Very enjoyable and thought-provoking TED Talk. Unschooled and homeschoolers will especially enjoy this.
“There’s nothing wrong with work-worn hands,” I insisted. But what did I know? I was young, naive, idealistic, and inexperienced. I wasn’t thinking that someday a man might hold my hands, and might want them to feel soft and tenderly smooth, rather than roughly calloused, aged, and battered from hard work. “There’s nothing wrong with work-worn hands,” I kept on insisting, a few years later, when the harsh cleaning solution I used to clean a commercial kitchen made my hands bleed and crack. “There’s nothing wrong with work-worn hands,” I laughed when I was a newly-wed, and an older, wiser woman urged me to don white cotton gloves under kitchen gloves before plunging my hands in hot, soapy dishwater day after day after day.
I was no longer quite so young nor naive — but I was still oh so idealistic.
My idea of beauty was, I realize now, rather other-worldly, based far less on physical reality than on love, admiration, and relationship. A few years ago, a group of women told me that I described every single one of my female friends, and every other woman I liked, as “beautiful”. Really? I had no idea.
They mimicked me, with affection. “When I got here and said I wanted to meet Laura,” one of them told me, “you said, ‘Oh, Laura? You’ll love her! She’s encouraging and funny and smart — and she’s really beautiful! She has the most amazing eyes!'”
One of the other women imitated my voice, “‘And Carmen — she has this quiet strength. Nothing throws her. She’s like a super-hero. And she gives the best hugs in the world. She is so beautiful!'”
“‘Wait ’til you meet Amy!'” another woman pretended to be me. “‘She’s a math genius, but not at all intimidating. She can be so funny, and she has helped me so much. And she’s really beautiful!'”
The women laughed. “You think everyone is beautiful!”
“No, I don’t,” I insisted. “It’s just that all of you…you really are beautiful. You are some of the most beautiful women I’ve ever met! Go look in the mirror!”
Recently I was reading some articles online and I made the shocking discovery that the rest of the world doesn’t all think that way. Yes, for most of us, the objects of our affection do become more beautiful in our eyes. We even have the saying that “love makes blind,” and we’ve probably all encountered that odd-looking elderly couple that seems ridiculously smitten with each other, with the husband foolishly insisting that his wife grows more beautiful with each passing year.
But it’s more than that for me. I remember back in my college days, when a friend of mine showed me a picture from a magazine of some guy she proclaimed to be very sexy. She asked me my opinion. I scrutinized the picture carefully and had to admit that his body was aesthetically appealing, but how could I know whether or not he was sexy? In fact, I became convinced that he was the antithesis of sexy — any guy who would pose in a magazine like that was no doubt arrogant and narcissistic, and there was nothing remotely sexy about that! Ugh! Come to think of it, the guy was downright ugly!
Another friend confided in me around the same time that she had some major crush on a guy she only saw in passing and had never actually met. “What?” I was incredulous. “But you don’t even know him!”
I knew — because one cannot live for more than a day in our culture without being bombarded with this message — that most men are attracted primarily to a woman’s physical features, that men can be filled with a strong and overwhelming sexual desire for a woman who is a complete stranger to them, and that a woman’s “wonderful personality” will not make up for whatever off-putting physical flaws she might have in a man’s eyes. Men, I’ve been told over and over again, are primarily visual. You can’t see a woman’s inner beauty. You can only see her outward form.
But I’ve also realized that it’s not just men who are “shallow” in that way. Women too are guilty of looking mostly on the outside. After all, none of us can truly see inside the heart of another person.
I’ve had to live in the reality of that world, in a world in which I’ve never measured up to the culture’s standard of beauty, in a world where youthful flawlessness is idealized, in a world where whatever “cuteness” I may have possessed as a little girl has now long faded away in the experiences of living decades past my youth.
After my oldest son was born, my body was so radically changed that catching a glimpse of myself in a mirror was literally startling. It was the body of a stranger, and I was struggling to make peace with it. A dear family friend said to me, “What is our body but a tool to do God’s will? You are doing God’s will.”
I saw the beauty in that, and my eyes were opened to the new beauty in me…well, except when I would foolishly allow someone else’s opinion to matter more than God’s.
There’s more to this story, lots more, but I’ll save most of it for future blog posts. Fast forward to now. My body is aging. It’s been causing me some physical pain and discomfort lately. It’s in decline, functionally and aesthetically. That’s the way things are at my stage of life, and I can only expect this to accelerate in years to come. Eventually my body will fail, and I will die…unless death comes in a different, more sudden way. That’s our human condition.
I had a recent, mind-boggling epiphany as a result of some articles I’ve been reading. It seems I’m somewhat of an odd bird — what attracts me is relationship. I thought most people were like me, except for shallow, immature men. I honestly find it difficult to fathom that anyone — especially a woman — can be sexually attracted to someone without a strong emotional connection, without a friendship. I am mystified by the whole concept of the “friend zone”, because I’ve always elevated the idea of friendship and have seen it as a necessity for a truly rewarding romantic relationship, not the antithesis of it.
It’s like I said at the beginning of this rather rambling post that isn’t adequately expressing the entirety of what I’m trying to say: My idea of beauty is, I realize now, rather other-worldly, based far less on physical reality than on love, admiration, and relationship.
Friendship is attractive to me. True intimacy…a deep connection…mutual respect and understanding…a close bond…openness and vulnerability…without all that, I’m as lost as I was back in college, trying to explain to my friend why I didn’t find a supposedly hot hunk of a man in a magazine even remotely attractive. How could he be? He was a stranger.
Then, as I was mulling these things over, I read this:
As Paul writes, we are meant to offer our bodies as living sacrifices, beings that weaken and suffer and endlessly minister. Our bellies should swell with children and shared meals and laughter. Our eyes should smart with tears as we grieve with those who mourn. Our knees should ache as we kneel to serve, and our hands should twinge as they clasp the fingers of the dying. A preserved body is stagnant, atrophied; its value misunderstood, its substance misapplied. A sacrificed body is tired, rundown, redeemed, and truly beautiful. [from A Living Sacrifice: The Beauty of a Body Broken for Others]
That’s why Jesus’ resurrected body still bore His beautiful scars. It’s why pregnancy-ravaged bodies are beautiful and, yes, even holy. It’s why those who give of themselves in sacrificial and loving ways, who let me in to their hearts, become breathtakingly beautiful in my eyes.
It turns out that I was right after all. Yes, hopelessly idealistic — although I prefer to think of it as hopefully idealistic — and, as usual, marching to the beat of a drummer that is out of step with most of our culture, and even out of step with most people. But I will cling to my other-worldly notions of beauty, and of what makes someone attractive to me. It turns out that there is nothing wrong with work-worn hands. Maybe someday mine will become far more so than they are now…along with the rest of me…so that I can be “tired, rundown, redeemed, and truly beautiful” in the eyes of the Only One who truly matters.
After all, the thought of hearing the words “my good and faithful servant” means far more to me than even the most flattering words and opinions of mere mortals.
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.