And if you don’t want to be frumpy, if you prefer another look, or if — like me — you want to be free from the tyranny of fashion “rules” and judgy labels, that’s OK too. In fact, everyone is welcome.
I’ve been thinking of writing a series on the topic of “beauty”. Don’t worry — it won’t be a bunch of beauty tips; the vast sum of my knowledge of that topic could be crammed into one sentence with room to spare. Far be it from me to tell anyone how to make themselves more “beautiful”…or that they *should* do this. I’m not even going to define “beauty” for you. Instead, all I have to offer are my reactions to some of the beauty messages I encounter, especially in the Christian subculture in America. Warning: there will be venting. And sarcasm. Hopefully, along with that, I will eventually offer some perspective that is helpful or thought-provoking. Or at least will make someone besides me laugh.
This may or may not be the first post in that series.
While trying to find some non-Amazon reviews for the book True Beauty, I landed on Tim Challies’ blog, where he made the following comment:
Essentially, deliberately looking unattractive is not a good thing.
This was in response to someone taking issue with his previous use of the word “frumpy”, a word usually used to describe attire and appearance that is dowdy, old-fashioned, and unfashionable — in other words, very much out of step with our modern culture’s view of what is “attractive”.
Not to pick on Tim Challies, but I found this message one that we, as Christian women, are constantly bombarded with. His statement raises questions:
Who defines “unattractive”? Or to put it another way, unattractive to whom?
In other words, what if the husband of an ultra-conservative homeschooling mom (the Christian demographic most likely to be labeled as “frumpy”) finds her garb and appearance attractive, cute, adorable — even so irresistible that he can’t keep his hands off her, and hence their dozen children? Does it matter if the rest of the world disagrees with his opinion? But then, why not say, “Deliberately looking unattractive for your husband is not a good thing, but don’t worry about what other people think.” Obviously, especially given the context of his remark, Challies was speaking about what he assumes is a known standard, a definition of “unattractive”, that readers of his blog will agree with.
In reality, when men make such statements, unless they are truly unusual men, they tend to mean “what I assume most people find unattractive, because it’s what I find unattractive.” That is why some men can argue, with straight faces, that physical beauty is entirely a female characteristic, that there is no masculine counterpart, and that a naked man looks ridiculous! (I recently encountered yet another pastor arguing this point and bit my tongue so as not to say, “Dude, I’m sure you look ridiculous naked, but not all men look that way to women, or even to all men.”)
I have not encountered a trend of Christian men urging women, “Think about how you come across to other women. Biblical modesty means not flaunting your wealth with fancy hairstyles and jewelry. At the same time, make sure your appearance is not off-putting. What messages are you sending to other women? Do you appear compassionate and approachable, or do you send out judgmental ‘I have nothing in common with you’ vibes?” In fact, I can’t recall ever hearing any man say something like this. The assumption is that we are supposed to dress for men, that it is their opinion of our appearance that matters.
What is meant by “deliberately”?
I doubt Tim Challies would find me attractive. Let’s face it — most men under age 40 find grandmas unattractive, unless it’s some conventionally attractive woman who just happens to be a grandmother in her 30’s. So maybe my age gives me a free pass: I didn’t deliberately get older, so I can’t be accused of doing something that is “not a good thing”.
At what point is a woman freed from her duty or obligation to be attractive to the arbitrators of such things? Does this apply only in certain settings? Can a younger woman look “frumpy” while on a church camp out, or is that “not a good thing”? Do women need to maintain a minimum acceptable standard of attractiveness all the time?
What if I prefer not to be attractive? What if I hate attracting the attentions of lonely old geezers in grocery stores? What if I am deliberately avoiding their smarmy compliments of, “You look lovely in that color” or “I enjoy seeing a lady in a pretty skirt”? Is that “not a good thing” because supposedly I have a duty to be attractive?
True story. About five years ago, I found myself at a health food store on Valentine’s Day, shopping for the romantic dinner I was going to prepare for my very ill husband. The pituitary tumor that was shutting down his endocrine system had not been diagnosed yet; doctors were stymied; in desperation, we were trying a draconian elimination diet suggested by a naturopath. That’s why I was standing in the bread aisle, already dressed for dinner, reading the ingredients of loaf after loaf to find one that contained no gluten, egg, or dairy. (I can’t recall what I was cooking or why bread was a necessary ingredient.) I was new to all this, and feeling overwhelmed and frustrated.
That’s when the man greeted me. He looked to be in his 50’s, and he radiated health, no doubt from frequenting health food stores. In addition, he was drop dead gorgeous. I’m not sure what the “drop dead” part of that expression means, but I do know that he was one of the most handsome men I’ve ever seen. And he was smiling. At me.
For a moment, I thought he seemed familiar. One of my former karate students had a grandfather who looked similar, and that would explain the warm and friendly greeting. So I returned it, extended my hand, and reminded the kind grandfather of my name.
— and immediately realized this was a complete stranger. And that he was way better looking than that kid’s young gramps. [See note 1.]
Then he asked me out. For dinner. That night.
