Theology of Beauty in Action: Objectivity

It is important to think through some practical ways these truths should impact the way we think and live. As we embrace this biblical view of beauty we will undergo a significant paradigm shift. Here are some ways I think a theology of beauty finds feet in our everyday existence.

Beauty and Objectivity

I have always been intrigued by the pursuit of beauty throughout history and in different cultures. Carolyn Mahaney catalogues this pursuit in a book on biblical womanhood. What she writes is worth recalling in full.

“Over the centuries, women have mauled and manipulated just about every body part—lips, eyes, ears, waists, skulls, foreheads, feet—that did not quite fit into the cookie-cutter ideal of a particular era’s fashion. In China, almost up until World War II, upper-class girls had their feet bound, crippling them for life but ensuring the three- or four-inch-long feet that were prized as exquisitely feminine. In central Africa, the Mangbettu wrapped the heads of female infants in pieces of giraffe hide to attain the elongated, cone-shaped heads that were taken to be a sign of beauty and intelligence. During the Renaissance, well- born European women plucked out hairs, one by one, from their natural hairlines all the way back to the crown of their heads, to give themselves the high, rounded foreheads thought beautiful at the time.

Among the Padaung people of early-twentieth-century Burma, the ideal of female beauty involved a greatly elongated neck, preferably fifteen inches or more. This was accomplished by fitting girls with a series of brass neck rings. At a very young age, girls began by wearing five rings; by the time they were fully grown they were wearing as many as twenty-four, piled one on top of another. The weight of the rings leads to crushed collarbones and broken ribs, and the vertebrae in the neck become stretched and floppy. Indeed, these women wear the rings round-the- clock because, without them, their stretched-out necks are too weak to support their heads.

The author goes on to capture the frenzied search for ideal female beauty. Overweight women in England in the 1600s were bled; chic women in the 1930s swallowed tapeworms. Queen Elizabeth I, in search of porcelain skin, used a potentially deadly combination of vinegar and lead that resulted in the total corrosion of her skin. Ancient Egyptian women used drops of antimony sulfide to make their eyes glitter, eventually destroying their vision. Victorian women summoned their maids to tight-lace them into corsets, cutting off their oxygen and displacing internal organs in order to achieve an eighteen-inch waist. Flappers in the 1920s folded their breasts to simulate a fashionably flat torso or used constricting devices like the one from the Boyish Form Brassiere Company.”[1]

There are two important lessons to be taken from this. First, men and women have always been on a quest to know and attain beauty. The search for beauty at any cost is not new. Second, this lengthy quote demonstrates that there is no consensus on a standard or definition of beauty. Ultimately every culture determines its own definition of beauty to which all within strive to conform. This means that a woman of beauty in one culture could be unattractive in another.

It also begs the question: how does one choose a standard of beauty to assess themselves? For which definition of beauty should a woman strive? Should she go for the thin or heavy look, the pale or tanned skin, the painted toenails or crushed feet? If a woman goes to a tanning booth why doesn’t she also try to stretch out her neck? If a woman plucks her eye brows why not her hair to show off her forehead? How do you choose? And ultimately how does one ever know they have attained beauty if they might be considered uncomely in another culture or era? The utter subjectivity of the pursuit of a cultural standard of beauty seems nothing short of chasing the wind. The Proverbs capture the emptiness of this quest: “beauty is vain” (Prov 31:30).[2]

We are on shaky ground if we allow the culture to have the final say on beauty. Scripture makes plain that there is one objective standard and definition of beauty: the Triune God who has revealed himself primarily by the Son in the context of the gospel. Beauty is not up for grabs. It is located firmly in God himself.

This truth along with the fact that he confers his beauty upon us by creating and renewing us as image bearers is liberating. We are free from the empty pursuit of Hollywood’s standard of beauty. You do not have to invest your time, energy, and money to meet the standard held out by this culture. The light of truth dispels the darkness of falsehood and deceit. As we strive by the Spirit to transform our thinking in this area liberation and freedom are sure to follow.


[1] Carolyn Mahaney, “True Beauty” in Biblical Womanhood in the Home, edited by Nancy Leigh Demoss (Wheaton: CrossWay Books, 2002), 34-35.

[2] Ibid, 37. “Scripture reveals the falsehood and the futility of the quest for physical beauty. “Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting” (Prov. 31:30). ‘Charm’ in the Hebrew means bodily form. Form and beauty are two things that our culture esteems and pursues with fervor; yet God exposes our pursuit of the perfect figure and beauty to be idolatrous.”

 

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