Three times this past week I have had conversations with other women about the burdens of physical beauty. In the first conversation, a first-year student, in that still-trying-to-figure-out-what-it means-to-be-female-stage of mid-to-late adolescence, was weighed down by the expectations of her classmates, who expected her to look a certain way. She resisted and resented the pressure that she felt to wear tight-fitting and revealing clothes, walk in sky-high wedge shoes, wear makeup and on top of it all, pretend like she wasn’t intelligent or had any interests other than fashion, nails, and hair. And that pressure came from her female friends!
My second conversation was with a woman closer to my age, decades from her teens and early twenties. She was bemoaning the reality that aging women are viewed much differently in our culture than are aging men. While men are often seen as distinguished and even sexy, women are pressured to do everything they can to stay youthful-looking; dying, straightening, curling their hair, plastic surgery, botox and laser treatments, waxing, hair removal. Choosing to go “natural” and get comfortable with one’s aging body, can impact relationships, employment, as well as whether one gets a promotion or raise. As someone for whom sixty is a flashing neon sign just ahead, I am all too familiar with this conversation. What are appropriate choices when it comes to physical beauty? When have I crossed the line from loving, honoring and respecting my body to being co-opted into society’s values of beauty?
And my third conversation was with a young woman just entering her last semester of college. This young woman is physically very beautiful by our culture’s standards. She is the kind of woman that walks into a room and everyone pauses just to take in her beauty. She knows it and she hates it. She is a thoughtful and intelligent young woman, determined to use the gifts that she feels God has given her to make the world a better place. In that regard, she believes her beauty is a detriment to being a leader. She finds that people in her Christian context, too often think that women are called to be the ‘beauty-bearers’ or ‘beauty-providers’ to situations. That the best gift a woman can bring is to ‘make the place more beautiful.’ She watches as her friends and family turn to the young men around her to engage in ‘world-changing conversations’ – to talk with them about critical life issues, what their dreams are for changing the world, or more simply, just to ask them what they have been thinking about. “No one asks me what I’ve been thinking about. They just want to know where I got my outfit.”
The church hasn’t always bought into the ideal of beauty as mostly a female contribution. Jonathan Edwards, the 18th-century American theologian believed that God was beauty and that all beauty derived from God: “God is God and distinguished from all other beings, and exalted above ‘em, chiefly by his divine beauty, which is infinitely diverse from all other beauty. . . God is beautiful, indeed beauty itself, and the source and foundation of all beauty in the world. . .” The idea of real beauty is related to the character and nature of God.
True beauty is contrary to cultural norms of beauty. Beauty is a gift that human beings are able to bestow on others. Our actions that are honoring and confer dignity to another are gifts of beauty. When we loving and tenderly care for an aging parent, we are offering gifts of beauty.
The Greek words for call (kaleo) and beauty (kallein) are closely related and provide an understanding of the intimate connection between a person fulfilling a sense of purpose and beauty. We are all – men and women – called to be beautiful, living out our potential and purpose. Would that we would all throw off the bonds of cultural beauty that enslave and embrace the beauty of our personhood. But, I know, that even as I say that, when I get dressed this morning, the battle will begin again. Will I wear those 3-inch heels that I love, but my knees hate? (Probably, yes) Will I simply smile and allow that to serve as my ‘make-up’ for the day? (Probably, no)