You Do Not Have to be Pretty

You Do Not Have to be Pretty April 28, 2016

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I have a confession to make: I am extremely plain. That is to say, I’m unattractive physically. In fact, I’ve been called ugly to my face plenty of times. I think of myself as not hideous, but physically average or below-average looking.

Okay, now I want you to think about how you reacted to that statement. Chances are there are some mean trollish people who are giggling at what a disaster I am, and those of you who are polite are already typing in the combox to tell me no, no, you’re not unattractive at all, you shouldn’t lack confidence in yourself like that, I creeped at your facebook pictures and you’ve got the smoothest skin… and so forth. What does your reaction tell you about how you value a woman’s looks? Not beauty strictly speaking, not the interior beauty that every person has and that a virtuous person has more of, but looks? I think it reveals that we all value a woman’s looks in the wrong way. I know that most of the audience for Patheos Catholic are Catholics themselves. What does it say about you as a Catholic, that you read a woman’s confession to plainness and immediately feel that you ought to either mock or deny it? Have you bought into the lie that being physically pretty is a virtue, and that lacking it is a vice? Because I’ve noticed that a tremendous number of us have.

I wish this were just a secular problem– and it is a secular problem. Girls and women are pressured to look attractive in every aspect of our lives. We’re supposed to wear clothes that flatter us, “set off” our skin and hair and disguise our tummy rolls; clothing that “draws the eye” to our best features and downplays our bad features. We’re supposed to wear makeup that hides our “flaws” and makes our eyelashes look dark and alluring. If a famous actress gains too much weight, people will be downright offended and start chiding her for being so rich yet not buying a gym pass—not that being overweight always makes a person unattractive, but it may. You could almost excuse that for an actress, since physical looks in a woman who’s supposed to be photographed and admired are part of the job description. But women are supposed to do this even in serious, completely non-appearance-oriented settings. Female professors and librarians are supposed to wear flattering clothing and keep their makeup nice. Female doctors and lawyers as well. If a woman dresses frumpily or omits makeup, that’s what people are going to notice, no matter what she’s doing. In the world of sports, if a woman athlete has an odd haircut or gets photographed making a face, or if her arms are unusually muscular and look masculine, or if she forgets to shave her armpits, that’s what people are going to notice, and they’re going to mock it as if she’s a disgrace. Excellent female chefs who compete on television cooking contests get mocked and called an embarrassment if they’re dumpy or unattractive while they do so. Female politicians get their makeup and outfits analyzed to bits after televised debates. Women in all walks of life are considered to have failed in their duties if they’re not physically pretty.

And, tragically, this very same issue exists in Christian circles you’d hope were above it. When I was in undergrad, I read the book Captivating by John and Sasi Eldridge, a Christian tome on womanhood which constantly stressed that women are supposed to look beautiful and “mysterious,” because women show the world ‘the beauty of God” and lead people to be “romanced” by God through their beauty. The book was short on details of how this is done, but it seemed to involve dangly earrings and twirling skirts and admitting you’ve always wanted to be in a romance novel. Captivating is a non-denominational protestant book, but this school of thought is not absent from Catholic circles, either. Everyone who’s been to a Catholic college knows the type of lines that get bandied around: feminine beauty is part of our dignity, don’t be afraid of your femininity, embrace your womanly side, modest but beautiful clothing enhances a woman’s dignity, the loveliness of women leads men naturally to virtue, a chapel veil makes a modest girl more fetching. Some of these sayings could be profound if they weren’t always interpreted as an advertisement for long curling hair and flowered dresses (knee-length or longer for chastity’s sake). Quite a few of them are downright creepy. A man who stares longingly at the chapel veil three pews ahead of him at the Tridentine liturgy is no different than a man who stares longingly at a barmaid’s exposed bosom. Yet we go on with this nonsense. I’ve had youth group leaders who thought women shouldn’t play certain sports because it made them look too manly. Around here, there are even weekend retreats where women “embrace their beauty” by putting on pearl-studded flower crowns or giving each other makeovers. As far as I can tell, a tremendous amount of women honestly believe that they owe the world in general and Christian men in particular, surface attractiveness.

I don’t know what the world’s problem is, but I think the issue in Catholic circles stems from a misunderstanding. Aren’t women supposed to be beautiful? Of course we are. Is beauty part of our nature? Well, yes. Beauty is part of human nature; it’s one of the things that humans have by virtue of being human. Women possess feminine beauty because of the kind of creature they are. In His image He created us, Male and Female He created us. Feminine beauty is in the image of God. Think of the awesome beauty of motherhood, of that powerful life-giving journey of pregnancy and birth. Think how beautiful it is to run a marathon, or to write a novel, or to become a doctor who heals and comforts the sick, or whatever vocation God has set before you to do. Think of the most beautiful hagiography you’ve ever read. Think of the deepest possible act of charity. Remember Gabriel’s Ave and Mary’s Amen.

Of course, we’re called to be beautiful. In a sense, we already are, because of our nature, and in a sense, we have to try to be, because of our fallenness. And through our embracing and living of this beauty, being unafraid to let this beauty shine in the world, we will allure souls to Christ the Bridegroom as as every Christian ought. But this beauty is of the soul, of human nature and of our actions, our choices. It has nothing to do with how we look. I am beautiful because I am a woman, a child of God made in His image. I am becoming beautiful insofar as I obey His call. I’m not very pretty, and that doesn’t matter.

Physical good looks are a wonderful thing that some people have; so is a good immune system or type O blood. Learning how to enhance your looks through nice clothing and makeup is a good skill, like juggling or writing with both hands. Insofar as a thing is good, it points to the Creator, and may His name be praised for them. But placing a good thing on a pedestal higher than it’s worth is idolatry. Being plain is not a vice; being obsessed with prettiness is, and vices are ugly. No woman owes prettiness to anyone, but beauty is owed to God.

 

(Image courtesy of Pixabay)

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