Beautiful or ugly? Apparently that is the question many Christian women find most troubling and most crippling in their lives, if several blogs and recent books are any indication. While this all-encompassing problem is blamed to a large degree on secular society and its obsession with physical beauty and sex appeal, many Christian writers–an entire industry, actually–use this obsession as a market niche keeping the quandary fresh for women: is their value always tied to expectations and assumptions about beauty?
And so it is easy to find solutions to the beauty dilemma. Take, for instance, Stasi Eldridge’s Captivating where women learn that being beautiful (or captivating) is women’s true worth and worthy goal, but this idea of beauty must be changed to help her see that the judge of her beauty is not the world but God. Thus, women are enabled to solve their self-esteem problem merely by transferring their source of acceptance from men to God, keeping in mind they remain objects of beauty.
A similar solution is echoed by Sharon Holde Miller who asserts not only is God not society the satisfaction a woman seeks but also that women should not become too “inordinately occupied” by beauty even though its presence in Scripture means it must be somewhat important. Miller goes one step further and asserts that when women can trust their beauty is found in God and then work hard to forget about it, then, women will finally gain a foothold against the nagging doubt they continuously feel: am I ugly?
I’ve heard variations of these claims in Evangelical circles far and wide. And yet, the fact that this issue never seems to abate suggests there is never a solution that actually works. For all of the hand-wringing and confident claims that beauty is on the inside or in the eye of the beholder or in God’s perspective, women obviously do not feel this to be the case.
Since people have been addressing this problem for years albeit with little success, I certainly don’t want to suggest that I know the answer everyone has been hoping to find. Still, there are at least three things that I wonder about each time I see a woman admit this struggle.
First, as with Sharon Hodde Miller’s recent blog post, many people seem in their “biblically” based answers to overlook a critical aspect of Scripture. It was written by men, for men, and about men. Is there any doubt women would be objectified by such a text? So, to make a claim that because women are frequently portrayed in Scripture as physical objects only reveals something about the authors who wrote it while saying nothing about the God to whom Scripture as a whole points.
Second, if Evangelical communities wish to enable women to see themselves as more than physical objects, then the mixed messages need to stop. On one hand women are told they are of value because of who they are; on the other hand, women often are noted for their appearance, as in, “I’d like you to meet my pretty colleague.” When men are described by their colleagues, it is usually with reference to some value such as their innovation or determination or scholarly success. Women almost always receive accolades for one thing: physical appearance.
Finally, I think the focus on being beautiful stems from a warped view of God and the kind of relationship one wants to cultivate with this divine being. Most Evangelical groups seem to paint a picture of God as wanting to seek pleasure in another, of desiring to be the focus of attention, of, in essence, being a “man upstairs” who is rewarded by harems of women seeking to provide His every wish. Essentially, God is an uber male who deserves unending praise and adoration and, if I may, beautiful subjects.
When this is one’s unquestioned view of God, then God remains largely a male construct based upon masculine assumptions and desires.
If we want to really get at the heart of why women see themselves as objects to be consumed, perhaps we should take seriously how we understand God. To the extent that we fail to explore with diligence our need to deconstruct our current images and ideas about who God is and how God interacts with our world, then we will fail to address the self-image issues women continue to struggle with. As the very perceptive theologian Mary Daly once said: “if God is male, then male is God.”
Her wisdom delivered many years ago has not yet been taken to heart in the Evangelical community. Until it does I believe women (and men) will be confined to living within narrow categories that fail to communicate much about God, nor much about what it means to find fulfillment as people regardless of sex or gender.