Soul Deep Beauty: Fighting for Our True Worth in a World Demanding Flawless: A Q&A with Melissa L. Johnson
**Content warning: This is one person’s story; everyone will have unique experiences in recovery and beyond. Some stories may mention eating disorder thoughts, behaviors, and symptoms. Please use your discretion when reading and speak with your support system as needed.
Melissa L. Johnson is a licensed marriage and family therapist, adjunct professor at Bethel University, 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” (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. Melissa is releasing her debut book with Bethany House publishing in June 2023, entitled Soul-Deep Beauty: Fighting for our True Worth in a World Demanding Flawless.
In this blog, Melissa tells us about her new book, Soul Deep Beauty: Fighting for Our True Worth in a World Demanding Flawless, how her eating disorder inspired her to reconsider her definition of beauty, and how others can join her in deconstructing harmful societal beauty ideals.
Tell us about Soul Deep Beauty: Fighting for Our True Worth in a World Demanding Flawless!
My book is about how my journey with an eating disorder caused me to redefine beauty in a way that brings about thriving versus societal definitions that bring about shame and disintegration. In the book, I invite women to see that we are being sold a broken brand of beauty that is breaking us. I also introduce them to my working definition of beauty as “the life of God at work in us and among us,” and how this new definition causes our souls and relationships with ourselves, others, and the world around us to thrive.
Describe the process of writing your book.
I wrote the first pages of the manuscript toward the end of my own journey in intensive eating disorder treatment. I wasn’t planning for this writing to be the first pages of my book manuscript, but I had this message burning inside of me and had to get it out. I was disillusioned and angry that beauty had been turned against us — against me — and wanted to name what I was seeing and noticing.
From there, the connections kept coming, including how societal beauty impacted the various facets of the psyche and soul. I also started to see a “gap in the literature,” so to speak. Very thoughtful people were doing amazing work on things like media literacy and diet culture; however, I wasn’t seeing much on what all this meant for the human soul. The existing discourse hadn’t been taken to the level of the spirit. I kept writing to find out where the journey would take me.
After writing the manuscript (and in the wake of my treatment journey), redefining beauty became pivotal. From there came the Impossible Beauty podcast and blog to expand my learning and this message. I also started to pitch my manuscript to various literary agents. After two agents and many rejections came this seemingly miraculous book deal with Bethany House. The book will be released on June 6th.
What role has this book, along with your blog and podcast, played in your healing and recovery?
Writing this book and interviewing so many amazing people about what true beauty is and what it is not has been deeply instrumental in my own continued healing and recovery journey. I am continually reminded of the life-depleting impacts of societal beauty and fascinated by the expansive, wonder-filled, wild magnificence of true beauty.
What do you hope your readers will take away from the book?
I hope readers will gain awareness of the damaging nature of societal narratives around beauty and body image so that they might shed those beliefs. I also hope that they might be opened to a new and different kind of beauty that brings about connection, integration, and thriving in their lives.
How do you personally define the concept of beauty?
My working definition of beauty is “the life of God at work in us and among us.” The more my eyes are opened to true beauty, I am overwhelmed by how expansive it is. It feels exciting to keep exploring this new understanding of beauty; it’s mysterious and awe-inspiring.
Any excerpts you can share with us?
Here is an excerpt from Chapter One:
“This book tells the story of how I followed that rabbit trail and, as a result, seriously jacked up my life. I hope it will help you see that American beauty isn’t beautiful at all; it’s a race to nowhere. A race that’s fracturing the minds, the relationships, and the very souls of women and girls in ways that are largely unnoticed.
The cultural water we’re swimming in is toxic, but we aren’t saying much about it. We’ve become so used to the water that we don’t even notice it. Or if we do, we grossly underestimate its toxicity. For us. For our children.
Our bodies have become objects, commodities to be used for economic gain in the capitalistic rat race, leaving us broken. Our minds have become places to track calories and steps or to scrutinize our perceived flaws in allegiance to a diet, reset, or lifestyle that promises happiness. The rules and mantras of American beauty and diet culture have taken up residence in our internal scripts, impacting and infiltrating every aspect of our well-being. The broken kind of beauty we’re being sold warps and fractures our souls on so many levels.
It’s the ultimate deceit: as we chase after what promises to bring us acceptance and happiness, we’re left only more broken. Disintegrated. Put another way, we’re “posting,” “filtering,” and literally buying our own soul exploitation. Perhaps the worst part of all is that we don’t realize we’re being played. Advertisers and those in the beauty and diet industry are making billions off our shame—the very shame they purposely stir up.
But don’t you believe you were made for more than running after aesthetic perfection amid the shame-filled “never enough”? An empty chasing of the wind—the elusive rabbit? Our eulogies can be a lot more meaningful than She was so committed to eating clean, or She never missed a workout, or I think we can all learn from how flawless her body was.
I believe we’ve all been created by a God of unending and unimaginable love. A God of adventure and creativity and wonder. A God of wild beauty. And I believe he has plans for your life, your heart, your mind, your activity in the world—for your true self to grow and thrive. And those plans have nothing to do with pursuing a warped brand of beauty or health.
They don’t last.
Are you weary of feeling like you don’t meet the criteria for the “main character” aesthetic? Are you exhausted by chasing trim and fit to prove your worth? Do you experience an underlying anxiety about aging or keeping up (or even starting) a fitness routine?
Do you ever beat yourself up for not getting in enough steps or attaining or maintaining that New Year’s resolution to lose weight? Are you tired of the mental energy it takes to strive for attaining or maintaining perfect or clean nutrition? Do you feel like no matter what you do, your body or your complexion or your whatever isn’t flawless enough?
If so, I’ve got you. Take a deep breath, and please consider this an invitation to stop striving. In the pages ahead, I share so much I want you to know. You can choose something different from the shame-saturated, cultural beauty we’ve all been immersed in. Much more freedom is to be found. Thriving awaits you. And I believe that both individually and together we can shed the legacy of broken beauty and move into a different reality. One our souls are made for. We can choose that something different in our own lives, in our homes, in our friend groups. That’s how culture changes. One person at a time.
Often what we know most acutely—the deep-in-your-bones kind of knowing—comes from well-worn and often difficult places along our journey. Sometimes to know something deep in your bones, you must experience it yourself. For me to see the dead end, ugliness, and fracturing that all lie in chasing after popular cultural beauty narratives, I had to get to the end of myself.
On the journey ahead, I’ll show you how that fracturing occurred in my own life. But I’ll also show you how the undoing of American beauty’s effects opened me up to an entirely different kind of beauty. Sometimes the deconstruction of one thing leaves space for something far better, more beautiful, and real than the shaky thing there before.
I want to show you how that new thing touches those soul-deep, longing places American beauty promises to fill but never can—and how that shift in how I know and understand beauty has made all the difference in the world.
Will you join me?”