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Leaving Beauty Behind

You’re not pretty enough.

I’ve heard that voice in my head ever since I was a little girl. It didn’t matter if I got straight A’s, if my poem won a contest in school, if I succeeded in a spelling bee. As I grew older, the voice became more shrill when I realized that, according to culture, beauty was destined to define my relationships, as well as my inherent worth. It became easy to attribute both my failures and successes to my physical appearance. After all, the ability to be desired, respected, and included all seemed to hinge on beauty. Everything else that I planned for my life would naturally follow and fall into place, as long as I was beautiful enough.

Be Beautiful! the voice shouted. Be smart, be rich, be popular, be successful, but most of all, be beautiful.

I suspect I’m not the only woman who has grown up with that insidious voice shouting inside. The fact that the National Eating Disorders Association estimates that approximately ten million women in the United States alone suffer from anorexia and bulimia seems to support my hypothesis. The beauty we are told we must have is unattainable, fragile, and ethereal. And yet women continue to listen to this voice, believing the lie that their only worth comes from an outside pair of eyes appraising them.

In their recent book Half the Sky, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn assert that the reason women are often ignored, overlooked, or mistreated is because they are robbed of their human status. They are viewed as objects, as products, as items of commerce—but not as complex and important human beings. According to Kristof and WuDunn, in order to improve a community one has to begin by elevating the status of women. And it is impossible to elevate the status of women without first examining how they have been dehumanized. The objectification of women takes shape in many different ways within various cultures, but across cultural boundaries, one of the chief ways it occurs is through casting women in the lens of an abstract “Beauty.” If women are primarily “Beauties,” then they are no longer primarily human, and are defined strictly by outside forces that determine what beauty is. 

The Business of Beauty

In Western culture, these outside forces not only define beauty within strict boundaries, but have also turned beauty into a multi-million dollar industry. Walk into any convenience or grocery store and you’ll see the evidence of our addiction to this. So many glossy magazine pages, all screaming one thing: You need to change yourself! We have entire stores dedicated to that purpose, in fact—stores full of nothing but creams, lotions, and powders, all of them fantastically overpriced and promising happiness. You could quite literally bankrupt yourself in the pursuit of beauty, and many women do, especially those addicted to plastic surgery who pay thousands of dollars in the process of altering themselves to achieve some elusive ideal. Stories of Asian women getting surgeries to alter their eye shape and African-American women spending a large amount of their income to straighten their hair and lighten their skin show the narrowness of this cultural definition of beauty, as well. 

As evangelicals, it may be simple to remove ourselves from this problem and pretend that, within the church, we are immune to this mindset. But, like other cultural influences, the emphasis on beauty refuses to remain in the secular arena and has seeped into the Christian world, too. Christian bookstores are immediate proof of this. The women’s sections of these stores are full of Christian-themed dieting books, dating books, and books on how to please your husband. They are awash in pink, flowers, and medieval imagery, quietly reinforcing the cultural standard of what it means to be a woman.

When I last visited a popular Christian bookstore website, the top rated book for women on the site (a  book which has been wildly popular in Christian circles for quite some time) was For Women Only, by Shaunti Feldhahn. Outward beauty is important enough to Feldhahn, even as a Christian author, to warrant an entire chapter—chapter eight of the book is entitled “The Truth About the Way You Look: Why What’s On the Outside Matters to Him on the Inside.” Scroll down the webpage and find that the reviews are overwhelmingly positive—this book seems to have as much effect on the way Christian women are viewing themselves as would a copy of Vogue magazine. Outward beauty may be presented as a necessary evil in this Christian context, but its value is not lessened—it is presented as integral to the worth of women.

This acceptance of the importance of outer beauty in evangelical culture isn’t just aimed toward mature Christian women, but toward teenage girls, as well. In fact, the emphasis seems to be even stronger for this age group, which is especially alarming considering the prevalence of eating disorders, cutting, and depression among teenage girls. Several of the most popular dating books mirror this focus on beauty, such as For Young Women Only, the teen version of the aforementioned popular Christian book for women. In it, authors Feldhahn and Rice assert in the chapter “Seeing the Inner and Outer Beauty” that “God designed men to be attracted to both inner and outer beauty” and that to expect them to ignore this is to expect them to deny their five senses (p. 128). This “outward beauty” translates into several very specific cultural definitions of beauty, including “dressing neatly” (p. 129), “keeping hair brushed” (p. 129), putting on makeup (p. 130), in general “just trying a little harder” (p. 130), and most importantly, not being “fat” (p. 127). Feldhahn and Rice write:

So many guys told us that they knew many girls—great, funny, terrific girls—who never seem to get a boyfriend, and don’t see a connection between that and the fact that they are twenty or thirty pounds over a healthy weight (p. 131).

And this trend continues across the spectrum of Christian teenage reading material. The central underlying message? While men shouldn’t care primarily about external beauty, God wired them to care about it to some extent, so girls should expect rejection unless they provide some reason for “visual” men to take notice. In another popular book for teens, The Dateable Rules, the authors echo this sentiment, stating that men are the tough ones “who fight the wars, save the country, and rescue the beauties. It’s God’s plan so we can’t argue” (p. 16).

