In 2008, the American YWCA published a report titled “Beauty At Any Cost”: “Every woman in the United States participates in a daily beauty pageant, whether she likes it or not. Engulfed by a popular culture saturated with images of idealized, air-brushed and unattainable female physical beauty”, women are daily pressured to join in the idolatry, even as men, by lust, propel the cycle.
The snare of beauty idolatry in our culture is blatant. Pursuit of female beauty has risen to a fevered pitch. Natural beauty is not what is expected. Even make-up doesn’t do the job anymore; we need botox and plastic surgeons. Marketers work with graphic artists to airbrush and reshape images. The results are placarded across magazines, tv, films, billboards, and the internet.
The pressure to join in this idolatry is tremendous. Christian women, wives, even young girls, are often down about their appearance, feeling ugly and unattractive. The symptoms of becoming addicted to this world’s beauty are wide-ranging. Physically they may include anorexia, bulimia, and depression. Idealized female physical beauty combined with a pornographic and promiscuous culture pressures even the closest relationships. It impacts marriages, as women desire to outdo their celluloid counterparts, fearing that beautiful images will seduce their husbands. Even the workplace is impacted: research shows that women who best adhere to societal beauty standards are most likely to be hired and promoted.
So how can Christians break this idolatry? What should a woman’s view and pursuit of beauty be like?
New Testament culture was no different than ours; Greco-Roman society was also obsessed with physical beauty. God knew that, just as he knows it in the present. Jesus Christ, the Eternal Son made flesh, knew and knows this. And so he instructed his messenger, the apostle Peter, by the Holy Spirit, to speak to us about it. In I Peter 3:3-5 he graciously instructs us “Your adornment must not be merely external…; but let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is precious in the sight of God. For in this way in former times the holy women also, who hoped in God, used to adorn themselves, being submissive to their own husbands…”
While internet statistics report that Americans spent $18 billion last year on makeup alone, we should recognize at the outset that some of this is simply a blessing of prosperity. It is a good thing to be able to buy shampoo. Contrary to those ascetics who would reject physical beauty, Scripture does not deny beauty and adornment, but rather displays delight in them as reflective of God’s handiwork and blessing. In Ezekiel 16, God describes the lavish adorning of his bride. Psalm 45 speaks of the princess “all glorious” in her beauty, preparing for her husband. The Song of Songs’ bride also delights to make herself beautiful for her groom. Certainly there is a legitimate, healthy, even glorious pursuit of beauty; God’s Word celebrates it. Augustine remarked that, “Beauty is indeed a good gift of God.” However, Scripture also teaches repeatedly that when pursuit of beauty is distorted, either by errant motives or sinful ends, it becomes a snare.
Peter and the Psalmist give us divine instruction here. Wrongly motivated or idolatrous beauty is vain. Adornment is not to be merely external. Rather, true beauty only exists where it has begun within. Peter directs us to the essential priority of internal beauty that comes through faith and life in Christ. He describes the pursuit of real beauty as the pursuit of adornment with the fruit of the Spirit. True beauty, through salvation in Christ, is also in view in Psalm 45. The Psalmist celebrates God’s salvation through the picture of a bride made beautiful. The goal is to glorify God, to live in worship. When this is the case, the cultivation of outer beauty and pleasantness falls into its appropriate, secondary, biblical place.
External physical beauty is only skin deep; due to the effects of the curse it is temporary, fading with age and sickness. No one can win the battle to look like the woman on the magazine cover. But consider the woman of godly beauty: she delights in God, her husband marvels at her, her children rise up and call her blessed. She does not reject physical adornment, but follows the word of Christ in first and above all pursuing true spiritual beauty, the beauty that shines through a person, making them beautiful at age 18, 40, or 85. Her motto is “Let your beauty be the hidden person of the heart, with the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is precious in the sight of God.”
Do you long, even groan at times, for a continual, perfected physical beauty, too? You can do so with confident hope in God, the resurrection and new creation promise. For now, rest content in Christ, knowing that while the outward tent perishes, even that is a precious body in God’s sight, and will be fully redeemed. There is such a contrast between the woman consumed by the fading image of beauty and the holy woman; she is a person of true beauty, glorious and attractive in her whole being. She finds her Saviour the One who is “altogether lovely” (Song of Songs 5:16), and is being made like him, radiant in beauty and glory.
This article is reprinted with permission from the August 2011 edition of Evangelical Times.