We’re all acquainted with the media’s idolization of beauty. I could cite thousands of examples where women are objectified, bodies are standardized, and idealism is exalted as an achievable reality. Our culture worships beauty, spiritualizing it as a god-like status to be maintained at any cost.
But the church has spiritualized beauty, too.
Perhaps in reaction to society’s pushy, external focus, the church emphasizes an elusive, undefined “inner beauty”. We teach young girls to focus on that – not on what the culture has to offer. But we don’t give details on what this should look like. As with sex, world’s definition of beauty is presented as “bad”, but with no alternatives offered.
This “inner beauty” is (perhaps unconsciously) depicted as a spiritual ideal, indicating that any other beauty is inferior and unimportant. But while cultivating a “gentle and quiet spirit” is a biblical quality, it doesn’t alleviate the desire to be externally beautiful. Cultivating inner beauty doesn’t answer the question these girls are asking: “Can I want to be beautiful on the outside, too?”
Demonizing Outward Appearance
In the beginning, God created man and woman in His image (Gen. 1:27). God is the epitome of beauty (Ps. 27:4; Is. 33:17), the Creator of everything beautiful (Ecc. 3:11). In creating man in His image, God bestowed on him a measure of creative ability, allowing us to both make and appreciate beauty.
Somewhere along the trajectory of church history, the creation and appreciation of beauty became associated with secular culture. Rather than striking a balance of discernment, the church took the easy route, at times treating outward beauty as an impediment to spiritual maturity. Citing verses like 1 Sam. 16:7 – “God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” – young women have been taught that outward appearance is none of their concern, even when their hearts tell them otherwise.
We should never allow our feelings and desires to dictate truth. However, our status as image-bearers of God links the truth of God’s Word with this innate desire to be beautiful. God created beauty and gave us a desire to participate in it. That desire, affected by sin, causes mankind to put an inordinate emphasis on outward appearance, while God gives preeminence to the motives of the heart. But the desire to be beautiful is not a sin. While beauty, in part, drew Eve to the forbidden fruit (Gen. 3:6), it was not what caused her to sin. Her idolization of beauty – and consequential disobedience – was directly linked to the motives of her heart: prioritizing her desires above peace with God.
The church has sometimes demonized outward appearance, condemning time spent on it as shallow or selfish. But outer appearance is inseparably linked to the heart’s motives. Very often, what is seen on the outside is simply a reflection of what’s going on within. Inner and outer beauty are not “either/or”. They are “both/and”.
Balanced Beauty in an Unbalanced World
Simply put, inner and outer beauty are not mutually exclusive.
The “Can I want to be beautiful?” question is not so much a product of our culture as the cry of a woman’s heart. It is innate. It is designed. And it cannot be ignored.
When women say they don’t like something about their bodies, the world shouts, “You’re beautiful just the way you are!” I have yet to meet one woman who can live in those words day after day. They are hollow platitudes, giving brief satisfaction with no lasting effect.
But the church’s offering: “It’s inner beauty that matters!” – isn’t much better. Both these answers ignore the issue at hand.
Believe it or not, it is okay not to like something about our bodies. We live in a fallen world warped by sin, and while we are indeed “fearfully and wonderfully made”, I would be lying to say the mirror reflects that every morning. I’m not saying this because of cultural influences that tell me my body isn’t perfect. The culture has nothing to do with it. My body isn’t perfect! But we are in such a rush to silence our dissatisfaction, we never find out why it’s there in the first place, and our churches and culture “hush hush” poor body image without ever getting to the root cause.
The root cause? An unspoken belief that inner beauty is holy and outer beauty is selfish. We believe it without ever saying it out loud. The effects of this ripple through everything we are as women:
- If inner beauty is spiritual, am I in sin for wanting to look pretty?
- Is it wrong for me to wear makeup or cute clothes?
- Am I a bad person for desiring to be beautiful?
- Am I offending God for wanting to change my body – straighten my hair, lose weight, cover up my acne?
With it comes the guilt: guilt for even thinking about something so “shallow”, guilt that we desire to be beautiful, guilt that we don’t accept our bodies “just as they are”. This whole mentality needs a major dose of God’s truth, because guilt is never God’s intention.
This really is a problem in the church. Girls email me constantly, asking if it’s “okay” for them to want to improve their appearance because they’ve been told to do so reflects a discontent and selfish heart. The world tells them their bodies are “perfect just the way they are”! But they look in the mirror and don’t believe it. The church tells them they shouldn’t be worried about it, but they are. So they are left with no answers, frustrated, seeking some kind of balance in an unbalanced world.
Here is the truth: none of us have perfect bodies. Accepting that our bodies are not and never will be perfect is the first step to embracing God-defined body image. It is unrealistic to tell girls their bodies are perfect when these same girls know that they are not. It is a lie, and they know it’s a lie, and we can all stop lying.
Instead of expecting and pretending perfection, we can start embracing the reality of who we are, and that starts in the heart. It starts in God-grounded identity that knows we are His, even with our imperfections. Yes, we may have scars, lumps, bumps, and weight to lose. But we are God’s people operating in a fallen world, “treasures in jars of clay”. Even lumpy jars.
But accepting your body does not mean it never changes.
Our bodies are indeed temples of God’s spirit (1 Cor. 6:19). As such we should be making efforts to live as healthfully as possible as good stewards of God’s gift of life. While there are certain things about our bodies that are out of our control (incurable sicknesses, birthmarks, body structure and build) it is not “sinful” to better the things that are under our control.
I gained 45 pounds during my first pregnancy. I looked in the mirror after Adeline was born and almost wanted to cry: extra weight, smooshy thighs, cellulite, and stretch marks adorned my body. I was tempted to hate my new body and remind myself of how awful I looked after each shower. Instead, I accepted my body as it was – and then worked to healthfully change it.
Three months later I’ve achieved some health goals for my body. But more importantly, I was able to do it because of the inner-outer beauty connection. As I grounded myself in God’s word, I accepted my new, “imperfect” body. As I accepted my body for what it was, I was free to make healthy changes to its appearance with no guilt or regret. The motives of my heart were integral to improving my body image.
I didn’t have to give up inner beauty to improve the outward. I didn’t focus solely on the outward at the cost of the inner. It took a balance of both.
What I’ll Teach My Daughter
There was a post a while back about how to talk to your daughter about her body. It’s a great post. But as a Christian mom, I have a great responsibility to teach my daughter how to perceive her body in this beauty conundrum.
Yes, inner beauty matters. But so does outer beauty, because the outward is so vitally connected to what’s going on inside. Our appearance, whether we like it not, has a powerful effect on our behavior, how others perceive us, and even our own (non-spiritual) confidence. And it’s okay to want to cultivate it.
So I’ll teach my daughter to ground herself in her God-designed identity, and then I’ll give her the freedom to beautify that self.
Perhaps she’ll end up like me, loving lipstick and heels. Perhaps she’ll like jeans and no makeup.
I’ll teach my daughter what it means to live a healthy lifestyle and yes, I will talk to her about being a soul-in-a-body, about what it means to be a woman, because the outer is the inner. We are not Gnostics. We can balance valuing a body and a soul, embracing both, demeaning neither.
The inner beauty conversation doesn’t need to go away. It needs to change. It needs to include the whole picture of what it means to be a woman: embracing that innate desire to bring beauty to the world as a product of God’s design.
Yes, you can want to be beautiful. Beauty in its truest form is divine. So to truly embrace beauty we must fully embrace Christ with every part of our being: inner, outer, and everything in between.