When we first moved to South Asia, I was struck by the beauty of the women all around me. High caste or untouchable, pampered ladies of leisure or struggling servant girls, they all invested heavily in beautifying themselves. Exquisitely draped saris. Carefully combed hair. Bright colored bangles jingling on wrists. Decorative dots displayed on foreheads. Even the poorest of women found a way to beautify themselves with flowers in their hair and rings on their toes.
Next to them I felt plain and ugly, a stripped-down, functional version of womanhood that suddenly seemed less than appealing. Sadly, I wasn’t the only one who noticed. Kindhearted neighbors stepped in to adjust my clumsily wrapped sari, to slide a few of their bangles on my empty wrist, to stick one of their bindis on my bare forehead.
“Doesn’t your family feel disgraced that you don’t wear the costly gold jewelry they must have presented you at your marriage?”
“Doesn’t your husband mind that you don’t honor him by decorating yourself with lots of color and a bindi?“
Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.
Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as braided hair and the wearing of gold jewelry and fine clothes. Instead, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.
I had never stopped to think of my physical appearance in those terms before. My dualistic, platonic upbringing had taught me to view beauty as vain and fleeting, a pointless distraction from the things that really mattered. The only Scripture references to beauty that I had been taught to notice were ones which warned against putting too much stock in it. And my stunningly beautiful mother had trained me well that what mattered most to God was the beauty of my spirit, not of my body.
Physical beauty is a reflection of God’s glory.
Of course, none of that stopped me from spending time and money on physical beauty. I cared about dressing nicely and looking pretty (more than I would have liked to admit). But I always felt a bit guilty about it, as if this were an area that I was selfishly holding onto, as if God would probably like it better if I invested those resources in His kingdom rather than in my appearance.
And 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.
2 Corinthians 3:18
But all these years later I realize that my South Asian neighbors understood something that I didn’t. My beauty was meant to be a reflection of someone else’s glory. Far from detracting from God, it is intended to display just how magnificent He is.
I bathed you with water and washed the blood from you and put ointments on you. I clothed you with an embroidered dress and put leather sandals on you. I dressed you in fine linen and covered you with costly garments. I adorned you with jewelry: I put bracelets on your arms and a necklace around your neck, and I put a ring on your nose, earrings on your ears and a beautiful crown on your head. So you were adorned with gold and silver; your clothes were of fine linen and costly fabric and embroidered cloth. Your food was fine flour, honey and olive oil. You became very beautiful and rose to be a queen.
No wonder He portrays Himself as the kingly husband, beautifying His new wife’s body in every way imaginable. Purifying skin treatments. Fine facial creams. Designer dresses. Stylish shoes. But He didn’t stop there. Fashion accessories. Over-the-top jewelry. An exclusive diet, carefully designed to bring out the best in her features. No expense or effort was spared in making this woman as beautiful as she could possibly be. And her Husband was delighted when other men noticed.
And your fame spread among the nations on account of your beauty, because the splendor I had given you made your beauty perfect, declares the Sovereign LORD.
But why would God care so much about physical beauty? Why would a husband invest so heavily in his wife’s external appearance, finding pleasure in a public display of her splendor?
But you trusted in your beauty and used your fame to become a prostitute…
At the head of every street you built your lofty shrines and degraded your beauty, offering your body with increasing promiscuity to anyone who passed by.
Ezekiel 16:15, 25
Perhaps the answer lies in what went wrong with the beautified woman. The admiration of others turned her head. Instead of gazing on the Source of her beauty, she began to gaze on its product. The mirror became another opportunity to adore herself rather than to adore the One whose image she reflected. And the more she idolized her own beauty, the more sallow and tarnished it became.
Neglecting our beauty is no godlier
than obsessing over it.
As I reflect on my conflicted attitude towards my own physical appearance, I see that my problem is not spending too much time or effort on it. It is claiming its credit. Downplaying my beauty is just as wrong as obsessing over it, because ultimately it is not mine.
For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
I am God’s masterpiece, His garden to be tended and beautified. The more radiant I look, the more clearly His beauty is seen. Part of the good work that I have been created to do is to cultivate both my spirit and my body. Both are made in His image. Both are the place where His glory dwells.
And so slowly, I am reclaiming my makeup for God. The time I spend in the mirror is an act of worship, not because I am captivated by the image that I see there, but because I am learning to delight in the Artist who designed it. I decorate and frame His artwork each day, reveling in the opportunity to put His beauty on display. Whether it is one of those ugly days when I need a little extra TLC or one of those happy days when I walk away feeling radiant, my appearance reflects God’s glory.
There’s no room for pride in that. It’s pretty for a higher purpose.