Is Feminine Beauty Dangerous

A Brief Look at Our Theological Legacy

By Karen Lee Thorp

Copyright © 1997 Mars Hill Review 9 Fall 1997 · Issue 9: pgs 39-48.

A vivacious woman in her twenties says that when she was a child, she sat at the dinner table across from a large framed picture that mirrored her image back to her. When her mother noticed her admiring her face in the glass and playing with her hair, she moved the girl to a different seat at the table, permanently. "You're so vain!" her mother scolded. The girl heard that rebuke repeatedly during her teen years, and while it hurt and angered her, being labeled "vain" did nothing to dampen her enthusiasm for clothes and makeup.

My friend was born to be attractive-bone structure and good skin are gifts from God. But in addition to genes and an instinct for style, a great deal of her attractiveness comes from laughing eyes and a generous smile. She is a pleasure not just to look at but to be with, for she shares herself liberally. I doubt anyone who knows her well would call her vain if vanity means self-focus, obsession with one's appearance, a taste for manipulation, or a cold competitiveness to be "the fairest one of all." Her pride problem doesn't seem much worse than that of most people I know.

"Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting" says the proverb,{1} and it's true that in twenty years my friend will not turn heads as she does now. Her youthful glow will fade like the wildflowers and leave only, I predict, the glow of eternity. But to say that beauty is fleeting is not to say it is evil. Why did her mother react as though to enjoy one's physical beauty is sinful?

In researching a book on appearance, I did my best to track down anything written about it in two thousand years of theology. I found almost nothing. Luther didn't care; Calvin didn't comment. Jonathan Edwards was interested in artistic and natural beauty, but not in the beauty of women. John Chrysostom did have opinions, as did Ambrose of Milan, Augustine of Hippo, and William Law. None found anything positive to say about it, although Ambrose was gentler toward women than the rest. John Milton, the great Puritan poet, equated Eve's beauty with the corrupt sensuality that caused her downfall.

I would summarize the tradition into two statements: First, beauty is trivial. To most pastors and teachers, physical appearance has not seemed an important enough spiritual issue even to address. Second, should the matter come up at all, beauty is dangerous.

Beauty is trivial, even though it is intertwined with money, sex, power, pride, fear, love, respect, race, and class. I believe theologians have treated beauty as trivial precisely because it affects them and those around them so powerfully that it makes them uncomfortable. They don't know what to do with it, so they pretend it doesn't matter and urge anyone who asks to do the same. Like money, like sex, like alcohol, beauty is potent enough to be dangerous.

I would like to trace the doctrine that beauty is dangerous along two lines. I'll look first at theology written by men, then at the experience of women. After examining the sources of this doctrine, I'll assess how well it serves us.

Men's Theology

Men have written most of the serious theology in Christendom, and while we like to think of these wise men arriving at their insights through study and prayer alone, we know that experience affects us all. For the sake of space, I will concentrate on western Christianity's most dominant thinker: Augustine.

This North African bishop laid the foundation of medieval theology, heavily influenced Martin Luther and thence the Reformed tradition, and is still regarded by many western Christians as the premier theologian since the apostle Paul. Most of us owe more of our beliefs to Augustine than we realize; for example, he was the first to articulate the doctrine of original sin. His autobiography, The Confessions, has been a best-seller for fifteen hundred years. Brilliant and devout, he deserves our respect even while we critique his legacy on the subject of women's beauty. What moved him to teach that beauty is dangerous?

The World in 400 A.D.

In the centuries after the apostles' deaths, several factors affected the way church leaders thought about beauty. First, educated people were all taught the body was bad-a nuisance at best and an absolute evil at worst. The male sex drive in particular was considered a hindrance to rational living. Henry Chadwick, historian of the early church, wrote, "all philosophers with a serious claim to be respected as wise moralists-Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, the Epicureans-were of one mind in being impressed by . . . the capacity of sexual desire to disrupt and even destroy the most rational of plans and intentions."{2}

Pagan philosophers disdained, and Christian pastors were extremely concerned about, the way beauty was worshiped in pagan culture, especially in connection with sacred prostitution. Temples flourished as religious brothels; Corinth's shrine of Aphrodite boasted a thousand sacred prostitutes in its prime. It was extremely hard to wean men off the habit of visiting prostitutes after the men professed faith in Christ. Men lived in a curious paradox: believing their bodies to be evil and their sex drives disrespectable, yet obsessed with bodily pleasures. (Experts in addiction say that hatred of one's body often feeds bodily addictions.)

