Guys, I need to let you in on a little secret. You’re not an independent thinker when it comes to beauty and attraction to women. You may pride yourself on your superior judgment and taste. But the fact is, other people have already decided for you the range of who’s beautiful and who’s not. The only decision you make as you choose a girlfriend or a wife is where you’re willing or able to settle in that range.
Now before you reject the idea of settling and before you women object to the notion of a “beauty scale,” let me explain what I mean. There has never been a day in your life when you woke up and consciously decided what makes someone beautiful. Instead, long before you reach puberty, you just know. How do you know? Because you’ve adopted the prevailing standards of beauty in your culture or sub-culture.
China Dolls and Model Women
Beauty, and our experience of it, is a matter of culture. And it’s always been this way. Whether it’s the tiny feet that resulted from footbinding in medieval China, or the voluptuous figures of a 17th century Rubens canvas, or the angular elegance that struts the catwalks of Milan and Paris today, ideas of what makes a woman beautiful are astonishingly varied.
But if it’s always been this way, the saturation of media images in the modern world has simply intensified the experience. From glossy magazines to TV and movies to the Internet, we are all constantly exposed to images of “beautiful” women. Even ads for mouthwash and household cleaning products are populated with women whose only flaw (before finding the said product) was bad breath or a dirty kitchen floor. And all of these messages have an effect. As Naomi Wolfe noted in the introduction to her provocative book The Beauty Myth, “[B]lack, brown, and white women — women who looked like fashion models — admitted to knowing, from the time they could first consciously think, that the ideal was someone tall, thin, white, and blond, a face without pores, asymmetry, or flaws, someone wholly “perfect” and someone they felt, in one way or another, they were not.”Naomi Wolfe, The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women, Harper Perennial, 2002, p. 1 If that’s the affect our culture has on women, have you ever thought how much more it must affect us men?
There are all sorts of racist and sexist problems with the image of beauty Wolfe documented. In response, it’s tempting to think that all we need to do is return to an earlier, healthier, less sexualized image. But where do you turn? June Cleaver? Elizabeth Bennet? No matter where or when you look, the problem remains.
In fact, we can’t go back far enough. When Adam and Eve decided to set their own rules and reject God’s rule, our ideas of beauty were corrupted along with everything else. As we thought about in the previous article, we still have the ability to fashion beauty. Only now, rather than look to God and His standards, we look to the world and the cultural idols we’ve set up instead.
Men, you may feel like the passive victim of your own internal sense of attraction, but you’re not. Your sense of attraction is skewed. And it’s your fault! On the one hand there’s your own sin — pride at having a girlfriend others think beautiful; fear of man at being thought inadequate; a controlling commitment to your self-gratification. On the other hand, there’s the inadequate and idolatrous definitions of beauty your culture has established. The definitions will vary, but they will have one thing in common — the belief that satisfaction is found by possessing (for men) or attaining (for women) beauty without reference to God. And God holds each of us morally accountable for the misshapen sense of attraction that results.
So what’s a fellow to do? After all, none of us can escape our culture and constant barrage of media images that reinforce our worldly desires. On the other hand, as I’ve said before it’s important you’re physically and emotionally attracted to the woman you marry. So here at the beginning of summer, when both men and women are displaying more of what our culture says attraction is all about, I want to offer four steps to recalibrate your sense of beauty.
First, you don’t have to be a captive of your culture. In this life you’ll never escape it, but the good news of the Gospel is that Jesus Christ rescues us from our fallen cultures and brings us into a new culture, a kingdom of light. Without the power of the Gospel, culture really is king, and we will play by its rules because there’s no other game in town. That’s what Paul is talking about in Romans 1:18-32 when he says that we all have exchanged the truth of God for a lie. When you really believe a lie, you can’t recognize the truth anymore.
But Jesus has defeated the power of sin through His sacrificial death on the cross. And He promises that whoever turns away from their sin, including the claim to set the standards for beauty, and puts their faith in him, will not only be forgiven, but will also be set free. Paul puts it this way in Romans 6, “If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin — because anyone who has died has been freed from sin.”
Paul doesn’t mean that we don’t sin any longer. Read Romans 7. Rather, he means that through the Gospel, we are given both new minds and renewed wills. We’re able to think about things from God’s point of view now, and we’re able to act differently, too. Sin is no longer our “master,” Christ is. So the first step, if you haven’t already, is to become a Christian and find the forgiveness and freedom you need if you’re ever to recognize true beauty.
Second, start critiquing your culture rather than just responding to it. Every culture is fallen, but that doesn’t mean that every culture is as bad as it could be. Your sense of attraction is skewed, but it could be worse. Your understanding of beauty and your sense of attraction are a mixture of true and false, good and bad. Paul commands us, “Whatever is lovely … think about such things” (Philippians 4:8). How can you do that when your “beauty meter” is off? How do you know what is truly lovely?
