A few years back, at a local Barnes and Noble, I picked up a copy of Shaunti Feldhahn and Lisa A. Rice’s bestselling Christian book for teen girls, For Young Women Only. I vividly remember sitting in the café with my mother and reading her excerpts; it was the only time I have actually wondered if my eyes were bugging out of my head. In a chapter about the importance of makeup, weight loss, and being physically attractive, I found this quote:
While the general culture emphasizes physical appeal too much, somehow the church seems to have gone too far in the other direction. Among Christians it has become a bit taboo to speak frankly about the importance of physical attraction. "God looks not on the outward appearance, but on the heart," we say, and expect our guys to do the same. Or because we know that “it’s what’s on the inside that counts,” we can easily migrate to the idea that what’s on the outside doesn’t matter. But what’s on the outside does matter. And when we seem to be willfully ignoring that truth, guys assume that we are doing so because we just don’t think very highly of ourselves. And that is just not attractive to them (p. 128-9).
I must have been reading to Mom a bit too loudly, because a table of women next to us—who were medical students and particularly interested in the development of eating disorders in teenage girls—piped in, and we all had a fascinating (and very lively) conversation on the role of beauty in the lives of Christian women.
I wasn’t trying to be disrespectful, and I knew the authors of the book had good intentions. It was just the first time I had encountered such blatant statements from Christians about how important physical beauty is for women. I tried to wrap my brain around it. Does what’s on the outside of a woman really reflect what’s on the inside? (Similarly, Elizabeth Elliot, in her book Let Me Be a Woman, writes that a woman’s home environment reflects the condition of her soul, which, if true, means I am in very big trouble, or at least in need of a housekeeper.) Do we, as Christians, have any business caring about physical beauty? Is there a certain way that a Christian—man or woman—should look? I decided to investigate it.
While Jesus had “nothing in his appearance” that would attract us to him (Isa. 53:2), author Margot Starbuck, in her book Unsqueezed (read the review on p. 18), points out that Jesus held a striking resemblance to his Father. “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father,” Jesus taught (John 14:9). Just as children often hold a physical resemblance to their parents, as Christians we are to resemble our heavenly parent. But does this have anything to do with our outward appearance?
The Bible tells us that the world will know we belong to Christ because of our love (John 13:35). Rather than focusing on how our bodies look, Christians are called to reflect Christ in what we do. To love means to use our bodies to serve—to use our mouths to preach and speak encouragement, to use our hands to anoint one another in prayer and administer communion, to use our feet to reach those who are marginalized and in need. These are the actions of people—both men and women—who are beautiful, because their hearts are turned to others, out of love for their God. In this way, what’s on our inside really does reflect what is on the outside. But it has nothing to do with our physical appearance. To confuse the intent of our hearts with outer beauty is debilitating to Christian women. A concern for something as fleeting and empty as beauty causes us to both obsess over and degrade ourselves. And, as our authors in this issue of Mutuality show, chasing after beauty prevents us from embracing our true calling to resemble our savior, by being his hands and feet in this world.
“As our bodily life begins to reflect the life, death and resurrection of Jesus,” Margot Starbuck writes, “People who know our Father look at us, maybe sort of squinting, and agree, ‘Yup, they belong together’” (Unsqueezed, p. 162). May we—the men and women who profess Jesus as our savior—be the recognizable body of Christ, not for ourselves, but to the glory of God!
In this Issue
I hope this issue of Mutuality begins (and continues) many good conversations, as our authors explore beauty, gender, and faith from various perspectives. In our first feature article, Bethany Nelson examines how a focus on outward appearance dehumanizes women. Next, Laura Robinson dissects the Christian “princess” culture and offers God’s powerful alternative. Heather Scheiwe Kulp, in an insightful personal story, highlights her struggle with anorexia as a young Christian. MaryAnn Nguyen-Kwok shares a letter to her daughter on the importance of finding her identity in Christ alone. And finally, Margot Starbuck details ten exercises for initiating conversations about beauty with youth groups. Be sure to also read Mimi Haddad’s column highlighting how historic Christian women embraced their call to love others rather than focusing on the vanities of physical appearance.