In the fast-paced Christian journalism industry in Carol Stream, Illinois, the workaday world is a man's world. At Christianity Today, most of my fellow editors are men, and at the conferences I attend in a given year, I am in the gender minority.
But at that conference last month? All women. Sixty of them. Feminine women, with dresses and heels and references to each other as "girls." I was terrified.
In just a couple generations, women have attained more positions of leadership and influence than ever before. According to Hanna Rosin's The End of Men, in 2009, for the first time in U.S. history, they held about half of the nation's jobs—and not just as waitresses and stewardesses. Today, women hold 51 percent of all managerial/professional jobs, up from 26 percent in 1980. Over 60 percent of accountants are women; 45 percent of law firm associates are as well. The number of female breadwinners is growing, and the number of women pursuing higher education outpaces men.
Yet at just the time when more women invest in their workplaces and positions of ministry with gusto, a powerful visual culture continues to root them in a timeless myth about themselves: They are how they look.
We all know the culprits: Cosmo and Vogue, pornography, Miss America, the music industry (thanks, Sinead), and the marketers peddling anti-aging creams and Botox injections and a multitude of other products that play to our collective fear of gaining weight and getting old.
The culturally savvy among us can analyze these troubling forces to death, and the Christians among us cling to the belief that our eternal beauty is inward (1 Pet. 3:3–4). Still, on a gut level many women want to be physically beautiful, if not to attract men, then at least to keep apace other women.
At the conference last month, held at an immaculate day spa in the Texas Hill Country, I was surrounded by women who hit all the contemporary markers of beauty. The majority of them were thin and tall, with long hair, masterpiece makeup, and trendy clothing, much of which was provided by a personal styling service. Our conference swag bags included makeup samples and a jewelry catalog. And the bag itself? A gorgeous fair trade orange-and-blue purse hand-sewn by a Rwandan woman named Ucumyo. While I had packed my most fashion-forward clothing (highlighting that I too value physical beauty), I felt drab and boring, like I had shown up at the prom wearing sweats and a scrunchie.
The women didn't just perform femininity in their dress; they also talked it, effusing "Love you, girl" and "Oh my word" and "Can I just say, y'all are my favorite?" (Did I mention that we were in Texas?). We were channeling the spirit of Beth Moore, and it was more estrogen gathered in one room than I had experienced since the days of youth group. I freaked. And then I judged. Specifically, I judged that because the women were more traditionally feminine than me, they were shallow and uninterested in the world of ideas.
Where did this beauty-intelligence false dichotomy come from? That contrast was in full swing after Yahoo! chief Marissa Mayer appeared in a Vogue photo shoot this September wearing Michael Kors and stilettos. Critics suggested that Mayer's languid pose communicated that corporate leadership "is too rigorous for skirts, and it might just be simpler and easier for everyone if we did our jobs by sitting still and looking pretty," said Stephanie Smith at Q Ideas. Grace Chan, a media vice president, told CNN, "If you want to be treated equal, you shouldn't take advantage of your physical assets. I don't want to get brownie points because I am attractive. I like to separate the fact that I am a woman and I am a professional." (As if women can choose to not be women while on the job.)
If the false beauty-intellect divide is strong now, it must have been raging 60 years ago. Marilyn Monroe was frequently asked to pose in tight shorts or swimsuits while holding a tome such as James Joyce's Ulysses, as if to wink at the viewer: "Isn't it silly that a gorgeous woman is holding a book?" To her tragic demise, Monroe became the archetype of the Dumb Blonde, though some psychologists actually report a positive link between beauty and intellect.
Even as a Christian women's site, Her.meneutics has had to wrestle with the false dichotomy that separates the pretty from the smart. We've intentionally downplayed traditionally feminine cues in our website design—note the relative lack of pastels and floral patterns.
But why would pastels and flowers signal "silly" or "unimportant"? How paradigm-shattering would it be to produce a website that looked like an Anthropologie catalog—and also delivered sharp analysis of the debt ceiling or religious freedom or the Bechdel test?
The women I met at the conference last month shattered these kinds of paradigms—and my own ugly prejudice against beautiful women. They were articulate, curious about the world, deeply kingdom-oriented, and passionate about much more than hair and facial products. Physical beauty for them seemed important, but clearly (and rightly) not as important as global and eternal questions and concerns. They gave me a new model for what it means to lead as a woman—not as a woman trying to hide their femininity, like so many women in leadership, especially in male-oriented workplaces, feel they must do.
We all face limits in time and energy, and every Christian woman must ask how much she is willing to spend getting ready in the morning. We should consider our attitude toward our facial features and bodies, and whether our pursuit of beauty is idolatrous and consuming. But intelligence can be an idol too, and I wonder if I have clung to it in order to be taken seriously in a male-oriented culture. After the ladyfest last month, I'm ready to learn how to correctly apply eyeliner—and also to read more Kierkegaard. Who says we can't do both?
Katelyn Beaty, managing editor of Christianity Today and co-founder of Her.meneutics, will be speaking at Q Focus: Women & Calling in New York next month.