Further, as Roman society decayed more and more, sexual fidelity became rare among men. To church leaders, who were themselves men, lust seemed one of the biggest threats to men's spiritual health. Unfortunately, many pastors tended to blame women for tempting men. The most gifted Greek-speaking preacher of the fourth century, nicknamed Chrysostom ("Goldenmouthed"), told women seeking baptism that makeup added nothing to their beauty of face, but would

destroy the beauty of your soul. . . . Especially are you heaping up abundant fire for yourself by exciting the looks of young men, and attracting to yourself the eyes of the undisciplined; by making complete adulterers of them, you are bringing their downfall on your own head.{3}

Undoubtedly, some women truly were tempting men on purpose. Some wanted the ego gratification of seducing men, others worshiped beauty by believing their happiness in life depended upon the husband they could catch, and others depended upon their looks for their livelihood.

Prostitutes, dancers, courtesans, and concubines represented various social levels of kept women. Some legally belonged to a man, while others depended upon men's attentions for their income. All of them painted their faces. Decent wealthy women also knew their value was measured by their attractiveness. Journalist Nancy Baker writes,

It was not unusual for a typical Roman beauty to cover her face with a thick poultice meant to keep her skin from wrinkling and to wear the concoction constantly, except when she left the house. Evidently once she was married, the Roman woman didn't feel that she needed to waste her beauty on her mate alone-outsiders had to be present before she would reveal her face.{4}

In a society driven by competition for social status, noblewomen would do almost anything to win points in public.

Ambrose of Milan

Surveying this situation, Bishop Ambrose of Milan told his flock that the body was a "tattered garment" for the soul{5} and enthusiastically promoted lifelong virginity for men and women as "the one thing that separates us from the beasts."{6} Living as he did, surrounded by promiscuity, it is not surprising that Ambrose was such a fan of virginity. He was also genuinely grieved for women when he saw them displaying themselves like slaves for sale on the marriage market:

Look at the ears pierced with wounds, and pity the neck weighed down with burdens. That the metals are different [from the metal in criminal's chains] does not lighten the suffering. . . . It makes no difference whether the body be loaded with gold or with iron. . . . But how wretched a position, that she who is marriageable is in a species of sale put up as it were to auction to be bid for, so that he who offers the highest price purchases her.{7}

Ambrose genuinely thought women would be happier renouncing marriage than pursuing it on the terms available in the fourth century. Unfortunately, it was hard for single women to get jobs or live safely on their own, so convents became the only really viable alternative to the marriage market. But giving up all hope of children and marital relations was a cost few women were willing to pay in order to free themselves from the pressures of self-display.

Augustine's Foibles

Augustine was Ambrose's most famous disciple. A careful student of the scriptures, Augustine was also influenced by the philosophy of his time and by his personal experiences. At age fifteen he discovered sex and spent two promiscuous years driven by youthful hormones. Then at the age of seventeen, like many of his peers, he took a concubine-a sort of a second-class mistress-housekeeper who lived with him. Marriage laws of the day required that a man marry within his class, and since the young Augustine was planning to rise in the world, he didn't want to shackle himself to a low-class wife. So for fifteen years he lived faithfully with his concubine and had a son. Guilt about his attachment to this woman plagued him, for she was not an intellectual and emotional companion, but merely a concession to his sex drive.

At last by age thirty-two he had established himself, and his mother found him an heiress with good connections. He got engaged and sent his concubine away to please his prospective in-laws. But shortly thereafter, Augustine decided to abandon his worldly ambitions and devote himself utterly to God. To him, that meant abandoning relations with women as well, for he had been bowled over by Ambrose's preaching on the glories of celibacy.

In The Confessions, Augustine claimed he was grieved to lose his concubine because he loved her dearly, but he never named her in his writings, nor mentioned her again. The Confessions are full of his shame for having so much sexual desire that he couldn't manage to remain celibate until marriage. He never expressed guilt for having treated the mother of his son so shamefully because he had only done what was normal in his society. He thought himself virtuous for getting rid of her (she likely never saw her son again), then refraining from marrying the heiress and instead becoming a celibate priest. Any man of his class would have agreed with him.

Years later, when as a priest he faced a congregation full of men with concubines, he condemned the practice strongly. Unfaithful husbands were winked at in that society, and it was considered respectable, even in many Christian circles, for a man to keep a concubine along with his real wife. However, rather than simply urging these men to be faithful to their wives, Augustine preached celibacy. His only experience of sexual relations was in using a woman for his own lust, so he had no concept that it might be holy for a man to enjoy a wife's beauty exclusively and with respect. When Augustine looked at a beautiful woman he saw only a reminder of his shame. It was all but impossible for him to see in her the image of God, a symbol of the divine beauty.

