Beholding Beauty | Fashionless Friday

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

For years those words haunted me: am I only beautiful if someone else considers me to be so? And, as someone who has never met our society’s conventional beauty standards, why couldn’t I just accept this fact — why was I so hung up about wanting someone to find me beautiful?

As a young teenager, I used to fantasize that there was a boy somewhere on this earth who would look at me — in all my skinny scrawny shapelessness, with my frizzy unruly hair, buck teeth, acne, freckles, and weird-looking bony knees and feet — and somehow find me beautiful. And, since I was fantasizing, I imagined him as a nice, sweet, wholesome, kind, sane boy rather than as a desperate, lunatic boy with low self-image and poor taste. Finally, that fantasy seemed too ridiculously improbable, even for me, so I began dreaming of a boy who would overlook my outward appearance and even my misfit personality, and would somehow manage to fall in love with a hidden inner beauty that hitherto no one — not even me — had ever managed to discern.

I was thinking about all that recently, as I had the enormous privilege to kneel — and I mean this as literally as possible — at someone’s beautiful feet. As I rubbed these dear, sweet, painful, elderly feet with soothing lotion, I thought of the verse, “How lovely are the feet of those who bring good news!” My mother has truly announced “good news of happiness” to many. Her feet are beyond beautiful.

All that has made me think, yet again, about my notions of beauty and my desire to be found beautiful. I’ve written about it before, about three and a half years ago.

That post was about, among other things, purposing to cling to “my other-worldly notions of beauty, and of what makes someone attractive to me”. I ended by stating:

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.

What does that have to do with beauty being in the eye of the beholder? I realized, as I knelt at my mother’s feet recently, that God has been changing my eyes — not my physical eyes, but the ways in which I see and appreciate beauty. There is so much more to loveliness than most of us can recognize, especially if our eyes and hearts have been trained by societal norms.

One of my favorite people to pray with has hands I find absolutely beautiful. She sees hands damaged by hard work and arthritis; I see hands that have served Jesus oh so very well, hands that have soothed the dying, hands that have brought me flowers she lovingly tended in her garden, hands that continue to bless everyone she touches. I see hands so beautiful that they have moved me to tears.

Back when I was that young teenager, facing constant mocking and bullying at school, desperately dreaming up fantasies of sweet boys who would find me beautiful rather than ugly, I began looking at myself through the wrong set of eyes. The people who truly loved me never considered me ugly — not even when my actions and attitudes were. It has taken me decades to be able to look at pictures of young teenage me and not feel embarrassment and humiliation… and self-loathing.

“Woe to him who strives with him who formed him, a pot among earthen pots! Does the clay say to him who forms it, ‘What are you making?’ or ‘Your work has no handles’?” (‭‭Isaiah‬ ‭45:9‬ ‭ESV‬‬)

Ouch. That’s what I was doing. I was telling my Creator that He did a lousy job when He knit me together in my mother’s womb. I was accusing Him of shoddy workmanship… just because some people, including myself, were looking at me through the wrong eyes.

Love sees beauty even when others don’t.

That’s the kind of eyes I want, so that I might be a beholder of beauty, whether it’s mine or someone else’s. I want to have beauty in my eyes, so that I might see beauty wherever it is to be found.

Nature, nurture, or both: what makes me a “real woman”?

I was born a girl. And except for some long ago summer days at the age of 11, when my too-short haircut and my play clothes of blue jean cut offs and a white t-shirt made me appear confusingly gender-ambiguous, I have always presented as female.

As a teenager and fledgling woman, I often felt inadequate. Even now, as a supposedly fully matured woman, I sometimes struggle. I’ve never been especially girly. I lack many of the talents, skills, and interests associated with femininity in our culture. According to what many teach regarding “Biblical womanhood”, I fail miserably. I’m not domestic enough. I’m not sweet enough, soft-spoken enough, gentle enough, or submissive enough. Instead of finding fulfillment among the pots and pans, I’d rather be teaching kids to hit and kick each other in the dojo. Instead of urging girls, “Stay sweet”, I’m more often heard urging them to “Be fierce!” Instead of going into raptures of delight over cleaning products, make-up, cute shoes, or whatever it is we women are supposed to get all giddy with excitement over, I’m far more likely to get excited about my favorite hike, a good cup of coffee, some techno-toy, or sensible shoes. (Although I do own a few cute pairs for when I want to clean up, put on a dress, and look semi-presentable.)