My own experiences attending a Christian high school reinforced this strong emphasis on female appearance. We did have health class, although as girls we never learned anything about our bodies beyond the fact that they needed to be covered up completely to keep our brothers in Christ from sinning. There was a special section for girls on modesty, of course, first and foremost. But taking notice of our outward appearance was a huge piece of our training, illustrated most obviously by the diagrams in our Christian textbooks that demonstrated the correct haircut and clothes to wear for our face shape and body type: the round-faced girl shouldn’t have short hair, the oval-faced girl shouldn’t have center-parted hair, the tall girl shouldn’t have long hair, and the list went on and on.

Beauty as Essence?

This training in my high school textbook does illustrate a certain tension inherent in many of these books between the supposed necessity of outward female beauty and the danger of provoking the “visual nature” of men. Although beauty is evidently a defining characteristic for women according to these authors, it is also their most dangerous attribute, and the one most likely to lead to sin. On one hand, it’s stated that you have to be pretty (or at least “take care of yourself” according to cultural standards) to catch the interest of a boy, but you should be careful to not be so pretty that you cause him to sin.

The emphasis on beauty is most blatant in books that champion gender essentialism such as John and Stasi Eldredge’s Captivating, where the essence of being born female is literally summarized by the word beauty. When I was in college, this book was the text of choice to use for female Bible study groups, even though actual Scripture references in the book are few and far between. Perhaps this was because this book made sense to the college girls—it fit within their cultural paradigm. They accepted the premise that beauty is a necessity; they had already been striving for it most of their lives. Outside culture had already established the premise that as young women, beauty was “our thing”—what we had to offer the rest of the world. Captivating not only reinforced this idea, it rubber-stamped it as God’s design, and asserted that it was our function and spiritual calling as women to provide beauty. Quotes like the one found on page 16—“For now, don’t you recognize that a woman yearns to be seen, and to be thought of as captivating? We desire to possess a beauty that is worth pursuing, worth fighting for, a beauty that is core to who we truly are. We want beauty that can be seen; beauty that can be felt; beauty that affects others, a beauty all our own to unveil”—of course resonated deeply with my generation; we had felt that yearning and desire to be seen. Unfortunately, this yearning had never been a healthy one. It was connected to the voice we had heard our whole lives, the voice that whispered we were never quite good enough, and that we needed to be proclaimed as beautiful for our lives to have purpose and meaning.

The problem, of course, is that focusing on beauty as a woman’s function does not counteract culture’s emphasis on beauty, but in fact aggravates it. This philosophy results in pastors (as has happened, quite recently, with some high profile leaders) teaching that it is a woman’s responsibility to be beautiful and sexually available for their husbands at all times. If the husband strays, it is only because the woman is not fulfilling her role as a beautiful distraction. This philosophy limits women to one function, and distracts them from important work they could be doing for the kingdom of God. This perspective ensures that women continue to be passive and “Other”—defined by those outside of them instead of by themselves. The quote from Captivating above shows this dilemma—according to the authors, our yearning is for a beauty that “can be seen,” implying that this beauty is externally validated. To be seen, to be thought of as desirable, to be “worth pursuing and fighting for,” becomes our primary purpose.

The Bible and Beauty

How different this is from our calling in Christ as revealed in Scripture. Beauty is discussed in quite cautious terms in the Bible—there are no exhortations for women to pursue outer beauty, but there are many warnings about pride and vanity, and reminders that beauty is fleeting and meaningless. Instead of being a defining factor for femininity, or even a necessary evil, external beauty is often portrayed in Scripture as a distraction or a downfall. Even biblical figures such as Esther who were known for their physical beauty are not praised on that basis. Instead, Esther is remembered for her decisive action and strength under pressure, and her willingness to follow God’s leading, even into dangerous situations. Far from being a passive beauty who waited for others to define and “rescue” her, Esther embodied the strength and inner beauty that is a model for any child of God, whether male or female.

Proverbs 31 is another passage in Scripture that shows the trivial nature of outer beauty. This is a passage of Scripture that is often held up to be the archetype for what it means to be a godly woman. And yet there is no mention of beauty at all until the very end of the chapter, when the author warns that charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised (v. 30). Women are to be praised not for their beauty, but for fearing the Lord, and for the characteristics of strength and wisdom discussed throughout the chapter. The competent and godly businesswoman of Proverbs 31 not only has little in common with the kind of woman that secular culture holds up for us, but also has little in common with the outline of femininity that many Christian books present. The woman celebrated in this last chapter of Proverbs offers an alternative and definite model that is active rather than passive, and that is based on developing godly character rather than temporary physical beauty.

As women and men who have been created in the image of God, let’s embrace the beauty that we have already been given simply because we are a part of God’s creation. Silencing the voice inside that says we aren’t quite good enough will only come when we refuse to allow anyone other than God to define our value. As Christians, we need to assert that just as pornography and other exploitations of women have no legitimate place within the church, an emphasis on outer beauty has no place either. Can we remove beauty from the equation? Instead of telling somebody they’re beautiful today, why not tell them they are strong, or intelligent, or kind, or proactive, or inspiring? Only when we reject the importance placed on beauty and reclaim women’s full humanity in Christ will our behavior truly be counter-cultural and life-affirming. 

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