Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Why I Will Tell My Children That They’re Ugly

“… we are more and more directing the desires of men to something which does not exist—making the role of the eye in sexuality more and more important and at the same time making its demands more and more impossible.” Screwtape in C. S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters

“If everybody had the same face…there’d be no pretty women.” Death Bredon in Dorothy Sayers’ Murder Must Advertise.

"Who's the fairest
of them all?"
"People who use Dove
As part of their Campaign for Real Beauty, Dove announced that according to their survey of ten to seventeen-year-olds, “only 11% of girls around the world feel comfortable using the word beautiful to describe their looks.” This finding is treated as a psychological problem that ought to be solved. Yet is it any worse than lamenting that only 40% of employees think that their work is above average? Any sillier than fretting that only 5% of students think that they are gifted? If all girls and women are “beautiful,” the word loses all meaning as a description of physical appearance.

Clearly, Dove wishes to disassociate the word “beauty” from physical appearance, and thereby allow the term to convey that all women are valuable beings. This sounds very positive. Yet the insidious flip side is that it ties a woman’s value to the word “beauty.” Our human brains cannot abandon the old meaning even as we embrace the new one. Women cannot help but look around and notice that (with apologies to George Orwell), “All women are beautiful, but some are more beautiful than others.” Doesn’t this imply that the photo-shopped, glistening lady in that ad for Dove body wash is more valuable than a pimpled mortal like me? Doesn’t it suggest that I had better buy some Dove body wash so as to affirm my human value?

What should those girls, 89% of whom fail to describe themselves as beautiful, be told about their looks? Marilyn Monroe said, “All little girls should be told they are pretty, even if they aren't,” but this actually lays a burden on girls. It tells them that they are supposed to be pretty. Eventually they will notice other girls who are prettier than they are. In NurtureShock, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman report that modern society has gotten it all wrong when it comes to praising children. Studies show that when children are constantly told that they are smart, they actually become less motivated to try anything difficult or new for fear of looking non-smart. In contrast, children who are praised for their hard-work (something that is within their own control) are much more likely to voluntarily tackle challenging tasks. I wonder if these findings apply to how we handle the word beauty.   

Past societies have chosen different approaches to physical appearance. The Puritans warned against vanity and arranged their hair and attire as plainly as possible. Nineteenth and early twentieth-century women may have read magazines for beauty tips, but they were also encouraged to accept their plainness. In Anne of Green Gables, the child Anne asks, “Which would you rather be if you had the choice--divinely beautiful or dazzlingly clever or angelically good?” In her own answer, she comments that she will never be divinely beautiful. Her kind and gentle listener simply nods and listens. No one contradict Jane Eyre when she describes herself as little and plain. Even the inspirational Eleanor Roosevelt did not say that all women are physically lovely merely by virtue of existence. Instead she argued, “No matter how plain a woman may be, if truth and honesty are written across her face, she will be beautiful.”

The plain woman of one hundred years ago was supposed to develop her character. The plain woman of today is supposed to develop belief in her own beauty. Unfortunately, neither solution satisfies any woman. Neither is enough. What is the Christian, Lutheran response to a woman’s desire to feel beautiful? It begins, I think, with shocking words. It tells us that although our desire is “natural,” we are corrupted sinners with corrupted desires. Our wish to receive admiration from others? Vanity. Our hope of attracting men? Lust. Our attempt to build self-worth through good characters or well-groomed bodies? Pride. All this is sin, and it leads to death. It demonstrates the condition of our ugly, rotting hearts. It shows us that we deserve the torment of eternal separation from God. It proves us to be hideous beings with no way to save ourselves. Yet the God whose glory is reflected, ever so faintly, in all earthly beauty is not hideous. Through the ugly, terrible death of Christ, He pays the cost of our ugly sins. He washes away our vanity, lust, and pride in Holy Baptism and gives us new life. In Christ, we are beautiful. The beauty that we are given is full beauty, a beauty that fulfills all the meanings of the word, the kind of beauty that is true and real and could never come in well-advertised bottles. Baptism may not give us earthly, physical beauty, but it gives the kind of beauty that is behind our yearning to be beautiful. It frees us from the need to fulfill the current narrow ideal for physical looks.