God is truly lovely. Not only is He beautiful. His beauty sets the standard for our beauty. Of course, God does not have a body. His beauty consists of moral perfection, transcendent majesty and personal faithfulness. But God did create our bodies in all of their variety to reflect the glory of His image. What’s more, He also took our flesh into himself, in the incarnation of Christ. And though nail-scarred and pierced for all eternity, there is no question that in heaven there is no more beautiful body we will gaze upon than that of Jesus (Revelation 5; John 20:24-28).
If nothing else, surely this should cause us to question our obsession with bust size, waist size, ankle size, etc. Even the world is beginning to recognize the monstrosity of “concentration camp chic” and to insist that models look “healthy” rather than merely thin. If the world can see the basic connection between health and beauty, the Christian man can do even better. He knows that true beauty comes from the imago Dei in the woman he’s dating. He won’t ignore her physical fitness, but he’ll be even more concerned for her spiritual health.
As I’ve said before, this doesn’t mean you can’t have preferences. Almost every woman I dated, including the one I married, was a brunette between 5 feet 2 inches and 5 feet 6 inches. I clearly had a preference. But that’s all it was.
A Christian man recognizes preferences for what they are — not the criteria of beauty and ultimate attraction, but an acquired taste that he controls — not the other way around. If we can’t get our preferences into perspective, then we need to recognize that those preferences have become idols — worldly images of beauty that we worship. And we need to repent.
Third, cultivate attraction to true beauty. There really is no place for passivity when it comes to attraction. Or do you think married men stop noticing other pretty women after their wedding day and are thereafter only and always attracted to their wives? Would that it were that easy! As every married man knows, the wedding day doesn’t solve this problem; it simply raises the stakes. When I feel a sense of attraction to a woman I’m not married to, I can’t sit back and passively say “I can’t help it.” I have to actively squash that attraction and put it to death. On the other hand, when I wake up and don’t feel attracted to my wife, I can’t sit back and passively say, “Oh, well.” I have to actively cultivate and nourish a sense of attraction to her.
As a single man, you don’t have the right or responsibility to focus your attraction on one woman. But you should be actively shaping your sense of attraction, emphasizing the good and putting to death the bad. So instead of putting so much weight on physical preferences, cultivate a sense of physical and emotional attraction to the reflection of God’s beauty you see in the women around you.
Obviously this means elevating character and godliness in your estimation. Our world finds godliness boring and purity unattractive. I think before he sinned, Adam found it a turn-on. As Christians, shouldn’t we experience it that way, too? I don’t mean you should lust after the godly girls in your church. I simply mean that if God is the standard of beauty, then the more of God you see in them, the more you see that is attractive.
I also think that the standard of God’s beauty should affect your sense of physical attraction as well. Have you ever witnessed a beautiful girl (by the world’s standards) get drunk or commit a lewd act? It’s not pretty. On the other hand, Peter speaks of the unfading visible beauty of women whose character is gentle and quiet (1 Peter 3:3-5). Paul speaks of Christ making His bride, the church, visibly beautiful as He makes her holy (Ephesians 5:25-27). Do you have eyes to see the physical beauty that God is creating in the Christian women around you as He conforms them to the image of Christ? Rather than fixating on finding a replica of some plastic image you’ve seen in a movie or magazine, open your eyes to the beautiful images of God all around you.
Finally, immerse yourself in a counter-cultural understanding of beauty. I stand by what I said at the beginning: Beauty is culturally determined, and we cannot escape our culture. If you are surrounded by people and media that say beauty is merely a matter of body shape and color, then you will find it almost impossible to be attracted to anything else. But if you are in regular conversation with people who think otherwise; if you are listening to messages that say otherwise; if you witness passionate, intimate marriages that prove otherwise, then your definition of beauty and your sense of attraction will be changed by that culture.
Where can you find such a culture? You can find it only in a healthy, biblical, local church.
As Christians, we are citizens of more than one culture. The Bible presents a worldview, including a definition of beauty, that’s opposed to the worldview of our culture. But a worldview that is not lived out is just dead theory. The biblical worldview takes on counter-cultural life in the context of the church. In the community of God’s people, as we listen to God’s Word and allow it to transform us, we find the vision of beauty we need to transform our preferences and desires from weak, worldly lusts into strong, godly attraction to true beauty.
What’s more, in this kind of culture, women understand what it means to be truly beautiful, and they know how to pursue that beauty. Most of all, they are confident that attaining such beauty is worth it. Not just so the guys will notice them, but because the guys have encouraged them above all to shape the whole of their lives for the loving gaze of God. His eyes never fail to recognize true beauty, and His heart never fails to be attracted to it. Men, why would we want to be any different?
Copyright 2007 Michael Lawrence. All rights reserved.