In a recent address to the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association,a nationally known speaker joked that his wife rarely passed a mirror without checking her appearance. He didn't mind, he said, because "she's my glory!"(alluding to 1 Cor. 11:7—"the woman is the glory of man").
I wondered what the men and women in the audience were thinking. Did they say to themselves, "Good for him that he's proud of his wife!"? Did the men contemplate their own wives' appearance and wonder whether it advertised their glory? Did the women compare themselves to this beautiful woman and feel insecure, ashamed, or envious?
Christians have long been of two minds about physical appearance. A hundred years ago ministers preached against the health dangers of corseting, while pious mothers went right on lacing their daughters into stays that crushed their ribs. Many today will say that inner beauty is what counts; how you look does not matter. However, the immaculately dressed ECPA speaker evidently comes from the school that thinks otherwise. And if you have tried to go to church in Dallas, get a job in New York, or find a mate in a Christian singles' group anywhere, you know he's right: for better or worse, people do judge books by covers.
Ten years ago I felt superior to those who put so much stock in appearance. I wore no makeup, had my hair cut every few months, and considered my wardrobe irrelevant to the spiritual and intellectual life I was pursuing. When otherwomen obsessed over diets broken, I remained primly silent.
Since then I have awakened to the hypocrisy of my stance. I discovered in the Bible a much richer view of beauty than I had ever heard discussed, eitherin the world or the church. But to understand the biblical notion of beauty,it is important, first, to examine how the world defines it.
How beauty works
Beauty means love. Studies confirm what most of us intuitively sensedas children: Mothers and daycare workers smile, coo, kiss, and hold pretty babies more than plain ones. Fathers are more involved with attractive babies. In her study of mothers with their newborns, psychologist Judith Langlois concludes, "The less attractive the baby, the more the mother directed her attention to and interacted with people other than the baby. … By threemonths … mothers of more attractive girls, relative to those with less attractive girls … more often kissed, cooed and smiled at their daughters while holding them close and cuddling them."
These early responses have enormous consequences for the child's sense of security as he or she grows up. Children learn that attractiveness is the key to love.
Children's stories reinforce this impression. The prince was not enraptured with Cinderella's intelligent, sensitive conversation; he was smitten by her wardrobe and her teeny tiny feet. Snow White and Sleeping Beauty netted their men while comatose. Rapunzel had great hair. What child wouldn't conclude that beauty is the key to people's hearts?
Even some of the biblical narratives recognize this beauty-love connection as a fact of human nature. When the writer of Genesis introduces the sisters Leah and Rachel, he says nothing about their character. He simply notes that Leah, the older sister, "had weak eyes, but Rachel was lovely in form, andbeautiful. Jacob was in love with Rachel" and wanted to marry her (Gen.29:17-18). By declaring Jacob's love right after commenting on the two sisters'looks, the author implies that Rachel's beauty was a major cause of Jacob's love. Since the rest of the story highlights Rachel's petulant, conniving character, it is hard to conclude that Jacob preferred her because she wasthe more godly of the two. Beauty often wins love. It just does.
What happens to a woman who grows up lacking that precious sense that sheis beautiful in the eyes of at least one loving beholder? Nancy Friday,best-selling author of My Mother/My Self, is one such woman. She wrote her 589-page tome, The Power of Beauty, to explain what she freelyadmits has been a lifelong addiction to being found beautiful. She begins, "I am a woman who needs to be seen. I need it in a basic way, as in to breathe, to eat." Her explanation? Her father abandoned her family shortly after herbirth. "There is nothing like the mystery of an absent father to addict you to the loving gaze of men." Nancy grew up knowing her mother considered her older daughter pretty, but Nancy was unattractive until she blossomed inher late teens. By then she was a confirmed exhibitionist, devoted to drawing the loving gaze of anyone from her nurse to her grandfather, and eventually a dizzying string of lovers.
Beauty ensures home and family. Over a century ago, Darwin speculated that animals develop an instinct to prefer certain characteristics in a mate, in part because those characteristics are associated with higher success in reproduction. Every animal instinctively wants to pass on its genes to a new generation, so it looks for a mate (or mates) with whom it can conceive and raise as many offspring as possible. Darwin proposed that this theory applied to humans as well.