I was so…so shocked, and bewildered, and flustered…and embarrassed that I had been far more friendly than appropriate with a stranger — and had obviously given him a very wrong impression — that all I could do was stammer, “I…uh…I, I don’t date.” I have no idea why I didn’t say. “I thought you were someone else. Thanks for the kind invitation. But I already have plans with my husband. Longterm plans, I hope.”
Luckily he was a gentleman and didn’t add to my awkwardness by persisting. Or maybe he was turned off by my extreme lack of social skills and all around weirdness. He apologized politely for hitting on me (his choice of words) and went on his way.
A week later, an actual real life grandfather of one of my students greeted me in a different grocery store. But I had learned my lesson. He’s probably a complete stranger, and it’s just a weird coincidence he looks like Mr. D, I told myself. So I gave him my best no-nonsense, I-don’t-talk-to-strangers, gaze…which probably convinced him that I’d gone senile and forgotten who he was. But at least he didn’t ask me out. (Not that he would have anyway.)
I don’t want to give the impression that I think I’m quite the hot babe in the eyes of senior citizens. But I have noticed, in at least one of the stores I frequent, that there seem to be a number of lonely older men who shop for produce mid-morning and need little in the way of encouragement (a skirt will do) to chat me up. Is it “not a good thing” for me to make a conscious effort *not* to attract them? If a man lets me know that he likes seeing me in my long skirt, because it’s so “graceful”, am I obligated to keep wearing it around him so that I can be his eye candy — or would it be wiser and kinder not to dress in a way pleasing to him, lest he think that means I have a special interest in him?
Because, after all —
Why should a married woman be trying to attract other men?
But wait, Rebecca, that’s not what Challies said. Remember, he commended the book he was reviewing for discussing “the importance of modest dress and rightly showing that clothing is simply an outer reflection of the inner woman”. What he said was:
What you will not find in True Beauty is the all-too-common attitude that frumpiness is next to godliness. You will not find the authors trying to convince you that beauty is a problem, that Christian women ought to be ashamed of the beauty God has given them, that they’d better not do anything to enhance it.
Essentially, deliberately looking unattractive is not a good thing.
Yes, Challies did not say, “Try to attract other men”. But he did say that being unattractive (which includes to other men) is not a good thing. So I assume that being “attractive” (definitions: having a pleasing appearance; especially, having a pleasing appearance that causes romantic or sexual feelings in someone; pleasing, charming; sexually alluring) is a “good thing”. I sincerely doubt that he would approve women “causing” romantic or sexual feelings in men other than their husbands, but why am I supposed to concern myself with dressing in a way that is pleasing to other men?
Ah, but Rebecca, you don’t get it. “Clothing is simply an outer reflection of the inner woman” and our appearance should reflect Christ and attract people to Him.
Yes, I know, I know. Supposedly culottes instead of pants will serve as a signpost to Christ. At least that’s what I’ve been told. But, no…culottes are frumpy. Maybe I need to wear t-shirts with Christian messages on them, except so many of them are tacky. Besides, “modest is hottest”, and I should only let my husband see my “smokin’ hot” side. What to do?
Because, of course, as women — they will know we are Christians by our appearance and wardrobe choices, and the way we manage to be attractive in a clean, wholesome, feminine way without ever being “sexy” except in the bedroom. And the first thing anyone thinks when they see an attractive woman is, “She must be a follower of Jesus. I want to follow Him too.” Yeah, it’s all about that. Only it’s not.
Just how attractive do women need to be, in order to do what is good?
And to how many people? And how am I supposed to know — take a poll?
Me: “Excuse me, but I’m trying not to be unattractive or frumpy. Please stop laughing. And it’s mean of you to mumble that it’s a lost cause. I’m serious. People’s eternal lives could be at stake. Do you find me unattractive?”
Dude: “Uh, I hate to be rude, lady, but you’re a nutcase. Leave me alone.”
I know — I can take selfies of myself every morning and let my 300 closest Facebook friends vote whether I can go out in public. Except that 298 of them have better things to do, and the other two are pets. [See note 2.]
Where is any of this in Scripture?
Find me the warnings against deliberate frumpiness. If you can’t, then pass on the challenge to someone else. Meanwhile, I’ll sit here in my unfashionable garb, sans make-up, wearing my sensible orthotic shoes, and not worry my aging little head over whether men other than my husband find anything about me either attractive or unattractive. [See note 3.]
1. My husband may not be “drop dead gorgeous” but, to my eyes, he gets better looking all the time. Just yesterday, I caught sight of the back of his head in a crowded room and felt my heart go pitter-patter. He isn’t just handsome, but easy on my eyes in a familiar, comforting way. And when we get all dressed up, and my hair is beaten into submission, we look really nice together. I am tremendously blessed. If I believed in luck, I’d think I was one of the luckiest women alive. I just had to say that in case someone thought I was slighting him.
2. Not an accurate number, except for the two pets — not my own — I’m FB friends with. And even they have better things to so than critique my wardrobe choices.
3. I’m not always this frumpy. In fact, I’ve been told I clean up real well.