I didn’t fit in as a girl. I often don’t fit in now.

But I’m a real woman.

Only I’m not. Because, after all, “real women have curves”, and I’ve always been sorely lacking in the curves department…well, except for the more recent “curves” of added fat in all the wrong places.

Then again, there’s my trump card. The fact that I’ve had six kids should grant me entry without question into the ranks of “real women”.

Except that men can supposedly give birth. Or at least women who decide to have partial sex reassignment surgery so that they can live as men, claim they are men, but still get pregnant and have babies. So now, someone recently informed me rather heatedly, giving birth is not just a “woman thing”. Men can do it too. So there.

So what makes me a woman?

I think genetics and biology are not meaningless. Yes, I know that “Biology is not destiny!” was a rallying cry in the 1960’s. I don’t believe that our biology, as women, should be viewed as a limitation, prison or trap, any more than the same should be true for a man. I would never tell any man that he is good for little else besides sex and fathering babies, and therefore he should not trouble his handsome little head over important things, nor should he do anything dangerous, given how delicate and vulnerable his reproductive organs are. The truth is that, as both men and women, humans are far more than our reproductive systems. But those very systems are an important part of us, whether they function properly or not, whether we delight in them or not, whether they cause us grief or pleasure.

I was born a girl. My parents raised me as a girl who would grow up to be a woman. I went to school and took part in communities where I was treated as were girls in my day and time — for good and for bad. My experiences shaped me.

Even the common, shared experiences of childhood were not exactly the same for me as for my brothers. For instance, when teachers would say, “Boys will be boys!” to a classroom full of children, it meant something entirely different for us girls than it did for the boys. We were being told we were being overly-sensitive tattle-tales and needed to stop; the boys were being given permission to go right on doing whatever it was that had upset us so much. Sometimes it felt like we were being raised in parallel universes.

Puberty was, to vastly understate the obvious, very different for me than for my brothers.

I could go on and on… Nature and nurture, my biology and my life experiences, have molded me, shaped me, formed me, given me identity. I am a woman. I am more than a collection of body parts, more than a shape, more than my appearance, more than my sexuality, more than my talents or lack thereof, more than a social construct.

It cost me to become a woman. I have literally bled. The transition from girlhood to womanhood was not easy for me, not physically, not emotionally, not spiritually, not mentally. There were times when I feared I would not arrive, whole and happy, on the other side. Not every girl’s adolescence is so tortured or troubled, nor do boys sail into manhood without a worry or problem. However, the worst pains of my teen years were suffered because I was a girl.

There was not one experience that made me a woman. It was not my first menses, nor did a sex act “turn me into a woman”. It wasn’t even when I had my first baby. Being a woman is the sum total of my mind, body, memories, and experiences. I’ve spent my entire life being female, and it’s the only life I know.

At the same time that I love being a woman — it has been the source of some of my deepest joys — I can also enjoy, perhaps a little too much, ignoring or overturning what I regard as silly cultural stereotypes and expectations. I may not measure up to your idea of a “real woman”, but I’ve put in the time and I’ve definitely earned the stripes, even if I don’t look as decorative or act as demurely/sexily as you think I should.

Putting on a dress and high heels doesn’t make me more of a woman. Neither does cooking a delicious meal, or keeping silent in a church meeting, or crying at sappy movies. I don’t become less of a woman when I’m in my sweat-soaked gi, pounding the heavy bag with all I’ve got. Adding or subtracting body parts would not make me any more or less a woman than I already am. Womanhood is not something you wear, something you put on and off, some set of actions you do or don’t do. Womanhood is who you are, all of it.

I was born a girl, with female chromosomes and body parts. I grew up as a girl. I was taught how to be a girl…and how not to be a girl. I’ve lived as a woman all my adult life. It is the sum total of my existence and the very essence — inside and out — of who I am. You don’t get much more real than that.

