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.”
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.
Simple Message, Complex Journey
I am a child of God. This understanding, Allison Cross says, “is the foundation of a biblical view of beauty. “As God’s child, I can embrace my whole self—inside and out—and see myself as the accepted and dearly loved child that I am.” She admits, “The message is simple, but the journey is complex.”
“We look for cheap shortcuts back to the beauty of the garden,” says Rev. Wesley Horne, a PCA pastoral counselor. “Our perversions of beauty are attempts to experience all that is beautiful and wonderful and without shame, just like our first parents sought. But a sword guards the path leading back to the garden; there is no way to return apart from Christ. There are no shortcuts.”
Simply, the only way to true beauty is Christ. Yet, many have read Isaiah 53:2 enough to know that His beauty was not of the type our culture pursues: “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.” So, what do we mean that Christ is beautiful and that in Him we find true beauty?
Christ came as a perfect representation of His heavenly Father (John 14:6-7, Colossians 1:15). In Christ, the Father translated His beauty into a language that speaks to the human spirit. Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards explains, “God the Father is an infinite fountain of light, but Jesus Christ is the communication of this light. Some compare God the Father to the sun and Jesus Christ to the light that streams forth from him by which the world is enlightened. God the Father, in himself, was never seen: ’tis God the Son that has been the light that hath revealed him. God is an infinitely bright and glorious being, but Jesus Christ is that brightness of his glory that is revealed to us….”
Christ is beautiful because He displays the glory of God perfectly. Hebrews 1:3 explains, “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of His being.” Christ does perfectly what all human beings were created to do as God’s image bearers: radiate His glory. The image of God in us is so marred by sin that it’s often unrecognizable. Yet, by His grace, He continues to show forth His glory in us. As 2 Corinthians 3:18 says, “We, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”
Christ most perfectly radiates God’s glory when He gives up His own. Edwards says: “Never did Christ so eminently show his regard to God’s honor, as in offering up himself a victim to revenging justice, to vindicate God’s honor: and yet in this above all, he manifested his love to them that dishonored God, so as to bring such guilt on themselves, that nothing less than his blood could atone for it.” In other words, Christ is most beautiful when he sacrifices His beauty for those who have none. Horne describes it this way: “Christ became repugnant and took on the ugliness of the world to make those who were truly repugnant beautiful.”
God gives this gift not so that we can pour energies into cultivating our own beauty, but so that we would be instruments that radiate the beauty of the Father to others, following the pattern of Jesus. Edwards says: “There is scarcely anything that is excellent, beautiful, pleasant, or profitable but what is used in the Scripture as an emblem of Christ.” In particular, “He is called a rose and lily … because of his transcendent beauty and fragrancy.” In 2 Corinthians 2:14-15, we learn that we are the aroma of Christ and that God desires to use us to spread His fragrance everywhere. As we become more like Christ, we will live out this calling more perfectly, more beautifully.
An Alternative Vision
So, here is the alternative vision that fulfills our quest for physical perfection: We find our beauty in Christ as we become like Him. Rather than denying our longing for beauty, Christians can proclaim the liberating news that our desire is fulfilled in Christ. T.M. Moore writes, “Human beings were made for beauty, to know, enjoy, and express it. Those who have come to faith in Jesus Christ are in a much better position than others to take up the pursuit of beauty because they have ‘tasted’ of true Beauty, know that true Beauty exists in the person of God, and have come to see that God intends their lives to be things of beauty to His glory and praise.”
We can also warn the world what we have learned from experience, that worshipping beauty inevitably disappoints. As C.S. Lewis says in The Weight of Glory, “These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”
Best of all, we can declare the news of a wonderful future that awaits us when our beauty will be made perfect in Christ. Edwards paints a vivid picture of that day: “All shall stand about the God of glory, the fountain of love, as it were opening their bosoms to be filled with those effusions of love which are poured forth from thence, as the flowers on the earth in a pleasant spring day open their bosoms to the sun to be filled with his warmth and light, and to flourish in beauty and fragrancy in his rays. Every saint is as a flower in the garden of God, and holy love is the fragrancy and sweet odor which they all send forth, and with which they fill that paradise.”
Embracing this vision of beauty empowers us to break free from our fascination with self and to revel in the glory of God. Again, it’s a simple message but a complex journey as we traverse the tightrope between our identity in Christ and the “Supermodel”-singing world around us. As Cross says: “The answer is not as simple as, ‘Don’t wear lip gloss!’”
In her book Unsqueezed, Margot Starbuck writes, “Though we long for our lives to be formed and shaped and molded—transformed—into the image of God, we find ourselves more often squeezed by a culture that values and devalues us based on appearance. Longing to respond to God with our heart, soul, mind, and strength, we’re ashamed that we’re losing the raging ground war against our inherent preoccupation with self.” The way to become unsqueezed is the way of Jesus. “The life of Jesus, in us,” Starbuck writes, “reorients our identity and purpose so that we need not find our lives in the admiring glances of others. Instead, we lose our lives—the way we were made to—as our eyes look in love upon others, reflecting their worth.”
As we draw our love and acceptance and confidence from the love of Jesus, we also look to Him for wisdom in our practical choices about how we pursue outward beauty. “There’s nothing wrong with teeth whitening or hair coloring in itself,” says Horne. “We have to evaluate not so much what we do but why we do it.” Horne suggests we ask ourselves, “Whatever beauty our neighbors see in us, does that evoke a longing for the Source of true beauty?” We may further ask ourselves these questions: Does any glimmer of light we shine point to a greater illumination to come? Does any whiff of fragrance we produce direct them to the rose that will take their breath away? This process requires a community that enables us to be open and honest about the ways we struggle.
As we set our hearts on Christ, who perfectly radiates the light and fragrance of God’s glory, perhaps the best measure of whether our own pursuit of beauty honors Him is what it provokes in others.
Susan Fikse is a freelance writer and member of Intown Community Church (PCA) in Atlanta, Ga.