In his commentary on John's Gospel he wrote that the image of God is mainly in our souls, although our bodies do reflect it somewhat.{8} He also said our inner beauty reflects God's image more than our outer beauty (though not to the exclusion of our outer beauty). Everything bodily or sensual felt to him like a distraction from God, even food and music. He passionately wanted to see God, and he felt that earthly beauties distracted him from God's beauty. Certainly a great many men around him were utterly distracted from God's beauty by earthly beauty, and being the passionate man he was, he regarded moderation as no option for himself. To God, his beloved, he wrote the most ardent prose:

Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new: late have I loved you. And see, you were within and I was in the external world and sought you there, and in my unlovely state I plunged into those lovely created things you made. . . . The lovely things kept me far from you, though if they did not have their existence in you, they had no existence at all.{9}

"The lovely things" that had kept Augustine from God were first and foremost women. Generations of men after him have read his Confessions and identified his experience as their own. How could a distraction be a reflection of God's beauty?

After reading a Greek philosopher named Plotinus, Augustine was persuaded that divine beauty shone like light through all the beautiful things in the world. Beautiful things made the person who looked at them sad because they were so fleeting, so superficial and fading, while one knew in one's soul that beyond them was the source of all beauty that never faded. Augustine even grew to understand that contemplating the beauties of nature and the heavens could "be turned into a stairway to the immortal and enduring."{10}

But while Augustine could imagine mountains and stars touching a man's spirit in pure ways, he still couldn't imagine that the beauty of a woman could be a window into the realm of God, even though she bore the divine image in a way the stars did not at all. Men in his world who responded spiritually to women's beauty were all doing it in temples to Aphrodite, having sex with sacred prostitutes. That one could reject the idolatry, gain control over the flesh, and then see a beautiful woman purely was beyond Augustine's imagination-certainly no other men he knew were doing it. Hence, he could feel the longing for eternity when he looked at the stars and let their beauty point him toward God, but the face of woman never sparked that sorrowful longing for a better world; she sparked in him only lust, shame, and anger at himself and her. He did what we often do when some person prompts in us feelings we don't know how to deal with; he came down hard both on himself for having the feelings and on women for "causing" them.

Ambrose had rebuked men for blaming women, "whereas all the while it is man himself who seeks in a woman that which tempts him." Ambrose had understood that "The beauty of woman's body is a great work of God, meant to be a sign of that far greater interior beauty, the special clarity and loveliness of her spirit."{11}

But Augustine had had mixed personal experience with women's inner beauty. During most of the time he lived with his concubine, his mother also lived with him. She was so attached to her son that he couldn't escape her even by moving from Africa to Italy; she moved with him. The Confessions portray a man who felt guilty for falling short of his mother's expectations and who both loved and felt embarrassed by her. With a clinging mother and a mistress, it's no surprise that Augustine had a low view of women. "What is the difference?" he wrote to a friend, "whether it is in a wife or a mother, it is still Eve (the temptress) that we must beware of in any woman."{12}

Augustine's blazing mind enabled him to sort out many profound theological truths, but it did not help him come to terms with the feeling part of him-especially the feeling part of him that responded when he looked at a beautiful woman. He knew only two responses to his sex drive: give in to it with that shameful concubine, or clamp down on it. He was utterly unable to see the image of God in women who all looked like temptresses, dragging him away from his focus on God.

Why should we care what Augustine thought? Because under his influence, Western artists and theologians have consistently linked beauty to sexual temptation. Finding in their worlds and in their hearts the same temptations, they have, like him, responded by telling women that to display our beauty is a sin. Any woman who offers her beauty to the world is "asking for it."

Women's Experience

Women have gotten that message loud and clear. We find it nearly impossible to cultivate humility about our appearance; instead, we swing between pride and shame. Men's shame over being tempted has become our shame for being temptresses.


No one feels this shame more acutely than those who have been sexually molested.

A thirteen-year-old is pressed up against her locker by a boy much stronger than she and told he can't keep his eyes off her. She goes home and rubs her face raw with sandpaper.

A girl who was used by her brother as a child goes to college and shrinks from the eyes of strangers. She adopts baggy clothes, exchanges her contact lenses for glasses, and loses weight until her protruding shoulder blades pull her skin taut.

