Reviewed by Aimee Byrd
One of my Facebook friends, Janelle, was not looking forward to attending her district PTA meeting, but it wasn’t because of anything related to school issues. She lamented:
I can’t say “District” anymore without thinking about the Hunger Games, so maybe this will provide some humorous relief for the kind of event that fills me with dread: a room full of Alpha moms who will be looking me up and down to a). see what I am wearing, and b). see if I am fat, and c). see if I have had any work done.
You see, there are an awful lot of books out on the Christian market about how women need to deter men’s eyes. But actually, it is other women who can be the most offensive. In their book, True Beauty, Carolyn Mahaney and Nicole Whitacre begin by addressing how every woman struggles with beauty. The authors provide some troubling statistics that reveal just how ridiculously we have distorted beauty as a culture. Beauty is a very good thing, but we have managed to lose sight of what we are actually aiming for anymore. And so they identify the problem with our situation, “We believe physical beauty is the key to self-confidence and self-worth, the only way to be satisfied, significant, and successful” (18).
What I appreciate the most about this book is that Mahaney and Whitacre aim to give the reader confidence that “God’s Word exposes the distortion of beauty in our culture. It diagnosis our problems with beauty (even when we think we don’t have any) and offers the only solution.” Most importantly, they assure us that, “Above all, Scripture reveals our beautiful Savior, who had ‘no beauty that we should desire him’ (Isa. 53:2) but who hung bloodied on a cross for the ugliest of our sins” (23).
Another strength is just how practical this book is. First of all, it is a very accessible book. It is organized well with a broad audience in mind. Readers both young and old will not be intimidated to crack open and read a mere 113 pages housed with brief chapters each beginning, “True beauty and…” Also, some very practical issues are discussed such as body image, eating disorders, and whether it is okay to try to enhance our appearance. Thankfully, the authors do a very wonderful job of upholding Christian liberty in balance with a heart that wants to glorify God.
And that is the main issue that the authors uncover when it comes down to our struggles with beauty. We are “glory-thieves,” wanting to draw attention to our own beauty rather than beholding and reflecting the beauty of God. I really appreciated the chapter on True Beauty and Our Hearts.
Mahaney and Whitacre also do a fine job of taking some of the popular Scriptures on beauty and women, such as 1 Tim. 2:8-10 and 1 Pet. 3, and breaking down the historical and social context on those notorious women with their questionable braids and gold. They affirm that frumpiness is not next to godliness, and I appreciate that!
And although some women may think that “inner beauty” is just a pep talk for ugly people, the authors address the very important attributes of what I will call “spiritual beauty.” Let’s just get real; we know that there is a beauty that we can’t obtain with any kind of cosmetics, exercise, or youth. And when we behold this kind of beauty in others, it’s far more attractive than even the latest starving, 17-year-old cover model. The most stunning part about it is that this kind of beauty does not point to us, but to the One who beautifies. The authors teach about the beauty of trusting in God and then serving him in gratitude.
For these reasons, I would certainly recommend this book to women who would like to begin unpacking true beauty. And that is what I think this book is intended for, a beginning taste. There were a couple of spots where I was having an imaginary conversation with the authors, not so much disagreeing with them, but wishing for a little more. For example, while they make some worthy points about how our dress can glorify God, I believe Mary Kassian nails the purpose in our clothing best in her book, Girls Gone Wise:
Clothing bears witness to the fact that we have lost the glory and beauty of our original sin-free selves, It confesses that we need a covering–His [Christ’s] covering–to atone for our sin and alleviate our shame. It testifies to the fact that God solved the problem of shame permanently and decisively with the blood of His own Son. It also directs our attention forward to the time when we will be “further clothed” with spotless, imperishable garments (2 Corinthians 5:3 NKJV, Revelation 3:5). (99)
So there is a beautiful story that we tell in our dress about ourselves, as diverse as we are, and our desperate need for the beautiful righteousness of our God. And he is a God who has provided that righteousness for us. While we as created beings do express the image of God, and therefore our dress will be an extension of this, I’m not so sure that this is the main purpose of our clothing, as the authors emphasize. After all, the first man and woman were perfectly fine doing that naked before the fall. So our clothing has specific reference to God’s gospel message.
And I think this even allows us to be more expressive in our wardrobe choices. For instance, as the authors explain how our clothing should reflect the different aspects of God, one of the attributes they write about is God’s eternity. They warn, “Clothing and accessories that glorify death, despair, and spiritual darkness speak a message contrary to the eternal character of God” (33). I certainly agree that we shouldn’t glorify death and darkness in our dress. However sometimes my outfit, like a good blues song, represents the sorrow in death, or my own brokenness over the effects of sin in the world, whether it be sweatpants for a gloomy mood, or a black suit at a funeral. And keeping with the theme of the book, I think that an important element of beauty portrayed is honestly dealing with human brokenness, pointing to the absolute desperate need of God’s grace and mercy for our restoration.
Similarly, sometimes I think that we put too much pressure on our outfit and beautifying choices. The authors boil it down to this question when it comes to how we eat, exercise, and struggle with beauty choices: “Will this make me lovely and useful for the glory of God?” (63). While that may sound like a lofty goal, I doubt the homemade Payday bar I ate today would specifically fulfill that purpose. But I ate it anyway and was thankful. I’m not sure my mom’s nose ring is useful for the glory of God either, but she is lovely with it, and she enjoys wearing it. My Bruce Lee t-shirt may not be the most feminine article in my closet (another characteristic highlighted for women and dress), but it’s fun and harmless. I guess it does glorify God to enjoy all our opportunities and gifts, but sometimes I think we can put too much pressure on ourselves when we ask these questions.
And just one more thing since we’re talking beauty. I would have loved some pages dedicated to the beatific vision. Seeing Christ in his unveiled glory is our great expectation. Isn’t this why we long for beauty? The authors surely introduce God as “the beautiful One,” and the whole book works from this important truth. But as they take a page to describe some of God’s ‘beautiful’ attributes, I was thinking of the ones laid out for us in the Beatitudes, which do point to this beatific vision of Christ himself.
But let me assure you, if you are the annoyed mom headed for another grueling exposure to the PTA vultures, or even a high school student who is preoccupied taking selfies in your spare time, True Beauty is a helpful and needed contribution to a discussion that needs more attention. I am thankful Mahaney and Whitacre have supplied a profitable book for women to read on the issue.
Aimee Byrd is a wife and mother of three and is the author of Housewife Theologian (P&R, 2013). (You can read Aimee Byrd interview here.)
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