In the 1980s, scientists such as University of Michigan psychologist David Buss set out to test Darwin's theory. Do humans across the globe share certain preferences regarding mates? These scientists published hundreds of studies, but the ones involving physical appearance have caught the most media attention.
In studies of 37 cultures around the world, the researchers found consistent preferences among men for women whose faces and bodies show signs of youth, health, and high estrogen. These signs include clear, smooth skin; large, bright eyes; small jaws; thick hair; a ratio of waist measurement to hip measurement that approximates 0.7 (hourglass curves); firm breasts; and especially symmetry. Symmetry means that a person's eyes, ears, cheekbones, shoulders, breasts, and even hands and feet match in size and shape. Biologist Randy Thornhill says asymmetry in animals is a sign that the animal was injuredor attacked by a parasite during development, or signals poor nutrition or a neurological problem. Consequently, symmetry is an excellent cue to an animal's (and human's) health. Asymmetry (such as stretch marks and wrinkles)increases with age, so symmetry also signifies youth.
The evolutionary psychologists assume that an instinctive attraction to thesesigns of fertility evolved over millennia. However, it is plausible that God simply wired humans' brains with an attraction to those features that would help our species be fruitful and multiply. God gave us many animal like instincts— hunger, thirst, the will to survive, the desire to mate. They are part of our lower nature that serves a valuable purpose when governed by an alive and wise spirit.
Trouble comes, though, when basic instincts dominate the spiritual side of our natures. Although endowed with supernatural strength from the Holy Spirit, Samson picked his women based on outer beauty alone. Seeing a nubile young Philistine, he demanded of his father, "Get her for me, for she is right in my eyes" (Judges 14:3, NASB; emphasis added). The match proved disastrous. Sometime later, Samson got into trouble with a prostitute, and then came the Delilah fiasco. The text never mentions the latter's looks, but it is clear Samson chose a manipulator loyal to her people rather than to him. They wanted the secret of his strength, and Delilah wore him down with statements like "How can you say 'I love you' when you won't confide in me?" (Judges 16:15, NIV). This time, choosing a wife by instinct rather than wisdom cost him his freedom— the Philistines captured him— and his eyes—they gouged them out. (There would be no more choosingmates by looks.)
As a single woman, I was curious to know the degree to which Christian men select wives by appearance. In a survey by the National Institute for the Christian Single, men rated looks as the third most important quality insomeone to date (after the ability to communicate and personality). But in choosing a wife, they rated it only sixth, after depth of faith, life experiences, and quality of heart (but ahead of intelligence!). The pastors and counselors I interviewed confirmed that men in their ministries seem to have a "beauty radar" that screens potential partners, but they think men also pay attention to external cues of internal qualities, such as a bright smile, an air of comfort with one's body, and a warm way of relating. The men I talked to also think that the ability to "dial down" his beauty radar is a feature of spiritual maturity in a man.
Interestingly, Buss and the other scientists found that appearance was muchless important to women than to men when choosing a mate. Women around the world place a higher priority on a man's earning potential and commitment. Why? Because in order for them to raise healthy children, they need dependable economic help from a mate. Still, women prefer men who look young, healthy, symmetrical, tall, muscular (able to defend their families), and with the heavy jaw and forehead that denote high testosterone.
Rachel is portrayed as petulant and conniving, so
it is hard to conclude that Jacob preferred her to
Leah because Rachel was the more godly of the two.
Further, Buss says the importance of physical attractiveness to both menand women has increased in the U.S. in every decade since studies began in 1939. On a scale of 0.00 to 3.00, men's emphasis on good looks in a wife has risen from 1.50 to 2.11, while women's concern for a husband's appearance has climbed from 0.94 to 1.67. Buss attributes the shift to the increase of advertising and other media depictions of ever-more-perfect models. Madison Avenue may not create instincts, but it can inflame them.
Dutifully, in pursuit of a youthful look, American men spent $100 million in 1994 on hair coloring and another $1.36 billion on hair transplants, toupees, and other efforts to conquer baldness, according to Fortune. Among women, the war on aging costs ten times that much.
Beauty offers status. Status is the relative position of one person to another in a hierarchy, in a system of limited resources. When there aren't enough good jobs, wealth, mates, power to make decisions, or simple respect to go around, then status often determines who wins and who loses.
