Sit with me and tell me once again
Of the story that’s been told us
Of the power that will hold us
Of the beauty, of the beauty
Why it matters
Speak to me until I understand
Why our thinking and creating
Why our efforts of narrating
About the beauty, of the beauty
And why it matters
Like the statue in the park
Of this war torn town
And it’s protest of the darkness
And the chaos all around
With its beauty, how it matters
How it matters
Show me the love that never fails
The compassion and attention
Midst confusion and dissention
Like small ramparts for the soul
How it matters
Like a single cup of water
How it matters
–Sara Groves, Add to the Beauty
I was talking with a friend the other day and our conversation turned to hair. She mentioned she’d been talking on the same topic with someone else; almost apologetically she said that they both felt like hair was a real part of a woman’s identity. That made me think about how I felt about my grandfather’s dentures when he died. I knew they were just a thing, not even a part of his body. They were made of plastic and ceramic. But still, it felt wrong to throw them in the trash, even as worn as they were. They were a part of him, one of his belongings. They were with him all the time; they were iconic. They were part of his identity. How much more so the hair we grow out of our own head?
There’s a line of thought that says that beauty in oneself is bad. It’s vain. It’s worldly. I have very vivid memories of my dad praying for me as a child that–oh, I don’t remember the exact words; mostly just how concerned he was and how frequently he prayed about it. Spare me from the worldly desires to be beautiful. Stop me from being obsessed with beauty. With a little distance, I can see the vapid lifestyle he didn’t want to see me pursue. With the same distance, I can’t believe he was getting so worried about a little girl liking pink and playing with her grandma’s old costume jewelry. But the impression burned deep: being or wanting to be beautiful was bad.
He told me I was beautiful. So did my grandma. Neither held much weight. Everyone knew that daddy would spoil his girls at half a chance. That’s why I had so many brothers, to keep me from being so awfully spoiled. The boys had no use for delicate things, either. Lace was “stupid” and “looked like it was designed to break.” This was asserted with much scorn. Their highest compliment was (is) that I wasn’t really a girl, I was (am) just a defective boy. A degrading insult would be that I was (am) “just a typical girl.”
Women who pursued beauty were disgusting. They looked uglier for it, and besides, they only did it to please themselves. Women only had bad ideas about beauty. Women who wanted to be beautiful were stupid. And daddy would say, “all my girls are beautiful!” and it wouldn’t even seem like a compliment anymore.
I neglected beauty, because I saw it so devalued. But I never lost my longing for it, not even when my dad declared that I had been spared of those worldly desires. He was wrong, on both counts. I wasn’t cured, even if I’d gotten good at hiding it. And it wasn’t a worldly desire.
The God who made this world filled it with beauty. Somehow it is okay to talk about the beauty of rocks and trees, skies and seas, flowers, birds, music, many things. But for a person, a woman, to be beautiful is vain, worldly, maybe even sinful. Maybe she can be beautiful, but only by accident and if she doesn’t notice.
Well, if you don’t like the word beautiful, try ‘well-formed.’ The same God who made beautiful, well-formed, well-designed trees did not skimp when He made mankind; in fact, He made them in His image, with more glory and better form than any of His other creations. With women, the word used to describe this goodness is typically ‘beauty,’ and He Did It On Purpose.
“Don’t be adorned!” they say. Really? Every time I read it, it said, don’t let your adornment be merely outward, which is a totally different thing. ‘Don’t be adorned!’ says it’s wrong to put on anything that might flatter. Wrong to do it! ‘Don’t let it be merely outward’ says that there are somethings more important than outward things. But the outward things are still important; otherwise, why did God make beautiful trees? Why did God bother to make us in His image? Beauty matters.
When we think, or imply, or act as though beauty ought to be quashed, we’re disagreeing with God. We’re saying it doesn’t matter the artistry God put into making us. We can’t wear flattering things, or take note of things that flatter us, because that would be vain. One can flatter oneself in vanity, yes. But to disregard the deliberate handiwork of God is no better a solution.
