I have recently been plunged into a world of health nuts. And I say that with affection because I know and love many of these individuals and have largely become one myself. (Having an autoimmune disease has caused me to research natural and healthy ways of healing the body.) However, the industry of health and the industry of beautification seem to be two sides of the same coin. I find the discussion of health almost always begins with the desire for weight-loss and physical attractiveness. While this is not surprising given the beauty-obssessed culture that we live in, what worries me is that Christians so frequently and passively accept the status quo--namely, the idea that striving for physical beauty is a noble pursuit.
I wouldn't go as far as to say that we shouldn't pursue beauty, but rather that we need to pursue it thoughtfully. We need to be fully aware that we live in a culture that would press us to define our worth by how we look. We should be wary of letting people bind us to their roller coaster system. As the Apostle Paul exhorts the Galatians:
"For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery."(5:1)
At the very least we need to ask ourselves if we are enslaved by others' opinions of our appearance. Do we feel an overwhelming need to conform to others' expectations? Do we long to have them make much of us? We forget that Christ has set us free from that rat race.
Ironically, we allow ourselves to be enslaved by people while simultaneously forgetting that we are slaves of Christ--an infinitely better slavery! Our bodies are not our own to do with as we please. The Apostle Paul says in 1Cor. 6, "You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body."
So is it wrong for a woman to strive after beauty? Can she feel enjoyment in a new hair style, some beautiful clothing or keeping a trim figure? Or is that participating in an enslaving worldly system? Perhaps it's helpful to take a step back and remember who the Author of beauty is.
MADE IN THE IMAGE OF THE AUTHOR OF BEAUTY
I firmly believe that God loves beauty. He created the world with the eye of an artist, the ear of a musician and the tastebuds of a foodie. The earth is beautiful! "The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork." (Ps. 19) Think of the range of colour that is found in nature and the beautiful intricacy of a snowflake, the sweetness of a perfectly ripe strawberry, and a symphony of sound in nature. In Revelation 4, John describes the throne room of God as being absolutely beautiful. A rainbow the colour of emerald is around the throne and the one who sits on it has "the appearance of jasper and carnelian." Beauty marries order when God creates days and seasons. His creation is complex--not only well-ordered, but also attractive.
He is a God who makes beauty from ashes and order from chaos. If we are made in his image (and I believe this refers more to moral character and less to physical resemblance), then it makes sense that we would also be lovers of beauty and order. And so we push back the chaos and create beauty in our homes, in the work place, in nature, with our bodies, with food, with music, with words, with art, etc.. Our eagerness to create and to order is evidenced in all facets of human activity.
MODESTY AND THE PROBLEM OF SIN
Since the fall of Adam, created beauty, perhaps especially in the human body, tends to stir up sin instead of worship. For example, a beautiful form often arouses envy, comparison, lust or pride. But is making your body beautiful sinful merely because it may cause someone to sin? I don't think so. But the scriptures certainly call us to expand our horizons beyond our own desires and to consider what is good for others. Further down in that passage in Galatians, Paul says,
"For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Gal. 5:13-14)
I think it can be a good thing to enjoy the creation of a new hair style or a unique sense of style or a feminine appearance. We can praise God for creativity and beauty. But this always needs to be counter-balanced by a concern for your sister struggling with issues of identity and comparison or your brother struggling with lust. Not that concealing beauty or femininity can prevent sin--it can't. But perhaps we need to take more time to consider how our love for others coincides with our desire for beautification? Are we trying to glorify God with our appearance or is our true motivation self-glorification? Self-expression is a wonderful thing, but freedom doesn't trump love.
On the flip side of that coin. Why do we struggle with jealousy and comparison? Isn't it because we are discontent with who we are? Or to put it another way, is it possible to see a beautiful person and not feel threatened? Yes. Absolutely. We can see a gorgeous person, appreciate their beauty and then be content with who we are. The problem is not so much that we are physically flawed, the problem is that we long to be something that we are not. 1 Timothy 6:9 speaks of the desire to be rich causing people to fall and I can't help thinking the desire to look like a supermodel is very similar. Paul says,
"But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction."
You see this is a problem of unfulfilled desires. You are discontent with who you are. These desires--to be something you are not--when left unchecked can cause all sorts of trouble in your life. Praying for a change of desires is an important remedy for this snare. Also, finding out who you are in Christ, why you are valuable and how you are uniquely gifted will help you know your value in God's kingdom.
In my experience, immodesty is a symptom of insecurity. People who are culturally inappropriate with appearances and behaviour in order to draw attention to themselves are by definition immodest. They need the approval of others to make themselves feel good. When it really gets down to it, isn't there something a little bit sad about seeing a woman (or a man) put an inordinant amount of time and effort into their appearance. Sometimes I wonder if, instead of us writing them off as arrogant and annoying we need to encourage them that they have eternal value. Any of us who, at one time or another, have felt enslaved to something should feel compassion. Idolatry of that kind can really chew a person up and spit them out. It's an awful treadmill to be on.
FREEDOM AND VARIATION
Beauty is displayed in different ways. Some prefer to spend less time on their appearance--others more. Don't be quick to judge someone different than you. God has made us all with different temperaments; some of us are artistic and some more practical.
Exercise and diet can be good things, but don't assume that they are good things for you. In a culture as beauty-centric as our own, we have a greater responsibility to think through our reasons for pursuing physical beautification of our bodies.
Are we seeking to reflect the artistry of our saviour and give him glory in all things? Are we showing love to our brothers and sisters? Are we content with who God has made us? Some people are created physically very beautiful, some less so, but all are beautiful in God's eyes. Cultivate a carelessness about other peoples's opinions. Everyone is fearfully and wonderfully made.