I refuse to trivialize womanhood, refuse to reduce it down to outward appearance, refuse to suggest that it is a commodity than can be bought or sold, refuse to believe that surgery can make or undo it. I’ve had friends and loved ones who have lost breasts, uterus, and ovaries to cancer — but they were still very much women, no matter what our culture might say.

Womanhood is worth celebrating. Worth honoring. Worth valuing. Worth respecting.

Even if I just started laughing over my sudden urge to start belting out, “I am woman, hear me roar!”

Preaching to the choir: gender confusion

Read the first post in this series: Redefining marriage

This is another call to repentance, another call that is not for those outside the Church. I’m not even sure it’s for everyone inside the Church. In fact, it may not even make sense to anyone but me. That’s because, more than anything else, I am “preaching” to an audience of one. Any finger-pointing is directed first and foremost back at myself.

This post, and any others in the series, are a reflection of some of my ongoing thoughts and concerns about marriage in general. At this point, I freely admit to being more short on answers than I’d like.

We have confused stereotypes and prejudices about gender with how God created men and women — and have dared slapped the label “God-ordained gender roles” on the resultant mess and nonsense.

We have searched out Scriptures to find “evidence” for our own pre-conceived notions about gender roles. We have twisted Scripture into convoluted evidence, and attacked anyone as “less than Christian” who called our carelessness and lack of logic into question.

We have attached gender to the evidences of the Holy Spirit’s work in a person’s life, even though Scripture does no such thing. The truth is that there are no male or female “fruit”, no male or female “gifts”.

We have confused cultural norms and practices with God’s will for men and women.

We have confused our own opinions and experiences, our own hopes and desires, with what God requires of us. (“I like men to be like this…I’m sure God feels the same.” “All the women in my family don’t do this, so no Christian woman should.” “I’m uncomfortable with this, so it must be wrong.”)

We have seen gender where there is no gender. Like the three year old boy I knew who insisted on drinking only from a “boy cup” and using only a “boy spoon”, we too often claim certain things are masculine or feminine, when they are neither. Courage is not a “masculine virtue”, nor is gentleness a “feminine virtue”. The Bible does not speak of gender-specific virtues or character traits.

Furthermore, God does not give either sex a free pass on certain sins because some people of our gender may find them especially easy to commit, or overwhelmingly tempting. Nor do we get to opt out of obeying God in those instances when to do so might cause our same-sex peers to look askance at us and call our gender identity into question. Too bad. Following Christ is not without cost.

Side note: if you are a woman, please don’t whine about “persecution” just because you are being accused of “acting like a man” when you don’t shrink back with fear or don’t insist with feigned helplessness that a man do something that you are capable of doing for yourself. If you are a man, please don’t whine you are being “persecuted” just because one of your buddies makes a joke about you being “whipped” when you try to love your wife as much as you love yourself.

We allow our culture to define masculinity and femininity for us. Oh, sure, we deny this, but the truth is that we merely tweak and attempt to “Christianize” the current cultural definitions. Thus, the red-blooded American Christian husband should be having all the mind-blowing sex he wants whenever he wants it — but only with his wife. Of course, she should be the Christian version of a “real woman”: voluptuous and sexy, wildly uninhibited during sex, but soft-spoken and gentle in every other setting. The truly godly wife should be her husband’s very own private porn star — incredibly skilled at performing every sex act he can imagine without him even having to ask — yet so innocent and pure that she not only never kissed another man, but never had a remotely sexual thought prior to marriage. But there is more. Men like sports; women like Pinterest. Men are from Mars; women are from Venus. Men are initiators; women are responders. Men need respect; women need love. We just recycle our cultural messages and repackage them with the “Christian” label.

We bludgeon one another with ungodly measuring sticks of what we claim is true masculinity and femininity. Those that do not measure up to our arbitrary standards are left feeling bewildered, emotionally battered, and inadequate — often with deep aching wounds at the very core of our being. I have experienced what a terrible thing it is to be convinced, by fellow Christians, that I fail to measure up as a woman, as a human being. Men who have been similarly bludgeoned insist that their wounds are even more devastating.

We tell each other lies about gender. We place burdens on ourselves and others that God never intended. We accuse. We condemn.

