The weekend of my graduate school commencement, I learned that one of my roommates’ moms was considering BOTOX injections. BOTOX was newly popular, and she, in her 50s, was there to celebrate with us, all in our late 20s, and somehow the topic of beauty came up. In my mind, I condemned her, convinced that it was sinful to inject botulism toxins into your skin just to smooth out wrinkles. That was 15 years ago. I was 26. I didn’t have any wrinkles then.
All these years later, I’m still BOTOX-free, but in the interest of full disclosure, I must tell you I dye my hair, I put on makeup, I wear contacts and when I get ready to go out, I spend time choosing what I’ll wear. I like to look good. Beauty matters. The fact that you’re reading this article makes me think that like me, you struggle at points with this idea of beauty. We live in a culture that worships it. We’re pressured to look a certain way. We, many of us, may even measure our worth by how we look, by whether we measure up to some standard of beauty we hold in our heads. But where does this standard come from, and as Christian women, what are we to make of beauty?
Beauty is a Gift
Beauty is a gift from God. He made it, and it flows from Him because He is beautiful (Psalm 27:4). Zechariah 9:17, ESV, says of God, “For how great is his goodness, and how great his beauty!” Our created bodies are good; they are part of what makes us, us. It is ancient gnostic heresy to believe that only our spirits are good, while our bodies are bad. God made man — including our physical flesh and bone — and called everything that He had made very good (Genesis 1:31). It is He who forms us, body and spirit, in the secret place of the womb (Psalm 139:13-16).
Beauty — external, physical beauty — is a good gift with the potential to delight. Listen to what Solomon says of his bride, “You are altogether beautiful, my love; there is no flaw in you” (Song of Solomon 4:7). Who wouldn’t love to be described that way, flawless? Rebecca, too, was beautiful. Genesis 24:16 says, “The young woman was very attractive in appearance, a maiden whom no man had known.” She was, at first sight, a delight to her intended, Isaac.
Beauty is powerful. We see it in the recounting of Sarah’s relationship with Abraham. She was so staggeringly beautiful — at 90 — that Abraham lied about her when entering the dominion of powerful rulers. Twice he said of her, “She is my sister.” Though this was a half-truth — she was his half-sister — what he was really saying was, “She is not my wife.” He gave her to the Pharaoh (Genesis 12) and later, to Abimelech (Genesis 20) a Canaanite king. Why? He was afraid that these powerful rulers would kill him to get her. She was that desirable. Better to defile her than be dead, he reasoned. Or so he thought. But allowing her to be sexually violated would have been just as problematic for keeping the covenant. God intervened to preserve her purity in marriage, leaving no doubt about the integrity of her offspring.
Beauty is a great help to diplomacy. No doubt Abigail’s appearance went a long way toward convincing David to at least hear her out before slaughtering her obnoxious, foolish husband, Nabal, who refused his request for provisions for his mighty men (1 Samuel 25:3).
Beauty gets noticed, and beauty gets chosen. I was always among the stragglers left when all the good players had been picked for sides in playground games of kickball, softball, basketball, you name it. My experience is mostly what it’s like to not get picked. But Esther’s beauty was a big part of why she was chosen to be Vashti’s replacement in the kingdom of the Medes and the Persians (Esther 2:7). Her beauty was the pathway to saving her people.
The Ugly Side of Beauty
Yet for all its goodness, beauty is fraught with danger. Scripture is full of stories that show when the good gift of beauty is separated from the Giver, it is bad. Beauty is easily misused, can quickly become a distraction and for many, becomes an idol. Lucifer was especially fine in his being (Ezekiel 28:17) but he directed his God-given traits away from God. He used what he’d been given against the Giver, and he tempts us to do the same. Beauty can lead to pride and ultimately, to rebellion against God. What happens when we use the beauty we’ve been given by God for our own glory? We become like our enemy. And there are ugly consequences for rebellion. Eternally, yes, but physically, too.
Israel was beautiful, powerful and blessed. All of her beauty was a gift “bestowed” by God. But she did not remember its source. The prophet Ezekiel brought this charge from God, “‘But you trusted in your beauty and played the whore because of your renown and lavished your whorings on any passerby; your beauty became his'” (16:14-15). Because of her repeated rebellion, God promised ugliness in place of beauty. “Instead of perfume there will be rottenness; and instead of a belt, a rope; and instead of well-set hair, baldness; and instead of a rich robe, a skirt of sackcloth; and branding instead of beauty” (see Isaiah 3:16-26). I remember the first time I studied this passage in Isaiah. I was in the grocery store and noticed the cover of several magazines all carried a shocking image of Britney Spears, a cultural icon of beauty, with shaved head and darkened countenance. She was defaced and defeated by her sin.
