When the true meaning of beauty is lost

There’s no denying that U.S. culture is obsessed with comfort and beauty: We want to look great at any cost, and we pursue it relentlessly. It becomes a downward spiral, and the outcomes lately have been full of terrible stories of abuse and scandal.

Leah Darrow’s latest book, “The Other Side of Beauty” (Thomas Nelson, $16.99), seems to have been released at just the right time. Throughout it, the former “America’s Next Top Model” contestant-turned-Catholic speaker and author shares research and her personal experience in the modeling world. She debunks the common misconceptions of what’s considered beautiful and leads with Church teaching and the reality of Christ.

Darrow spoke with Our Sunday Visitor about what the “other side” of beauty is and how people can work together to find it in the midst of the pain facing so many.

Our Sunday Visitor: What’s the greatest pain you find from the misunderstanding of beauty?

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Catholic author and speaker Leah Darrow Courtesy photo

Leah Darrow: We’re in a culture that refuses to suffer and refuses to be uncomfortable. We refuse so many avenues of character formation, so why should we be shocked that we are in a time and place such as this, where sexual harassment is as common as the common cold? This is the culture that we’ve allowed. This is a reflection of our allowance of taking the sacredness of sex, separating marriage out from the husband and wife and kids to anything. These are the natural and logical consequences of a culture that refuses to be formed and refuses to have moral clarity. We’ve given license to anything, and giving license to everything leads us to a world of hurt.

When we desire beauty, we’re desiring God. God is beauty, and we have forgotten that. We’ve had amnesia as a culture when it comes to God. We don’t know who we are or whose we are, so it makes perfect sense that with that spiritual amnesia that we don’t know how to act or who we are in the world.

OSV: How do you see that spiritual amnesia playing out in your experience?

Darrow: With the current events today, it’s like a bucket of ice water being thrown at us. We’ve distorted beauty to the point that the porn star is now the center of what a woman should look like. I think this wave of sexual harassment accusations is like a bucket of cold water on our consciences, that we are waking up and realizing, “Oh, maybe there is a right way to go about life. Maybe there are things that God talks about, the things that are talked about in church — or should be talked about in church — maybe they actually have a point.”

I think that’s the awakening that’s happening right now. Sadly, we didn’t need it. We didn’t have to have it. But that’s where we’re at, so let’s use [this] position to not go back [to where we have been].

OSV: How do you answer that ice bucket of water or the pain that comes from being splashed with it? What’s the answer to that pain? How do we approach that pain?

Darrow: You start with truth. We need to go back to finding ourselves in truth. What does it really mean to be beautiful? When we desire beauty, what are we really desiring? I address that throughout the entire book.

I couldn’t have known that this book would have corresponded in this way with the current culture [and the issues going on today]. Right before I was on “America’s Next Top Model,” I was being groped [in a public setting]. This happened, unfortunately, multiple times when I was a model. It was this license that was given like, “Well, we all know that you’re putting your body out for display, so that’s what’s going to happen.”

OSV: What’s the most painful thing about this situation?

Darrow: It’s a willful objectification that’s being pawned as freedom when it comes to beauty. That’s the most painful for me, to see women willfully objectifying themselves. They’re doing [it because] they think that this is beautiful and this is freedom, like [they are] taking ownership of [their] lives: “I’m allowing myself to be objectified and refusing to connect between that and the potential for the consequences that [this objectification] could bring.”

[However, this] does not give a free pass to sexual harassment or rape at all. There’s got to be a self-awareness about how we portray our bodies in the world and what message it’s sending. It is sending a message, and sadly some people are responding to that message in very poor ways. I absolutely disagree with their actions, but we cannot give the flashing light of “Hey, I’m here! Objectify me!” and not think that someone might just say “OK! Yes, I will!” and raise their hand.

OSV: You outline a couple of groups of people (young women and young men) who objectify their bodies, and there are the people who do the objectifying. You outline beauty as your path of virtue, yet it’s one that is often warped. How does this resonate with your audiences?

Darrow: This message definitely resonates. There’s an awakening of a little bit more self-knowledge about them. It’s also a little bit of a relief when they hear me say, “Beauty’s not the enemy.”

We’re not bashing beauty, but let’s find out what we’re really desiring and what beauty really is. We’re not desiring something to take into ourselves, we’re not desiring something to put on, we’re not even desiring a compliment. We’re desiring a person. We’re desiring God himself.

When we start to identify and see beauty for what it is, we see the other side of beauty, the side that’s deeper and lasting in Christ. Through his love and his mercy, we see the beauty and generosity in friendship and in mercy. We realize that the desire for beauty actually does begin to be fulfilled, and that’s what connects.

That’s the beauty we desire, for someone to look at everything about us and say, “You are very good. You don’t need to do anything. You are very good.”

OSV: Do you find that there’s more of a hunger for that in one group than another, or is it kind of universal?

Darrow: I think it’s universal. Young women are being bombarded constantly and are in a state of searching for identity and purpose, so in that young adult stage, this resonates. But it [also] resonates with every woman at every age. I’ve talked about real beauty to women from [ages] 13 to 85, and I’ve had women who are 85 years old coming up to me in tears saying that nobody has ever told them that they were beautiful the way that I explained beauty in light of the Church. It allowed them to let go of some of these preconceived notions themselves about beauty. 

Distorted beauty doesn’t care how old you are. It’s looking to eat up and chew up anybody.

OSV: What’s your hope for your readers?

Darrow: I dedicated the book to the mercy of Christ. It’s only because of the mercy of Christ that I exist and I’m here, and so I couldn’t think of anybody better to dedicate this piece of work to. 

The reality is I really do humbly believe that the book will help young women, but the book will not save you. A conference won’t save you. A Bible study won’t save you. Only Jesus Christ saves. If this book helps lead you to a deeper devotion and love for Jesus Christ, then amen and all glory be to God. That would be the goal, that it’s a flashing light saying “This way to meet him! I know a man.”

I do hope it motivates and connects with women that they can have a “Me too!” experience of “Yes, I’ve dived deep into the distorted beauty of love and I’ve paid consequences and I don’t want to do that anymore.” I hope it inspires them when they see someone who came from that life and came back to say, “You know, it’s not worth it.”

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I hope also that the information in the book — the research and the definition — provides a place of discipline in their life. The reality is that motivation’s going to come and go, and inspiration will come and go. But the discipline of a prayer life, the discipline of understanding what true beauty is and inviting yourself into the other side of beauty, is something that will stay with you.

Sarah Reinhard is an OSV content network manager. Follow her through OSV’s weekday Triple Take newsletter.