to urinate into a cup, and she had nowhere to shower or wash her clothes. Two police officers, both women, took notice of her. Every time they passed her, they reminded her, “Linda, remember, you don’t belong here. Any time you want to get out of here, we’ll get you out.”
But by then, Linda was like a plucked peacock, still stubbornly proud despite having lost every last feather of her confidence. No, no, she argued, pointing to all her homeless neighbors: She was busy taking care of them, couldn’t the officers see? She was needed here. Besides, she couldn’t read well, didn’t know how to use computers, couldn’t give up meth, and hadn’t had a proper shower in years. Who’s going to want her? Who’s going to hire someone like her? How was she ever going to make it in the real world?
Then one day, after watching too many friends die of drug overdoses and street exposure, Linda realized she was no help to anybody by staying on the streets. She cried to God for help, then called out to the two police officers: “I’m ready. Look, my suitcase is packed. I’m ready to leave right now.” The officers bought her a bus ticket to Houston, where her sister lives. There, Linda joined a Bible study and immersed herself in God’s Word, and suddenly, she was observing God’s presence and grace everywhere.
Meanwhile, her sister, rather annoyingly, kept telling Linda to put on some makeup, to dress a little nicer. “It’ll make you feel better,” her sister said. Linda pooh-poohed the advice, thinking: She was already in her 50s, her youthful beauty was already gone, and besides, what was the point? She never felt beautiful, and she didn’t really care, did she?
But one day, either battered to submission or curious, Linda acquiesced ... and she looked in the mirror and gasped. Her sister was right—she felt better, and felt great. And she prayed, “Oh, God! God, I feel beautiful. Look at me, I represent You. I am beautiful.”
Something about Linda’s response moved me. It wasn’t just the tender joy of seeing a fellow woman delight in her features. As daughters of a beautiful, beauty-creating God, we were made to behold and desire beauty. Yet too often we women lose the original intention of beauty and create our own standards for beauty, or go the opposite way and give up on all standards whatsoever.
What I saw in Linda, though, felt healthy and genuine. She first discovered the beauty of God, who invited her to root her worth and identity in Him, and when she saw her reflection off that new image, she celebrated her womanhood, that unique feminine fragrance that God granted us to cultivate. A flower is made beautiful, but it still needs some care and attention to bloom into its full glory.
Before I left, I asked Linda if I could take a picture of her. Her insecurities reared up—she briefly worried about her lack of teeth, then compromised: “OK, I’ll give you a half-smile, how about that?” So she gave me a sweet half-smile. And though she was already on her way to discovering it, I felt the need to tell her what Liz told me: “Hey Linda, you’re beautiful—inside and out.”