Friday, April 19, 2013

Beholding the Beautiful People

They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Apparently, so is some advertising.

You may have already seen the "Real Beauty Sketches" video from the Dove soap company in which a trained sketch artist - who's a male - draws women he's never seen simply by verbal descriptions of them.  First, a woman sits down behind a screen, and tells the artist what she thinks she looks like, and he draws the portrait she verbalizes.  Then, another person, who's been introduced to that first woman, comes in, sits down behind a screen, and tells the artist what the first woman looks like.

After both sketches have been drawn, the woman who was the subject of that pair of sketches comes back and evaluates the difference between what she's told the artist she looks like, and what the other person recalls her as looking like.  Usually, there's a stark contrast between the two interpretations, with the sketch drawn in accordance with the stranger's perspective looking perceptibly more appealing by comparison.

Dove's objective is to encourage women with the likelihood that how they think they look isn't necessarily as negative as how other people see them.  "Women are their own worst beauty critics," Dove claims.  "Only 4% of women around the world consider themselves beautiful.  At Dove, we are committed to creating a world where beauty is a source of confidence, not anxiety."

Of course, Dove is also committed to creating a world where people care about beauty and will buy their products in order to stay as beautiful as possible.

A Woman's View of Dove's Comparisons

And that's where feminist writer Jazz Brice has a problem with Dove's little beauty project.  In an essay on Tumblr, entitled "Why Dove’s 'Real Beauty Sketches' Video Makes Me Uncomfortable… and Kind of Makes Me Angry," Brice points out that Dove's project simply reinforces "the message [women] constantly receive...  that girls are not valuable without beauty."

Indeed, Dove's video is all about looks, isn't it?

"Brave, strong, smart?  Not enough," Brice deduces.  "You have to be beautiful.  And 'beautiful' means something very specific, and very physical."

She catches a troubling quote in the video that bothered me, too, when I watched it.  It's near the end, and one of the women who's been encouraged to think more highly of herself - since she's not as ugly as she thought she was - tries to justify this project for Dove.

“I should be more grateful of my natural beauty," this participant explains.  "It impacts the choices and the friends we make, the jobs we go out for, they way we treat our children, it impacts everything.  It couldn’t be more critical to your happiness.”

How beautiful you are "couldn't be more critical to your happiness?"  Isn't that a woefully troublesome assumption?  Sexist, even?

Instead, Brice warns, "don’t let your happiness be dependent on something so fickle and cruel and trivial.  You should feel beautiful, and Dove was right about one thing: you are more beautiful than you know.  But please, please hear me: you are so, so much more than beautiful."

Of course, that's a self-professed feminist's take on the video.   And I was fairly content to leave it at that the other day, when I first saw the video and read Brice's comments a friend had posted on Facebook.  Our society is too focused on looks and other superficial qualities.  It doesn't take a feminist to point that out.  So I didn't really think much more about the video, and assumed that since it was nothing but a glorified commercial, the general public wouldn't fall too deeply for it, either.

A Man's View of Dove's Comparisons

But I was surprised to see Tim Challies, an evangelical pastor and blogger, taking up the same topic today. Challies?!  What's he doing giving this video any publicity?  And then he pointed out it has been viewed on YouTube more than 10 million times.

People are more gullible than I thought.

And then it struck me that, lately, I've noticed a lot of "beautiful" fluff in Christian media these days.  Several youngish, evangelical, male married friends on Facebook have appeared to be part of a trend involving a husband's proclamation to the rest of us that their wives are beautiful.  It almost makes me wonder what mistake they've made that their wives are holding over their heads - like it's the digital version of chocolates and flowers.  Plus, I write some music reviews for, and even in my latest review, I commented that it seems contemporary Christian musicians feel obligated to write at least one song saying their spouse is beautiful.  Is there really that much negative self-imagery out there poisoning Christian womens' minds?

