Even as Christian women, with our worth rooted in Christ, we still struggle with beauty to some extent. I see it in my mirror, and I see it when I walk into churches, when I talk to youth groups, and when I scroll through online feeds of sexy selfies. We've probably found ourselves leaning to either extreme; sometimes, we fear our beauty, and other times, we feel like we'll never measure up.
"Be careful" was the first message I heard from the church about beauty. Being careful meant dressing modestly and hearing constant reminders of the sexual nature of the male mind. I didn't particularly understand the appeal of following rules, and I enjoyed attention, so I threw off the modesty rules and dressed in a way that caused men to notice me.
Even though I grew up in church, I didn't truly believe in Jesus until college. After my decision to follow him, my mind soon thought about what meant for my wardrobe, ridiculous as that may sound. I had read Every Man's Battle, a book about men's obsessive sexual thoughts, and it left me with a great deal of fear and a disconcerting desire for a new wardrobe.
I was told that being a Christian woman meant protecting men's minds by the way that I dressed. That's what Jesus wanted. So I lugged a trash bag full of short skirts, dresses, cropped shirts, and tube tops out to the dumpster—determined to dress modestly and respect my body as a temple of the Holy Spirit.
Take up your cross and follow, right?
I replaced my midriff baring shirts with hoodies. I moved to China to share the gospel, where I stopped wearing makeup and didn't care much about my style. But like many Christian women, I found that dressing modestly wasn't the answer to all my problems. It didn't stop me from "causing" men to lust or stumble. (So said the people who once again reminded me to "be careful" about how I dressed). And this forced modesty didn't make me feel any better about myself.
I didn't feel beautiful or confident wearing loose T-shirts and gaining weight. Covering up made me feel worthless, just as trying to dress "sexy" had made me feel unworthy. Both approaches establish our view of ourselves and our bodies according to a man's response, rather than allowing us to recognize our inherent value and beauty as women of God.
Whether we see our body as a beautiful object that men desire or one that is dirty and needs to be covered up—we're still living in fear. And fear is contrary to the gospel.
Too often, we as women don't display the beauty God gave us to share. Instead, we dress in an attempt to prevent male attention or in a way that demands it and declares our objectification. Both are futile.
We talk about beauty in the dating book I wrote with my husband, Real Men Don't Text:
Many relationship books will encourage you to be more confident, get in shape, eat healthy, buy a new outfit, and engage in beauty treatments to make yourself more attractive to a man. I don't think you should do any of those things to attract a man, but instead to remind yourself that you are beautiful and deserving. If I go to one more church event and see women sauntering around in frumpy clothes, I will scream. God gave us beautiful bodies, not objects of shame or burdens to bear.
"Oh, I could never wear that," a friend said to me the other day about a pair of coral pants she saw. When I asked why, at first she said she'd look weird and then finally admitted, "I've just never been a pretty girl, so it would feel uncomfortable to dress like that." It honestly breaks my heart to hear that many women feel they will never compare, so they hide in safe little worlds of "not caring" or perhaps addiction to numb their desires. Oh how our culture has lied to you!
How tragic that it feels so difficult to know our worth and let our outward appearance display the glorious creation of God. While society around us struggles with body image and beauty, women of faith face the same pressures, plus a fear of becoming too concerned with our looks or "distracting" to the men around us.
We ask ourselves: Is it wrong to want to be attractive? Is it okay to watch our weight and buy designer jeans that make our butts look good? Can we dress in a way that both honors God and looks good? Do we have to live in fear of male sexuality?
I don't have all the answers. I don't know if Christians should dress "sexy," but I do know that we should see ourselves as beautiful. God does. God makes our beautiful bodies as a gift to a beauty-less world, not a burden to shove behind our Christian duties. We are called to live boldly as daughters, not as slaves to fear.
I believe we've somehow gotten this beauty talk all wrong. Your body, my body, is not an object. We can replace the "be careful" message with "be free" in Christ, dressing in a way that honors ourselves and the One who created us. How would that affect our belief about ourselves? About whether we measure up on the beauty scale?
Go and be free to live as a daughter of God, with a body that he created—breasts, legs, butts, and all.
Ruthie Dean is a publicist for HarperCollins-Christian and lives in Nashville with her husband. She wrote the top-read Her.meneutics post of 2012, "Real Women Don't Text Back," as well as the recently released book Real Men Don't Text. She blogs at RuthieDean.com