I use the words ‘beauty’ and ‘designed’ and ‘formed’ so interchangeably, because much of what is the appearance to the eye of beauty is pleasing proportions. There are certain clothes you put on, and they “do nothing for you.” They devalue your form and do not agree that there is beauty there. There are other clothes you put on, and admire your design, and feel guilty that you’re so vain you admire yourself. Maybe; but maybe you are just agreeing with God. You’re acknowledging His handiwork by agreeing with it, choosing clothing that does not hide His skill but rather agrees with the proportions He gave you.
I’m not arguing for walking around in bikinis, or trying to see how much skin you can show. It does depend who’s aesthetic you’re chasing after. God designs beautiful things; men are much more shallow. Don’t chase the shallow things. But when that color makes your face light up, don’t apologize. Beauty is not the most important thing; but it is important. It was important enough to God to create it. We were even told that when we’re fasting, we should still continue to anoint our faces–tend to our outward appearance.
I was taught that beauty was just another word for weakness, and weakness was to be despised. I’ve thought a lot about good design since then, and I refute that now. The most beautiful things that I have seen, the designs that I have most admired, were the ones that married form and function. Beautiful shapes and meaningful use. There is no virtue in being ugly; there isn’t even any virtue in being ignorant of your beauty. Somehow it has been said that since beauty isn’t a virtue, it must be a vice. No; it is nothing that we either do or do not do. It is the handiwork of the living God. It is a reflection, a refraction, of who He is. It has value because it points to Him, not because we possess it. We should value it because He made it, not because we own it.
Is hair part of our identity? Yes, it is. No, that’s not shallow. But we don’t own our identity; God does, and He has right to change it. Does that mean we should never cut our hair, since God made it the way it was?
That’s what I was taught. Although somehow it applied to women’s hair and not men’s. But the only beauty that could be was how you were born, and you were to make utterly no effort to touch that thing called “beauty,” unless it was by wearing dresses. It all seems rather convoluted. Do I have a better answer? The answer I almost want to give is, “That’s between you and God.” And, of course, it is. But that’s a cop-out; it’s cowardly to not share another way of thinking of it.
The way I see it is that when we want to paint a picture or take a photo of some of the beautiful things that God has created with no interference from others, we still work on the composition. We agree with God that He made something beautiful, but when we capture it, we’re not going to devalue His work by mashing it into a terrible composition. We’re going to strive to show it for all that it is, in the most flattering and powerful way we can, honoring His handiwork.
I don’t think it’s any different with the beauty He has created in us (men and women). There is honor and respect in wanting to display someone’s handiwork well. We are God’s handiwork. We could pursue beauty as a thing we own, a thing we worship, a thing we twist with this fallen world. Yes, that is a possibility. But we could also pay homage to God, agreeing with what is His artistic vision.
When we see the yellow and blue flowers compliment each other so well, we plant them together, and it’s beautiful. We call it a ‘garden,’ and we remember that when God first made a garden, He made humans its caretaker. We put a blue shirt on, and it’s beautiful, and we remember that it is God’s belonging that we’re taking care of.
I am learning to pursue beauty, because I recognize the reflection of God in it. Beauty can be falsely worshiped, just as the earth that God created can be falsely worshiped. But it doesn’t mean we must burn the earth to strip it of it’s beauty, least it be worshiped, and nor does it mean we must devalue the beauty we were created with. Even things like exercise or eating well–we can pursue it as an act of self-serving, or we can pursue it as an act of serving God and valuing His handiwork. It took me so long to realize that delighting in beauty could be an act of worship, but now I am instead struck by how hard I have been trying to ignore the fact that God made me. I can enjoy who I am because He is the one who made me.
By delighting in beauty, I’m not “becoming worldly.” I’m admiring the designs of God.
By pursuing beauty, I’m not “being vain.” I’m recognizing His work, and turning my attention to it.
By valuing beauty, I’m not “being weak” or valuing “weakness.” Indeed, strength is complimented by beauty, and beauty is complemented by strength, and both are gifts from God and our value is in Him.
Beauty matters because God created it. We cannot try to devalue it without devaluing the one who made it.