Pursuing Beauty in Light of the Gospel

Pursuing Beauty in Light of the Gospel

Pursuing Beauty in Light of the Gospel

Susan Fikse, Issue Number 30, January 2011

I didn’t eat yesterday
And I’m not gonna eat today
And I’m not gonna eat tomorrow
’Cause I’m gonna be a supermodel!
So beautiful, beautiful
I’m gonna be a Supermodel
I’m young and I’m hip—
So beautiful, beautiful

Jill Sobule’s lyrics to “Supermodel” may seem ridiculous, but for many 13-year-old girls, these words voice a dream. In a culture obsessed with celebrity, fame, youth, and beauty, what better way to achieve significance than to join the glamorous world of supermodel celebrities?

Seeking to find acceptance and significance in a confused world, girls pursue what appears to matter most: a “perfect” external package. Clearly, even celebrities themselves can’t measure up to the airbrushed image of perfection that beckons from glossy magazine covers. What drives 23-year-old celebrity Heidi Montag to undergo 10 plastic surgeries in one day? We watch in disbelief, maybe even disgust, yet many follow her straight to the operating table. Cosmetic surgeries increased more than 66 percent from 1997 to 2009, costing Americans nearly $6 billion. And that doesn’t include Botox injections or hair implants.

Anyone who ingests American media—from watching an NFL game, surfing the Internet though Google searches, or even reading Ladies’ Home Journal—absorbs the same overwhelming message. Beauty, youth, and thin thighs are worthy of exultation. As Christians we know the bathroom scale doesn’t measure the value of our lives. But, do we examine our own choices in dieting, concealing wrinkles, spending on the latest fashions, or whitening our teeth in light of the gospel?

As Christians, we have a better answer than “beauty is only skin deep” to offer a culture with misguided—and potentially dangerous—ideas about what makes a person beautiful. However, in answering our culture’s errors, we often commit our own, focusing on a legalistic list of acceptable choices or focusing solely on the spiritual while denigrating the physical. These answers fail to acknowledge that the human longing for beauty reveals our need and desire for the source of true and lasting beauty. As theologian T.M. Moore writes, “Our souls are impoverished and even wounded when we fail to attend properly to our need for beauty.”

What lies beneath our culture’s obsession with appearance and perfection? How can Christians embrace our human appetite for beauty as a yearning for transcendence and articulate an alternate vision—one that points our culture toward the ultimate redemption of all things?

A Toxic Environment

In his documentary America the Beautiful, Darryl Roberts sets out to answer the question: “What causes us to obsess over physical beauty and not appreciate the things that truly make women beautiful?” His conclusion that the fashion industry and media are culpable of exalting an unrealistic ideal comes as no surprise to most observers. Last year, The New York Times implausibly suggested that the quickest way to lose weight was to secure a photo shoot for a magazine cover. Celebrities Kelly Clarkson, Kim Kardasian, and Jessica Alba were all “digitally reduced” for magazine covers. Clothing designer Ralph Lauren continues to suffer boycotts for publishing a bizarre image of model Filippa Hamilton, who was so disfigured by digital alterations that one magazine compared her to a “string of spaghetti.”

Jonathan Edwards on Beauty

Perhaps Jonathan Edwards is best known for his sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Given this reputation, few people imagine the New England pastor to be a foremost thinker on beauty. Yet, a new compilation of Edwards’ works, The Essential Edwards Collection, devotes an entire volume to Jonathan Edwards on Beauty.

Editors Strachan and Sweeney write, “The study of true beauty was for Edwards the study of God…. The Lord had in fact crafted a great plan by which to express beauty and to make His glory known…. He set in motion an arc of glory that began with Himself, moved to creation, continued with the incarnation of Christ, moved next to the church, the bride of Christ, and is consummated in heaven, where the Holy Trinity dwells.”

Edwards’ theology from his earliest days as a Yale scholar focused on the transcendent glory of God as its centerpiece. Any beauty that we see in creation begins and ends in the Lord, argued Edwards. “There is an infinite fullness of all possible good in God, a fullness of every perfection, of all excellency and beauty, and of infinite happiness…,” he writes. This infinite fountain of light, good, knowledge, moral excellence, and beauty becomes a “fountain flowing out in abundant streams, as beams from the sun.”

Carolyn Costin, founder of Monte Nido, a treatment center for people with eating disorders, marvels at the absurdity of paying $30,000 a week to supermodels who are the same height and weight of girls in treatment for anorexia nervosa. Though images on magazine covers and TV ads may seem harmless as we pass them in the grocery store or while flipping channels, they trigger a dangerous reaction in the most vulnerable viewers. Costin describes those who develop eating disorders as cultural “canaries in the coal mine.” In the past, Canaries were used to test the toxicity of mines because of their acutely sensitive constitutions, ensuring safety for the miners coming behind them. Costin suggests that those suffering from eating disorders are a signal, a warning sign showing us what’s happening in a culture where what you look like is more important than who you are.

The most imperiled in this toxic environment are young women, says Alison Cross, a licensed professional counselor and member of East Cobb Presbyterian Church (PCA) church in Georgia. Cross explains that young girls get the message early on, and as early as age 5 can identify what is deemed beautiful and what is not. They quickly learn to equate thin with beautiful. An American Diabetes Association study revealed that 55 percent of girls ages 7 to 12 said they want to be thinner. It’s not a far step to high school, where 11 percent of students are diagnosed with eating disorders.

That’s why Cross speaks to young women as part of her Body, Beauty, and Bravery Project. “We don’t want to give media the power of defining what beauty is, she says. “Instead, we can develop an awareness of the messages [out there] and how we incorporate them into the ways we view ourselves.” It’s important, Cross says, that we reject those messages and that “we speak up for ourselves and each other.”

Many secular solutions end with this message: Refuse to believe the media hype, and value yourself for who you are. That’s an important place to start—especially for the girls who’ve been bombarded by the images, who’ve been told, day after day, that they, when compared to some notion of the perfect ideal, are woefully flawed. But this solution falls far short of offering a compelling alternative. The truth is, if we fall short of supermodels, actresses, and star athletes, how can we measure up to the Source of all beauty? In order to fulfill our quest for beauty, we must acknowledge the hidden search for love and acceptance, attachment and belonging that drives our striving for external perfection.

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