Our modern culture is obsessed with physical appearance. Ads, commercials, films -- it's difficult to escape the tidal wave of "beauty" as defined by the world. However, the standard of beauty that is presented is physically impossible for any human being to achieve; even the models and movie stars hired to "be beautiful" are subjected to the make-up chair and the airbrush. And let's face it: Photoshop can make anyone look gorgeous. Even my limited experience with photo editing has exposed me to techniques to enlarge eyes, redden lips, and eliminate blemishes (I'm occasionally guilty of that last one, since they're not "permanent" features. *wink*).
Our culture demands physical perfection -- flawless skin, perfect hair, and not a single extra pound (in fact, you should probably be underweight, because cameras make you look fatter). Some have rebelled against this impossible ideal by claiming that "real women have curves." Which seems hardly fair to women who are naturally skinny and may even be trying to gain weight -- aren't they real women, too, or are curvy hips somehow essential to womanhood?
I recently saw an ad produced by Dove, which I found quite interesting: Dove Real Beauty Sketches. I applaud their efforts to combat mainstream definitions of beauty (and their companion efforts to educate girls about how artificial and unrealistic advertising can be). However, in a sense, their focus is still superficial. "You are more beautiful than you think you are." That doesn't really challenge a "standard" of beauty -- it just makes us feel that we're closer to that standard (and consequently makes us feel better about ourselves).
But really, what is beauty? And who defines it?
Here's what the Creator of the Universe has to say about it:
~ Proverbs 31:30
"Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised."
~ I Samuel 16:7
"But the Lord said to Samuel, "Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart."
In other words, we're not supposed to be focused on our outward appearance. It's our inward beauty that God cares about! "Inner beauty" has become such a cliched concept. But as Christians, we realize that our outer shell is a temporary covering, while our souls are eternal.
~ 2 Corinthians 4:16
"So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is renewed day by day."
I saw a pin on Pinterest with a before-and-after photo of a woman. In the first photo, the woman looked normal (and quite pretty, in my opinion). In the second photo, extensive make-up had drastically changed her appearance. The caption under the photo read something like, "Amazing! She doesn't even look like the same girl!" And it was true. She looked like a totally different person.
~ Ephesians 2:10
"For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them."
I realize this passage in Ephesians is not talking about physical appearance, but I think it holds an important concept for the consideration of beauty. We are God's workmanship. He created us! Every detail is exactly as He planned. And while sin has brought flaws (don't we all love acne?), aging, and ultimately physical death, that doesn't change the fact that God knit us together in our mothers' wombs. If God made me the way I am, why would I want to entirely change the way I look?
We are beautiful not because we have perfectly proportioned faces, but because we are made in the image of God, and as Christians our hearts have been transformed by His love and grace.
~ 1 Peter 3:3-4
"Do not let your adorning be external -- the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear -- but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God's sight is very precious."
I don't think the Bible is suggesting that it's sinful to braid your hair or wear jewelry (because, if you notice, clothing is included in the list -- so if hair braiding and jewelry are forbidden, so is clothing! *wink*). It's easy to fall into legalistic traps when we try to define exactly what is appropriate and apply it to every believer. Obsessing about the lack of external adornment is still obsessing about externals. Rather, the point is that we are to focus on our conforming our hearts to Christ, instead of trying to impress others by our physical appearance.
We will all come to different conclusions on what is appropriate. Some Christian women wear makeup and others wear none at all; some dye their hair while others let it go gray; some wear more jewelry than others; some wear nail polish while others don't; some wear Spanx while others don't fret about a bulge or two. We'll never all be the same, and that's part of the beauty of being in the body of Christ. For that reason, I'm not here to suggest that you should or shouldn't wear mascara. What I am here to suggest is that the Bible teaches that we should not focus on our physical appearance to the point that it becomes an idol.
What we can do is evaluate our hearts and our attitudes toward beauty. If I am trying to look like someone other than the person God made me to be, perhaps I need to reconsider my perception of beauty. If I am trying to perpetuate youthfulness in a desperate attempt to avoid growing old, perhaps I need to remember what the Bible says about aging. If I want to take drastic measures to reverse the changes that child-bearing has wrought in my body, perhaps I need to recall that God values life, and that Christ made the ultimate sacrifice of His body on the cross so that we could have life everlasting. Ultimately, if our hearts are truly fixed on Christ, we won't have the time or the desire to become obsessed with our bodies -- or with anyone else's.
We can also evaluate our attitudes toward other women, and sisters in Christ in particular (because, let's face it, we generally have higher expectations for those who share our beliefs). We will each find some humans more attractive than others, based on our own unique preferences. But let's look deeper and value people on something less superficial than a profile or a haircut. Are we judging others based on their external beauty? Or perhaps even on how much makeup they wear (or don't wear)? Let's be gracious to one another, and realize that our opinions and convictions are not shared by all.
In our media-saturated world, it is increasingly challenging to ignore what the world says and focus on God's criteria for beauty. But we press on, with the encouragement that cultivating a gentle and quiet spirit is something that God prizes and cherishes. And if He is the only one on this earth who ever considers us beautiful, His is the the only opinion that truly matters!
You can find my theological disclaimer here.