About a week before Christmas, I decided to join my husband's family for an entire day of shopping. I got ready for the day with my usual routine of showering, blow-drying my hair, and picking out an outfit, but there was one difference: I left the house without an ounce of makeup on my face.
"Today I am going out without makeup on as an act of Christian discipleship!" I announced to my in-laws upon entering the living room. My confidence flagged, however, as soon as I walked in the first store. I vainly wanted to tell the salespeople, "I don't normally look like this"—as if they were concerned. Eventually I adjusted to the change, but the entire time I kept asking myself, Why do I feel naked without makeup?
In order to answer that question, let me retrace some steps. It all began with a book by Maria Harris titled Dance of the Spirit: The Seven Stages of Women's Spirituality. Harris, a Catholic professor of religious education, bucked linear models of human development and offered a more organic, true-to-life framework of spiritual development. As Harris conceived of it, a woman's spiritual growth is more like a dance than a straight path: She moves forward, sometimes backward, and often repeats the same moves over and over throughout the course of her life. Indeed, Harris's gender-inclusive language and her discomfort with accepted Christian traditions would make any evangelical cast a wary eye. Even so, in the course of my doctoral research at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, I have found myself rather inspired by her surprising voice.
Harris termed the first stage of a woman's spiritual dance awakening, which is best compared to the scriptural concept of daily renewal. Romans 12:2 instructs Christians to "be transformed by the renewing of your mind," and 2 Corinthians 4:16 reminds us that "inwardly we are being renewed day by day." This seems to be what Harris had in mind as she encouraged women to awaken to God, and their identity in him, on a daily basis.
Of the action steps Harris suggested, one stood out to me. Harris exhorted women to go outside without any makeup on:
Possibly the suggestion that we take off our makeup, or go outside without it, creates a feeling close to panic. ("Oh God, no") If we react that way, it may be we are shocked by the suggestion that we allow someone else to see us as we actually are. (15)
She then adds,
I know. I wear makeup. But I marvel at women who go without it, and I notice how comfortable men are in public without it. And I wonder what our doing away with it, not all the time but on occasion, as an experiment, might do in awakening our spirituality. After all, in West Side Story, Maria didn't sing, "I look pretty." She sang, "I feel pretty." (16)
Harris described other forms of makeup that we wear to hide our true selves, singling out "false expressions" as especially prevalent. Harris noted the wide array of expressions women don, masks "of peaceful disagreement when we are in raging disagreement; of pleasure when we are actually disgusted; of distaste when we are actually delighted; of human when we are actually repelled; of understanding when we are actually baffled" (16). Our desire to please others can be so powerful that we frequently hide our true selves behind symbolic makeup, instead of embracing the person God created each of us to be.
Harris's words are powerful and timely. She also offers an appropriately balanced approach. Rather than condemn all makeup as an evil itself, she encourages women simply to keep it in check. From time to time, she advised, go out in public without any makeup. It is a quick indicator of where your confidence is founded. It certainly was for me.
Yet the question remains: Why did I feel so bare without makeup? The first answer came to me from 1 Peter 3:3-4, which reminds women that their beauty comes not from "outward adornment" but from the "unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit." True beauty, as God defines it, takes a lot of work. Worldly beauty, conversely, does not. Bearing this in mind, I feel naked without my worldly beauty because I am not confident in my spiritual beauty. And I am not confident in my spiritual beauty because I have invested considerably less time into it.
But there's another reason why I feel vulnerable without makeup. When sin entered the world, Eve immediately felt naked and ashamed, so she tried to cover herself. Thousands of years later, I feel that same shame about who God created me to be, focusing on my faults instead of rejoicing in the imago Dei I bear. Echoing Harris's sentiments, I am afraid for people to see me as I really am, even though God himself created me this way.
Harris passed away in 2005. I would have loved to sit down with her over a cup of coffee and hear about her personal awakenings to God and herself. I wonder if she ever reached a point at which she stopped wearing makeup altogether. But I suppose that was not the point. Her legacy was not one of legalism about makeup but of greater intimacy with God. For those of us who draw confidence from exterior adornments, achievements, and attitudes, she challenges us to experience a purer, unencumbered faith.
Sharon Hodde Miller is a PhD student in educational studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois. She blogs at She Worships. Last year guest blogger Stephanie Krzywonos wrote about the health hazards in makeup.