We may not shave ourselves bald, but in our culture where beauty is a primary preoccupation, we can enslave ourselves pursuing it. I don’t think bondage is too strong a word to describe the sorts of things — bulimia, anorexia nervosa, fad diets, expensive pills and more — that women do, not to mention what happens in the heart and mind of a woman struggling with her weight and her appearance. But it’s not just our flesh and the devil that we must battle. First John 2:16 reminds us that “everything in the world — the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does — comes not from the Father but from the world.” And the world we live in bombards us with messages about what ideal beauty looks like. We’re inundated with images of unreal, airbrushed, anorexic women, and led to believe that this is the ideal we must strive for — and if we are to be accepted, must achieve.
Beauty is fleeting. No matter what lengths a woman goes to preserve her youthful beauty, it cannot last. Isaiah 40:6-8 reminds us “flesh is fading.” Beauty fades, at least the sort our culture prizes.
I Want to Be Beautiful
Beauty is a delight to the eyes. Women are especially wired to create beauty and to long for it.
Every girl is a lover of beauty. Every girl longs to be beautiful. There is in woman a nature, as deep as humanity, that compels her to strive for good looks. There is no more forlorn sorrow for a young girl than for her to be convinced that she is hopelessly ugly and undesirable. Oh, the bitter tears that have been shed over freckles, or a rough and pimply skin! And the energy that has been expended in painting and powdering and curling herself into beauty!
A desire to be beautiful is not unwomanly. A woman who is not beautiful cannot properly fill her place. But, mark you, true beauty is not of the face, but of the soul. There is a beauty so deep and dilating that it will shine out of the homeliest face and make it pretty. This is the beauty to be first sought and admired. It is a quality of the mind and heart, and is manifested in word and deed. A happy heart, a smiling face, loving words and deeds, and a desire to be of service, will make any girl beautiful, says Beautiful Girlhood by Mabel Hale and Karen Andreola.
How true this is. But even internal beauty and acts of service must be rightly oriented to keep from being self-serving moralism. True beauty is from God and for God. First Timothy 4:4 says, “For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.” Did you catch that? Everything — including your body, your face, your hair, what you like and what you don’t. All of you is to be received from the One who gave it to you, with thanksgiving. It’s not easy — where I don’t match the cultural standard, it’s downright hard — but it is good (Psalm 92:1).
Paul tells us to abandon the world’s standards for a far better way:
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect (Romans 12:1-2).
We must submit our beauty, however much of it we have, as well as what we use it for, to the One who gave it to us. God is the source of your beauty. He is the One to whom it belongs.
From the time our daughter, Zoe, could speak, we’ve practiced a beauty catechism of sorts. I ask, “Who made you beautiful?” To which she replies, “God.” Then I ask, “Why did He make you beautiful?” Her response, ringing with Gospel truth, gets me every time, “For His own glory.”
I still think it’s wrong to inject botulism toxins into your skin to mask the wrinkles that come with aging, but I have more empathy for my roommate’s mom now that I’m a lot closer in age to what she was back when I was so opinionated about it. I understand why BOTOX and other treatments like it are so appealing. It’s humbling to fall short of our culture’s standard of beauty, even more to begin losing the vibrancy of youth on the journey into old age. But the Gospel makes it not only bearable to go on that journey, it also calls us to embrace it with joy. Humility is exactly the posture God wants us to have toward Him. It’s the posture Christ had toward the cross (Philippians 2:6-10) and that which gave way to joy and exaltation.
Our only hope in this pressure cooker of a culture is the God-man who “had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him” (Isaiah 53). If God wants to use physical imperfections and challenges, along with evidence of aging, to conform us to the image of Christ, then we can not only endure aging, but be thankful for it and rejoice in it. May we say about our wrinkles, grey hairs, sallow skin, extra pounds — whatever area we don’t measure up to the world’s standard — may we say with Paul, and with great joy, “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day” (2 Corinthians 4:16).
Copyright 2012 Candice Watters. All rights reserved.