A woman abused by her father throughout much of her childhood leaves home at last and promptly puts on thirty pounds. For the next two decades she struggles to diet, but whenever she even approaches an attractive figure, she loses her nerve and begins to eat compulsively.

A fourth victim's solution to the beauty "problem" is to adopt trousers, Oxford shirts, and an ultra-short haircut as her uniform. She feels safest when disguised as a boy.

All of these women have concluded that beauty = feminine attractiveness = the cause of sexual abuse = danger. Only with difficulty can an abuse victim come to believe deep in her soul that the cause of her trauma lies in the man's heart, not in her body. If everyone from her attacker to history's greatest theologians says her beauty is the cause, why should she doubt this equation?

I still feel I'm flirting with danger when I go out in public with bare arms or legs. What if someone looks; and looking, lusts; and lusting, attacks? The likelihood is slim, but the feeling of danger persists.


For other women, the danger in beauty lies in their perceived lack of it. Girls who believe themselves ugly (often because their parents don't send them the message that they are loved and beautiful) suffer shame as severe as that of any incest victim. Graduate student Mary Anne Tabor says, "Going to Catholic schools and learning that I was made in the image and likeness of God, and learning that God created all things beautiful, left me in a quandary. At that time I was conditioned to believe I was not beautiful, yet if I was made in the image of God, either God was not beautiful or perhaps I was a mistake."{13} Mary Anne's mother hated her dark Filipino features, and Mary Anne learned to see her appearance as the symbol of her badness.

Just as racial markers can be sources of shame, so can other aspects of appearance that a society regards a lower in status. A woman born into our society with the genes for large bones and plenty of flesh can expect to be ignored or disdained. People will make cruel remarks to fat women that they would no longer dream of directing at racial minorities. One psychologist admitted to me that early in his career he would pass heavy female colleagues in the hallway without a comment, but would always stop to greet attractive women.

Age confers a similar invisibility. Psychologist Sara Halprin writes in Look At My Ugly Face that middle age has given her both the power and the insecurity of invisibility. On the one hand, she finds it easier to go where she pleases as the unobserved observer now that men no longer notice her. On the other hand, invisibility can make her feel devalued. Men seem to be instinctively wired to notice women of childbearing age, so older women fade from their radar. Women such as Halprin who have developed a strong identity in other areas find this fading moderately disconcerting, but those who have been trading on beauty as their chief asset reach the age of forty and feel the bottom of their worlds drop out.


This disparity between who is noticed and who is not, whose appearance is valued and whose is not, pits women against each other. Pretty Rachel triumphs over plain Leah, until God turns the tables by giving Leah more children. Image consultants tell newly promoted women that their subordinates won't respect them unless they spend up to 15 percent of their salaries on clothes and grooming. A 1993 study found that people perceived as good-looking were earning at least 5 percent more than those labeled average-looking.{14} With men, money, and respect at stake, it's no wonder that women feel competitive toward the rival who stands next to them at the ladies' room mirror.

Competition breads envy. We raise children on the tale of the aging queen to whom beauty has been her whole identity, the witch consumed with murderous jealousy toward her step-daughter, the fair Snow White. A girl knows she can lose friends if the boys give her too much more attention than her peers. Thus, while not having beauty exposes a woman to the danger of losing a date, a mate, or a job, having it exposes her to the danger of rejection by jealous friends or superiors.

In order to keep the peace, many women find it safer to play uglier-than-thou. "I feel so fat," says one eleven-year-old to her friend. "My hair is impossible." "My thighs are the worst." "Your thighs-yours are pencils compared to mine." Only brides have our full permission to celebrate their beauty. For the rest of us it would seem, well, vain to say, "Don't I look great today?"

On the other hand, because the stakes are so high, beauty poses the danger of tempting women to pride and even idolatry. Isaiah condemned the rich women of Jerusalem for mincing around in their robes and jewelry instead of sharing their wealth with the poor.{15} Too many women today spend far more on clothes, hair, makeup, nails, gym memberships, and accessories than on building the kingdom of God. After all, the kingdom of God doesn't offer them the kind of attention from men, professional respect, and status at church that they get from walking into a room looking like a million bucks.

So What?

Clearly, there are many reasons to regard beauty as a danger to both men and women, to those who have it or can afford to buy it, and to those who don't and can't. The case for adopting nuns' habits is strong. However, what then do we do with the Song of Songs' wild celebration of the bride's hair, cheeks, temples, eyes, neck, lips, and breasts? What do we do with the nagging sense that we were made for a world in which our bodies never aged or suffered disease, in which we could be naked and unashamed because we knew we were beautiful in the eyes of a loving beholder?