The evolutionary psychologists found that people around the world accorda man higher status if his wife is attractive. They know he must have something going for him (often economic resources for her children) if such a desirable woman has married him. The ECPA speaker understood this instinctively: his careful grooming and his beautiful wife signal to everyonethat he deserves their respect.
Beau Brummell's dictum, "Clothes make the man," still applies to both genders. Susan Holland, president of a Chicago executive recruiting firm, tells jobhunters, "There is much more competition out there now. Companies want alot of reasons to hire you— and keep you— and how you look is one of them." Joely Beatty, senior partner in a California management-consulting firm, warns that subordinates will not respect a newly promoted boss who fails to project the image of his or her rank. Pastors and their spouses walk a minefield regarding respect and image: if they look too sharp, they may bejudged as vain or materialistic, while if they look too dowdy, they may be dismissed as out of date or lacking in stature. Since standards vary widely from New England to Atlanta to Los Angeles to Iowa, one has to learn therules of the game in any new town.
Status equals dollars. Studies in 1983 and 1989 for the Academy of Management found that with each additional attractiveness point on the researcher's scale, a woman gained $2,000 in ongoing yearly salary. A University of Pittsburgh study in 1990 revealed that businessmen's average annual earnings rose $1,300 for every inch of height. By 1993, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research, men and women considered good-looking were earning at least 5 percent more than those labeled average-looking.
Status is so important to humans, says Buss, that tastes in appearance that vary from culture to culture often do so according to what reflects status. For example, a seminary professor told me that when he was a missionary in Africa, local men reproved him for allowing his wife to get so thin. Her size reflected poorly on his willingness and ability to provide enough food for her. She made him look bad. But there was absolutely no way his American wife was going to give up her figure to "fit" in her temporary home if it meant that she would then be too large to fit in the U.S.
In our culture, slim is in and fat is contemptible. Fat people receive the kind of open scorn that our society cloaks for other minorities. Christians often assume that being overweight is a moral failing. For instance, a conference organizer, whom I'll call Sharon, was thrilled that one of her spiritual heroines was speaking at her conference. Sharon confided to this famous woman that she, too, was about to begin a speaking career. Sharon's heroine replied, "You know, of course, that the audience isn't going to respect what you have to say."
"What do you mean?" asked Sharon.
"They'll take one look at you and realize that you lack self-discipline. Why should they listen to what you have to say?"
This woman, who has an international reputation for spiritual maturity, assumed that Sharon's size reflected overindulgence. She also knew that Christians would judge such overindulgence much more harshly than, for example, a lack of self-discipline regarding television or sports. Granted, obesity is sometimes (though not always) linked to the sin of gluttony; still, "TV gluttony" does not carry the status stigma that being fat does.
High-calorie foods are plentiful (and few people do the kind of labor that consumes those calories) while vegetables and lean entrees are expensive. People need both leisure and money to cultivate the slim-and-toned look that denotes status. The body that enabled Demi Moore to do the filmStriptease reportedly required her to spend four hours a day workingout, with the help of a personal trainer and $15,000 worth of gym equipment. All that after several cosmetic surgeries.
It is no surprise, then, that in 1996 the top five cosmetics companies racked up $30 billion in the U.S. alone, according to Women's Wear Daily Fortune says American men spent $9.5 billion in 1994 on everything from facials to nose jobs and spent $4.27 billion for gym memberships, exercise equipment, and slenderizing undergarments. Liposuction to remove fat was the most popular cosmetic surgery among men ($94.4 million worth, accordingto Fortune).
In His Needs, Her Needs, a Christian book that has sold more than 500,000 copies, Willard Harley claims that one of a man's basic "needs" is an attractive wife. Men "need" this for many reasons, but among the most important is that "A man also wants an attractive wife as a pure and simple matter of pride. … Juvenile as it may sound, people often do judge the ability and success of a man in terms of his wife's appearance."
The evidence that people do this is overwhelming, but even the evolutionary psychologists underscore that they are reporting merely whatis, not what ought to be. "I don't know any scientist who thinks you can look to nature for moral guidelines," says biologist Thornhill. Formoral guidelines, we have the Bible.
Part one of two parts; (click here to read part 2)
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