By Nicole R. Pramik
“In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman rises toward her day after day,” Sylvia Plath once mused in her poem “Mirror,” as she describes the power of the looking glass. But mirrors are not the only things that can manipulate our perception of physical beauty. Media and the culture at large have inundated us with their opinion of what it means to be attractive. But with this comes a danger in putting too much trust into what we see in the mirror, allowing it to destroy our sense of self-worth and undermine our God-given uniqueness.
Given this state of confusion, it’s understandably difficult to determine what a Christian’s perspective should be when it comes to outer beauty. For some Christians, the topic of beauty is a thorny subject as some believe that the outside is inherently flawed or less important and it’s only the inside that counts. However, to neglect or ignore physical beauty is to deny and dismiss God’s handiwork. Therefore, beauty must be put in its proper place; and the best way to sharpen our perceptions of beauty is to first look at who and what we allow to shape our definitions, which ultimately determines how we see ourselves on both sides of the mirror.
Truths and Half-Truths
Beauty is defined by Merriam-Webster as “the quality or aggregate of qualities in a person or thing that gives pleasure to the senses or pleasurably exalts the mind or spirit.” This echoes philosopher Immanuel Kant’s concept of “pure beauty,” which claims beauty is not a spectrum of attractiveness but an undefined quality deserving of appreciation in and of itself. Both of these explanations coincide with how the Bible presents the topic of beauty as it acknowledges that beauty is to be enjoyed without pretense.
Consider how the psalmist praises God for being “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14) and the exchanges between the lovers in Song of Solomon where quite a bit of attention is spent lavishing compliments on each other’s physical appearances. Nowhere in these instances or others does the Bible focus on detailed descriptions of what defines beauty; instead it latently teaches that it is pleasing and acceptable to praise beauty for its sake alone, lauding God’s creation by proxy.
However, Western society has expanded upon these ideas and added its own prerequisites. Rather than view beauty as something open to interpretation to be enjoyed in and of itself, culture peddles beauty as a commodity to be possessed as both a means and a means to an end. We are taught that there are certain qualifiers for what makes a person beautiful: youth is praised; a lean, toned body is ideal; and perfect hair and flawless skin are pictures of perfection. However, other messages in culture praise all ages, all body types, and encourage self-love. While women seem to be the general target for these messages, men are by no means ignored.
It’s easy to see how Christians collectively might be wary when it comes to praising outer beauty. After all, with so many mixed messages it’s only logical (or so it seems) to conclude that any attempt to applaud outer beauty is sinful since our errant culture places such a high importance on it. However, it’s important to clarify that beauty, the quality in and of itself, is not sinful as God pronounced his own creation as “good” and his creation of people as “very good” (Genesis 1:31). Thus if God cares about, appreciates, and can praise external qualities, then we are not wrong in doing the same ourselves.
Apples and Worms
However, there is a balance between thinking too highly or too lowly of ourselves. We must put into perspective the temptation to be “perfect” in terms of a physical ideal rather than a spiritual ideal. That is why Scripture focuses more on inner qualities such as “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control,” though it never denounces beauty as inherently sinful (Galatians 5:22, 23). While God doesn’t disregard the externals, he doesn’t base a person’s worth on them and neither should we. To God, a person’s inner beauty is more valuable, though outer beauty is not to be cast aside.
Consider God’s election of David as Israel’s future king. While the prophet Samuel was impressed with David’s older brothers due to their physical appearances, God rejected them based on their hearts (1 Samuel 16:7). Instead God chose David, the most unlikely candidate, whose heart was set on God. Similarly Esther, though described as attractive, is used by God because of her inner qualities, not her externals alone, though her appearance might have enabled her to venture places where others might not have been able to go. These incidents in Scripture, among others, indicate that while it’s not inherently sinful to admire external appearances, it is erroneous to judge a person’s inner worth based on them.
In a Berenstain Bears children’s story, this point is neatly illustrated when Mama Bear tries to teach Brother Bear and Sister Bear how not to judge someone based on appearances. As a visual aid, she holds up two apples. One is the epitome of perfection but inside is filled with worms. The other apple is misshapen and visually unappealing yet perfect on the inside. In the same way, God regards a person’s worth by weighing the internals over the externals; thus a physically attractive person might be spiritually ugly on the inside, and someone who doesn’t match the culture’s beauty ideal might possess valuable inner traits, such as a loving, gentle heart. However, what’s on the outside isn’t unimportant to God. In that way, beauty shouldn’t be a bone of contention among Christians—we can appreciate beauty but there should be limits to our admiration.
Perspective on the Mirror’s Mystique
While externals shouldn’t be ignored and should be treated with dignity, a person’s ultimate worth cannot be judged on those qualities alone. Likewise beauty is to be respected in all of its forms as everyone is a unique creation. Trying to reshape ourselves into another person’s image is an insult to God’s original design. Yet physical differences should be celebrated as we should accept ourselves as God sees and loves us, which isn’t dependent upon our body type or clothing size. If the Bible makes no standard of outer beauty, then neither should we.
Makeup artist Kevyn Aucoin once said that “beauty is synonymous with uniqueness.” In the same way, Christians can celebrate beauty as God’s creative, distinctive fingerprint, not as a set standard established by society. As 1 Timothy 4:4 states, “For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving.” In the same way, we can appreciate and be thankful for our own outer beauty, as well as the attractiveness of others, knowing that beauty, in all of its forms and faces, is from God and worthy of appreciation and respect.
Nicole R. Pramik is a freelance writer from Kentucky.