We allow gender to separate us when our very own Scripture teaches us that there is neither male nor female in Christ. Instead of focusing on Him, we prefer to focus on sex and gender. We prefer to divide rather than unite.

Instead of embracing the beauty of God’s creation, instead of seeing His image in every man and woman, we pit one sex against the other, shove each other into boxes, tear each other down, exalt ourselves, demean each other, insult each other, exploit each other, abuse each other.

We need to repent. We need to read the Bible without our lenses of prejudice. We need healing. We need to seek the Father’s heart about men and women, male and female. We need to reflect Him, instead of cultural stereotypes, even Christianized ones. There is a lot that needs repenting.

May God have mercy.

Preaching to the choir: Redefining marriage 

This is a call to repentance, but it is not for those outside the Church. I’m not even sure it’s for everyone inside the Church. In fact, it may not even make sense to anyone but me. That’s because, more than anything else, I am “preaching” to myself. Any finger-pointing is directed first and foremost back at myself.

The Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage did not take me at all by surprise. My only surprise is that so many in the Church seem to be reeling in shock, as if the decision was unexpected and caught them by surprise. This post is not just what may be the first one in a semi-planned series about my reaction to this ruling, but it reflects some ongoing thoughts and concerns about marriage in general. At this point, I freely admit to being more short on answers than I’d like.

Redefining marriage

Before any of us ever utter the words “redefining marriage” ever again, perhaps we should admit that most of have been guilty of doing that very same thing for a long time. Yes, we — the ‘choir’ — have been guilty of redefining marriage.

  • We have redefined marriage by comparing it to authority structures that are the very antithesis of the loving, intimate, one-flesh, procreative union God defines marriage as being. How often have you read books or heard sermons claiming the husband is the captain and the wife is the first mate, or the husband is the CEO and the wife is the plant manager? Yet, if people who occupy these positions in real life treated each other like husband and wife, it would be considered a scandal and most would agree that everyone involved should lose their positions immediately! Worse than that, theses definitions and descriptions are found nowhere in Scripture.
  • We have redefined marriage as being mostly about personal happiness and fulfillment. We love to go on about about “finding true love”. We want to marry someone who will “meet our needs”, “speak our love language”, and “make us happy”.
  • We have redefined marriage as a right, and as the default setting for adult heterosexuals. We view singleness as a problem that needs to be puzzled out and solved (“I can’t figure out why she isn’t married yet”; “Why are men in our church so unwilling to get married?”) and we view single adults as not quite as adult as the rest of us — and therefore best shuttled off to singles ministries, where they will hopefully all marry each other, so that they can come back and be part of the normal folk.
  • We have redefined marriage as the happy ending in a romantic movie. Then, when it doesn’t live up to our unrealistic, Hollywood-fueled expectations, we cynically redefine it as the source of our unhappiness and lack of fulfillment.
  • We have redefined marriage by claiming that “wives submit” is the aspect most needing to be taught and emphasized, and that “husbands love” really means that husbands shouldn’t be physically abusive when they exercise their authority over their wives.
  • We have redefined marriage as a pragmatic, human-centered, and rather immature arrangement requiring one person (the husband) to have the “final say” or the “tie-breaker vote”. We assume disagreement is inevitable, and reaching mutual agreement is impractical or doomed to failure. Even worse, we act as if it is impossible for two people, both led by the same God, to reach the same decision.
  • We have redefined marriage as exempt from many of the Scriptural commands and teachings regarding how Believers are to treat one another. Many of us are more loving and kind-hearted to strangers next to us in the pew than to our spouses. We are willing to bear one others’ burdens, pray for others, weep with them, rejoice with them, treat them with preference and respect, mutually submit to them, encourage them, build them up, etc. — as long as the “others” are not married to us. We pretend that Christ’s high priestly prayer, and most of the epistles, doesn’t really apply to marriage, and that husbands and wives don’t need to treat each other as brothers and sisters in Christ.
  • We have redefined marriage as a lack of unity, and insist that being “of one mind and one accord” is impossible for a man and a woman. After all, supposedly men and women are from different planets (Mars vs. Venus), resemble totally dissimilar foods that no sane person would serve together at the same meal (waffles vs. spaghetti) and have entirely different needs (respect vs. love).
  • We have redefined marriage as being centered on pleasurable sex. I have encountered countless Christian books, articles, speakers, and counselors full of advice for how I could — and should —become more like the “smokin’ hot wife” of my husbands’ fantasies/needs, but can’t recall one Christian source of information about healthy, natural ways to increase fertility. I’ve also encountered numerous articles championing “purity” before marriage followed by lifelong monogamy because these practices supposedly guarantee a more pleasurable sex life.
  • We have redefined marriage as being far more about roles rather than about relationship.
  • We have redefined marriage by claiming that it turns any man into a “priest, prophet, and king”. (Of course, no one I’ve ever encountered claims that marriage turns a woman into a “priestess, prophetess, and queen”.)
  • We have redefined marriage in terms of culture, whether our current culture, some bygone culture, or some nostalgic, romanticized culture that exists only in books, old TV sitcoms, and our over-wrought imaginations.
  • We have redefined marriage by turning the covenant relationship God Himself created into an institution defined by the whims of human law. We have handed our marriages over to our governments to regulate, encourage, discourage, define, institute, and dissolve. Then we accuse those same governments of usurping the very authority we not only freely gave them, but insisted that they exercise over us.
  • We have redefined marriage by claiming that its most important aspect is that it is “traditional”, and between one man and one woman.
  • We have redefined marriage by not being far more concerned about whether our marriages reflect the extreme, sacrificial love Christ has for His Bride…whether our marriages reflect the radical unity and one-ness God requires of us…whether we are becoming more like Him…whether we are obeying Him with and in our marriages…whether our marriages really and truly honor Him. Marrying someone of the opposite sex is easy. Mimicking stereotypical gender roles isn’t all that difficult. (Doing it successfully — at least for me — is a different matter.) But having a marriage that glorifies God requires supernatural assistance.

