I don’t wake up in the morning, look in the mirror and think, “I’m the pinnacle of God’s creation.” Most of the time I think, “Oh my word, you look old! That wrinkle wasn’t there before,” or “I’m sure my bum’s got bigger.”
But I hit 40 recently and started wondering more about what constitutes beauty. Forget the idea that if you’re religious, you shouldn’t be too vain and mind about how you look.
I love make-up, high heels, having my hair done, nails and pots of cream. The Bible itself gives really mixed messages on this. There’s a passage where the Lord said to Samuel, “For man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart”.
But then you’ve got the Old Testament where David gazed on Bathsheba and said she possessed great beauty. This idea that beauty is a gift from God makes it a tricky one.
If you believe, as I do, in a greater God that created humans in his own image, then when we look at other people we should see a reflection of the divine, we should see that humanity is his most beautiful work.
So just like the rest of society, faith is in two minds about beauty. Some people say it’s right not to care about your looks because that’s not what matters, but a church in Oregon recently advertised for worship music leaders and specified they didn’t want people with “excessive weight”.
Then, at the less extreme end, there’s this sense that people should wear their Sunday best for church and look their nicest.
I think it’s OK to plaster yourself in make-up and have your hair done every day if you want to – all that matters is why you’re doing it and who you’re doing it for.
There are pressures on my 15-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son to look a certain way. They’re bombarded with images of conventional western beauty and what’s expected of them.
So I decided to investigate all sorts of places where this alleged beauty is found, and the scariest moment was meeting a personal trainer, Bradley Simmonds, who works with London’s gorgeous Chelsea set.
He was assessing my body the moment I walked in and it was terrifying. It must be exhausting, being so focused on image. I wanted to say to him, “Do you not just want to come round for some chips and cake?” and ask if he ever just sits on his sofa and wears elasticated waist pyjamas because there’s beauty in that, too.
It’s like waking up next to someone you love and thinking they look nicer than ever – it’s because they’ve got that vulnerability about them.
He said that men come to him desperate for six-packs, and women come to him to be skinny – and that neither aim is particularly healthy or necessarily beautiful.
A study [The Good Childhood Report 2016] found that young girls are becoming increasingly worried about how they look. Men feel the pressure, too, but women suffer particular double standards.
They’re meant to look beautiful all the time but are also judged for caring too much and sometimes deemed less professional or serious because of it.
Equally, we tell our children that everyone is beautiful, but then there are adverts for better concealer everywhere you look.
I believe that attractiveness is skin-deep, whereas beauty comes from somewhere else. It’s a thing we can’t quite grasp and don’t truly understand but you know it when you see it. It’s way beyond that brilliant lipstick or those pants that suck you in in all the right places.
What jolted me into rethinking the concept of beauty was visiting a life-drawing class for the first time. Staring at another person’s body longer than I’ve ever stared at my own, it startled me that the things I find ugly in myself I found genuinely beautiful in the model – the curve of her body, the slight folds of fat on her back.
She looked like a landscape. I like looking at supermodels and young actors, too – it’s pleasing, like looking at a lovely work of art or a sculpture.
But the real challenge is to find the beauty in everyone and not be narrow-minded about what that might be.
Is everybody beautiful? You’ll all have different answers to that. Having a perfectly symmetrical face won’t, in itself, make you happy. Some people will get that six-pack and still want something else. The nose job might never be enough. That’s missing the point of beauty.
From where I’m standing, it comes from that divine spark that I believe we’ve all got. So who constitutes real, ultimate beauty for me? Judi Dench. She’s stunningly beautiful because of her grace, style, poise and sass. I look at her and think, “I’d love to look like you.”
As told to Kasia Delgado. Believing in Beauty airs tonight, 10pm Radio 2