Dove Ads, Ambrose, and Christian Women

160px-Grace_Kelly_-_High_SocietyThe social experiment that Dove released last week is fascinating. It has a clear message: “You are more beautiful than you think”.

Apparently, it’s not new for women to think that they are ugly. Hence the early invention of make-up, which has been around at least since the ancient Egyptians started the eyeliner trend about 4,000 years ago. Ambrose of Milan, writing in the fourth century, commented:

“[Women] erase that painting [of God] by smearing on their complexion a color of material whiteness or by applying an artificial rouge. The result is a work not of beauty, but of ugliness; not of simplicity, but of deceit. It is a temporal creation, a prey to perspiration or rain. It is a snare and a deception which displeases the person you aim to please, for he realizes that all this is an alien thing and not your own. This is also displeasing to your Creator, who sees His own work obliterated. Tell me, if you were to invite an artist of inferior ability to work over a painting of superior talent, would not the latter be grieved to see his own work falsified? Do not displace the artistic creation of God by one of meretricious worth…!” (“The Hexaemeron” in Fathers of the Church, 42:260).

Interestingly, Dove and Ambrose are telling us the same thing for different reasons. We are supposed to see ourselves as beautiful. Dove says so based on individualism (and sales) and Ambrose says so based on creation. They are both right. I am beautiful not because I look like (insert name of celebrity here), but because I am an individual made in God’s image. Christian women should be more thankful for the aspects of their physical appearance that God has blessed them with, whether that be a good figure, nice hair colour (which includes grey), long eyelashes – whatever. Dove is right; we should be more grateful for our natural beauty. To not be thankful is an affront to our Creator.

How can we be thankful? By thanking God for these parts of our appearance in private prayer. (No, that is not pride – did you make it?) We can be thankful by enjoying the aspects of our physical appearance that we like, to the glory of God, which leaves no room for immodesty or boasting. We can be thankful by not belittling the parts of our appearance that we don’t like. We can be thankful by realizing that just because we don’t “like” something, doesn’t mean it’s ugly. We can be thankful by saying, “Thank you!” (and believing it) when our husbands tell us that we have beautiful hair or skin or whatever.

But. You knew there had to be one, right?

What Dove and Ambrose are ignoring, for different reasons, is that we live in a fallen world. Dove doesn’t think Genesis 3 is reality, which is why they can assure every woman that she is beautiful and should be perfectly satisfied with that beauty. Ambrose is not allowing Genesis 3 to inform his allegory of the master painter, which, in light of the fall, should include someone defacing the painting. We’re not as beautiful as we should be because we live in a sinful world, where even the creation groans as it waits to be made new. That includes our bodies. We instinctively know that when we watch Dove ads. We might be more beautiful than we think, but we all know we’re not as beautiful as we could be or want to be.

God made us and it shows and we should be thankful. And we live in a fallen world and it shows and we must deal with it. We should not be “okay” with our fallen bodies any more than we are “okay” with a garden that keeps producing weeds. That doesn’t mean we can’t happily work away at it; it means that we know things could be better and we keep at it.

How can we deal with living in a fallen world that effects our physical appearance? Well, we can practice the rare jewel of Christian contentment with the parts of our appearance that are part of the fall (don’t tell me that straight hair is a product of the fall, but yes, pimples and wrinkles are: Eph. 5:27). We can try and shield our fellow humans from the effects of the fall in our bodies (think foundation and deodorant and exercising). To take Ambrose’s revised analogy, we can try and repair the damage done to the painting even though we’re not the master. We can remember that though our bodies are starting to decay now, our souls can become more beautiful as we age (II Cor. 4:16). An old woman with wrinkles can have love and holiness and kindness shining through so strongly that  her inner beauty transforms her outer appearance. We need to value the beauty of Spirit-wrought holiness in our souls more than we value the beauty of created bodies. And we can look forward to the day when our bodies will be resurrected and made new, powerful, and beautiful – suitable matches for our glorified souls (I Cor. 15:42-43).

Till then, we can take self-esteem campaigns and church fathers with a grain of salt in this area. They do have good thoughts, but it is Scripture that must tell us to be thankful, what we can be thankful for, whom we can be thankful to, and point us to the day when we will be remade perfectly in the beauty of holiness. We don’t know what that looks like yet, but you can bet it’s beyond anything we’ve seen in this world. And it’s okay to look forward to it.