In Perelandra, his science fiction novel about a not-yet-fallen paradise, C.S. Lewis describes his Eve thus:

There was no category in the terrestrial mind which would fit her. Opposites met in her and were fused in a fashion for which we have no images. One way of putting it would be to say that neither our sacred nor our profane art could make her portrait. Beautiful, naked, shameless, young-she was obviously a goddess: but then the face, the face so calm that it escaped insipidity by the very concentration of its mildness, the face that was like the sudden coldness and stillness of a church when we enter it from a hot street-that made her a Madonna. The alert, inner silence which looked out from those eyes overawed him; yet at any moment she might laugh like a child, or run like Artemis or dance like a Maenad.{16}

Every daughter of Eve knows deep inside her that such beauty would have been her birthright had not sin defaced her. Every son of Adam longs for such an Eve. We were made to reflect an unstained glory, and our longing for that state won't be silenced by force. At best it can be locked in a closet of our souls, where it can only fester and either deaden or consume us.

A shame-tainted theology might argue that bodies are bad, but an incarnational theology will have none of that. In refuting the Gnostics, Irenaeus insisted that God made us of earth and spirit "so that man [and woman] should be like God not only in his breath but also in his shaped flesh."{17} To believe in Christ's incarnation is to believe it is possible for mortal flesh to carry God's image.

Shall we meekly cede another God-created glory to the domain of the devil, along with everything else in creation that might tempt us? Should we flee from enjoying mountains and forests because some people worship nature, or turn our gaze from the stars because some practice astrology? No. We impoverish our lives and narrow the scope of God's kingdom whenever we fall for this scam, but disrespecting human beauty is all the more tragic because it leads us to disrespect women, our physical bodies, and our sexuality. To cheapen beauty is to encourage ugly art and abuse of women's bodies. Feminine beauty now belongs to advertising, media hype, and pornography. Driven underground, the longing for beauty enslaves men and women who have not been taught how to master its power for godly ends.

If we are going to move beyond pride and shame to a strong humility regarding our bodies, we must stop listening to the voices that tell us beauty is either trivial or dangerous. It does matter that every girl learns to see herself as beautiful and offer her beauty to those around her in appropriate ways. It matters that we allow each other to put our longings for beauty on the table where they can be taken seriously. It matters that any loss or lack of beauty, from aging to mastectomy to thighs that our culture deems "bad," be grieved honestly and cleanly. Beauty is not trivial or dangerous. It is powerful and important. It deserves to be on the agenda for any faith community wrestling with the big spiritual issues of our time.

{1} Proverbs 31:30.

{2} See Chadwick's introduction to Saint Augustine's Confessions, translated by Henry Chadwick (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), xvii.

{3} John Chrysostom, "The True Adornment of Women," Baptismal Instructions, First Instruction, Article 37 (Westminster, Md.: The Newman Press), 38.

{4} Nancy Baker, The Beauty Trap (New York: Franklin Watts, 1984), 14.

{5} Ambrose, Hexameron, vi, 7,42, quoted in Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1967), 84.

{6} Ambrose, quoted in Brown, 83.

{7} Ambrose, "To the Virgins," chapter 10, paragraphs 55-56, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Volume X, edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1955), 372.

{8} Augustine, Commentary on the Gospel of John, 23:10.

{9} Augustine, Confessions, X.xxvii (38), translated by Henry Chadwick, 201.

{10} Augustine, On the True Religion, 54, quoted in Hans Urs Von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord, volume 2, Studies in Theological Style: Clerical Styles, translated by Andrew Louth, Francis McDonagh, and Brian McNeil C.R.V., edited by John Riches (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1984), 100. Compare Confessions, (9), 183.

{11} Thomas Merton, The Ways of the Christian Mystics, (Boston: Shambhala, 1961, 1993), 64. Merton is paraphrasing Ambrose's sermon, "On the Education of a Virgin."

{12} Augustine, Letters 243,10, quoted in Brown, 63.

{13} Mary Anne Tabor, "Being Beautiful: A Study on the Psychology of Beauty Based on Experiences of People Who Work in the Beauty Business" (master's thesis, Sonoma State University, 1990), 79.

{14} Daniel S. Hamermesh and Jeff E. Biddle, "Beauty and the Labor Market," National Bureau of Economic Research, November 1993.

{15} Isaiah 3:16-24.

{16} C. S Lewis, Perelandra (New York: Macmillan, 1944, 1968), p. 64.

{17} Irenaeus, 74.