I don’t know about you, but I have failed. As the Bible says of all of us, I have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. This is a serious matter. It is, in fact, deadly serious — no matter how much I try to deny and pretend away the gravity of sin. 

Repentance is what I need. The grace of God — and His daily assistance — is my only hope.

If any of the choir made it all the way to the end of this post…are you willing to join me in asking God to show us even more areas in which we need to repent? Are you willing to pray the following prayer with me, no matter how painful the result?

Search me, O God, and know my heart!
Try me and know my thoughts!
And see if there be any grievous way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting!
 [Psalm 139:23,24]

Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit within me.   [Psalm 51:10]

I don’t know about you, but I definitely know that I need to be searched, known, cleansed, and renewed.

May God have mercy.

When complimenting women

I’ve been in a number of situations where various men, who I prefer to believe were clueless as opposed to ill-intentioned, complimented women in a way that obviously caused them to feel awkward and uncomfortable. I have also heard men complain that women can no longer “take a compliment”. So I offer the following to any man willing to listen.

This is not a “how to flirt” list, nor is it “how to compliment your wife”. Instead, it assumes a non-romantic relationship, although some of the suggestions would apply to any relationship, and to women as complimenters as well as men.

  1. Consider the relationship. Just because a man may notice something about me does not make it appropriate for him to comment on it.
  2. With non-relatives, be very cautious about giving complements you would never give to a man. You would never say something like, “You’re such a sweet little man and you always dress in the cutest clothes!” You might say, “I appreciate how kindly you treat others. And I like that jacket. It looks great.”
  3. Treat the object of your compliment as a person, first and foremost.  You don’t need to keep reminding her that she is a woman, or act as if you can’t get past her femaleness. (See #2. The way I adapt these guideline is by not complementing a non-relative male on any masculine attribute — which would most likely be inappropriate anyway — and by not adding the slightest hint of a sexual overtone by emphasizing his gender. I might say, “You have a unique musical talent,” but I won’t say, “You are such a talented man.”)
  4. Don’t use “compliments” as a means of embarrassing women and girls. Be succinct and make sure the compliment is welcome. Compliment something you honestly believe the recipient would want you to affirm. If not, apologize (“I’m sorry if I was out of line” or “I’m sorry for embarrassing you”) and then be quiet. 
  5. Don’t be effusive and don’t gush. That’s just creepy.
  6. Make sure there is an altruistic purpose to your compliments. As Christians, we should encourage one another, but we need to be careful that we are encouraging the right things in the right ways. The compliment should be for her benefit, not yours. Don’t use flattery to manipulate. Try to never put a woman in the awkward place of wondering about your interest or motives, or being creeped out by your attention.
  7. Be specific. “You’re terrific” or “you’re nice” can sound like insincere flattery or an attempt at flirting. If sincere, it communicates nothing of substance, other than “I like you” — and such declarations are usually, depending on the circumstances, unnecessary or best left unsaid. (See #1) If the compliment is to be meaningful and beneficial to the receiver (see #6) then it needs to be specific: “Your tireless work behind the scenes does not go unnoticed or unappreciated”; “I admire how you stood up to that guy — that took courage and grace”; “You have a way of making us all feel welcome, as if we are your personal guests”; “You are so patient with our son, and so encouraging”; “You have a way with words and a level of insight I appreciate — your latest article is just one example”; “You made the unpleasant ordeal of picking out a new washing machine not an ordeal at all! You were so good at sizing up our needs and wants, and helping us find the right machine. You made it easy, so easy it was almost fun! You have a great sense of humor — I had no idea laundry could be so hilarious.”