As new creatures, we are free from the demands of Eleanor Roosevelt, Dove, and all the well-meaning people who bury us beneath a load of obligation to make ourselves beautiful through our own efforts. As free women, we have Christian liberty to enjoy the physical world that God had given us and enjoy the earthly beauty that He created. Like Rebecca, Abigail, or Esther, we may use jewelry and beauty products. We may exercise and tone our bodies. In Christ, all of this is freedom. On days when it begins to feel again like a burden, we have a solution. We flee to the cross of Christ, confess our sins, and receive absolution. What a beautiful and glorious thing!

P.S. No, I won’t really tell my children that they are ugly. No doubt I’ll think that they are more adorable than anyone else's children. Yet they, too, will be sinners, and I will rejoice that I can bring them to church to experience God’s beautiful gifts of mercy. Because they will need it.


Somewhat Related Reading

 “For women in our culture, to be “hot” or “sexy” is to have value. There are a variety of theories as to why this is true but, from my experience, it goes back to the acceptance of contraception and the idea that the primary purpose of sex is for pleasure.” Read Jen Fulwiler’s take on an unintended effect of contraception on a woman’s self-value.

“It is not surprising that this strange disease of the spirit—the self’s search for the self—should have its counterpart in an anguish of the body. One of the commonplaces of modern experience is dissatisfaction with the body—not as one has allowed it to become, but as it naturally is…. For the appropriate standard for the body—that is, health—has been replaced, not even by another standard, but by very exclusive physical models. The concept of “model” here conforms very closely to the model of the scientists and planners: it is an exclusive, narrowly defined ideal which affects destructively whatever it does not include.” Read quotations from Wendell Berry about the problems that result from the separation of body and soul in “identity.”



  1. I'm so glad you wrote on this!
    When the subject of physical beauty came up during their childhoods I tried to always tell my daughters that it was inward beauty, or beautiful deeds, that they should strive for. Just this morning I ran across a blog I posted last year on the subject, in which the homilist I quote exhorts us to repent of our inner ugliness so that we might acquire the sort of beauty Christ has. http://gretchenjoanna.blogspot.com/2012/10/correct-this-ugliness.html

    1. Thanks for the link!

      I also like the idea of telling kids who seem concerned about their looks, "Do you think that I love you because you are cute/beautiful/etc.? No, I love you because you are my kid, no matter what," rather than get pulled into constant reassurances of their loveliness. On the other hand, it's probably better to establish this concept BEFORE they become concerned with looks.

  2. When I was young I think I fell prey to the fear you mention, a fear of not being Smart at everything. Over-praise for a quality that didn't seem to require anything of me only made me even lazier, lazy at trying new or hard things.

  3. Thank you so much for posting this, Anna. (By the way, yes, I am stalking your blog now since your husband posted it on facebook!! ;D) This is an excellent reminder to all young women that physical beauty is vanity, and to put all of your time and energy into obtaining that label by the world's standards will leave you empty. Beauty fades, but the soul lasts forever, and Christ has already taken care of our souls for all eternity.

    1. Stalk away! :-) I love having blog readers.

  4. This is well-thought out, and I appreciate it very much. We as Christ-followers must continually look at every aspect of our lives to make sure it is lining up with His worldview and not our own or that of our culture or even that of our denomination. I hope I'll think twice in the future before commenting on how beautiful my kids are! Not that they aren't, but I want to make sure I never communicate that it's the most important thing. Thank you.

  5. This is a very thought-provoking post! Lots to think about here.
    Thanks for linking up at Essential Fridays.
    Mel from Essential Thing Devotions

  6. Tina: Thanks! You're right, it's so easy to unintentionally communicate the wrong message to our kids (and probably also to each other).

    Mel: Thanks! I enjoyed seeing the posts at Essential Fridays.

  7. Excellent points, well-argued! You've got my brain churning, and I might have to write a companion post to this one on my other blog!

    1. Christie, you should do it! If it's not in Spinning Straw into Gold, you should send me a link-- I'd love to see it.


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