  8. Compliment only what you have observed to be true. This can include repeating a compliment you’ve heard/read, as in, “Wow, your play sure got rave reviews!” or “Your parents told me you did great!” But don’t offer meaningless speculation or assume anything about her character, experiences, beliefs, future plans, etc. You might end up looking like a fool or — far worse — might inadvertently make her feel terrible.
  9. Keep your compliments appropriate to the context. If it’s a professional setting, be professional. Affirm her professionalism, work, knowledge, skill, etc. but don’t intrude on her personal life or pretend to “know” other things about her. (See #7. I don’t know any woman who, in her professional life, wants some relative stranger to insist, “I can tell you’re the sort of person who…” especially if he them spouts meaningless flattery.)
  10. Unless she is about 6 years old or younger, avoid words like “cute” or “adorable” — unless you are describing her kitten. Condescending “compliments” are insulting. 
  11. Try to understand that not every woman has a need or even desire to be affirmed by random men. I know that men are often hurt when women — even complete strangers — don’t “appreciate” their compliments. But, except for the most insecure and desperate among us, we don’t need male validation from every Tom, Dick and Harry as much as some men seem to think we do. Having a guy who barely knows me pronounce his positive judgment on me doesn’t necessarily feel like a “compliment” as much as intrusive and nervy. His opinion of me doesn’t matter as much to me as it does to him; often I’d rather he have kept it to himself. So don’t assume women and girls will respond with grateful enthusiasm to your compliments, and try to understand if they act annoyed and put upon. Most of us have already had to endure too much of men judging us and it’s hard to be gracious about it. Plus, there can be a lot of anxiety there too, for good reason — a seemingly “harmless” compliment can suddenly go terribly, terribly bad. However, well-mannered, meaningful, succinct, specific, and appropriate compliments tend to be welcome by almost everyone, male or female.
  12. Avoid the “back-handed” compliment. This means you shouldn’t include any insult or sign of disrespect, no matter how cleverly worded, into your compliment. “You’re not like other girls” is not a compliment, nor is, “You think like a man”.
  13. If you mess up, apologize and drop it. Never berate a woman for not responding as you had hoped. The words “Can’t you take a compliment?” should never cross your lips.

Edited to add this:

14. Or maybe I should call this 1A. Consider the relationship before you address people. I realize that there are cultural differences regarding when terms of endearment are appropriate or not. But, it’s a safe bet that, if we’ve just met and have never been formally introduced, that it’s a bit premature in our “relationship” for us to be considering each other as “dear”, “honey”, and “sweetheart”. Perhaps we should reserve those “sweet nothings” until we get to know each other a bit better. Unless, of course, you’re just being an absent-minded mom of many kids, who doesn’t realize that she now calls everyone — her kids, her husband, the dog, the cat, the mailman, and her pastor — “sweetie” or “honey”…either that or something that sounds like, “Math-Mi-I-Ben-Dan-Jesse…oh, never mind!”