Now, I'm a single never-married, so you'll understand why all of this talk about how beautiful one's wife is sounds a bit dorky to me.  And me saying that may help explain why I'm a single never-married!  And no, not all of the compliments these Christian husbands are paying their wives are exclusively about physical appearance.  But appearance is a major part.

So at first, I thought Challies, being a more objective and straight-laced evangelical writer than others, was going to take Christians to task over this popular beauty trend.  I expected him to point out how we concentrate too much on subjective anatomical and biological attributes.  But he didn't.

Instead, without endorsing the commercial aspects of Dove's video, or dwelling too much on it's obsession with physical attractiveness, Challies takes the more nuanced road and muses about how we believers in Christ usually tend to be harder on ourselves and our faith walk than other people are in their estimation of us.

Frankly, I'm not sure what to make of that.

Christian "Beauty" and the Beholder

"In all of life there is a conflict between who we believe we are and who other people believe we are," Challies posits, "and in this conflict we tend to believe that we are the ones with the better and more accurate assessment."

OK, I'm tracking with him so far.  But there's more.

"What always stands out to us is that the areas in which we think we are weakest are the ones in which other people identify grace." he continues.  "We are so aware of our sin that we blind ourselves to the grace of God which is slowly but consistently putting that sin to death."

I don't know about you, but I thought we believers generally don't have a very accurate picture of all the sins we've committed.  True, sometimes we're pretty hard on ourselves, but we are wretched people without God's grace.  Challies isn't saying that we're not as bad as we think we are, but he does appear to be trying to hammer sanctification into the flimsy grid of Dove's overly-subjective hypothesis.

At the end of the day, it doesn't really matter what other people think of us.  What matters is what God knows us to be, and whether or not His grace is active in our lives.  Observers should know that we are His people by our love for Him and for each other, but how much of our sanctification other people may see in us isn't necessarily a harbinger of God's salvific work.  Besides, we're a lot better at presenting certain sides to other people and hiding other sides from them.  What others see of us in churchy settings isn't necessarily what they're getting.

Meanwhile, our "Beholder" isn't anybody we can see, but the One to Whom all is revealed.  To Him, in Christ, we're all beautiful people.

This probably isn't that big a deal, and as a blogger myself, I know we writers don't always make the most logical arguments.  So I'll give Challies a pass on this, because one of the points he makes is quite valid:  we don't need to beat ourselves up over our sins, and we do need to welcome more of God's grace into our lives.  Amen?  I'm just not convinced that many believers truly understand the depths of their depravity, which is the reason God's perfect Substitute, Christ, had to die in the first place.  Nor am I convinced, at least with the artificial and contrived ways we control how our lives are displayed to those around us, that other believers can accurately gauge what God's doing inside of us.

Then again, maybe I'm the only believer who puts on his best possible "faith face" when I'm out in the Christian world.

How An Atheist Sees Me

Maybe I'm also still glowing from the surprising words of encouragement I received yesterday from none other than my atheist friend in prison.  I've gotta tell ya - I don't think I've had anybody in any faith community of which I've been a part tell me what I'm going to share with you.  So maybe this helps cloud my skepticism of Challies' interpretation of the Dove video.

"Do you remember the night you called me and confronted me with what you had read online?" my friend writes.  Back before he'd gone to prison, I had no idea that he'd done anything illegal.  I hadn't heard from him in a couple of weeks, and he'd dropped out of all social media.  I finally Googled his name to see if maybe he'd died.  The first result from my search gave me the official indictment against him, and his guilty plea, along with his upcoming sentencing date.  I was floored.

"It was hardly a two-minute phone conversation," my friend continues.  "You said that you were on your way (a half-hour drive) and hung up.  I put the phone down and thought, 'Geez, it would never have occurred to me to extend that kind of compassion and support to another person, to just drop everything and rush over.'"

If you'll indulge me, there's more!  Seriously - I can't remember the last time anybody else outside my family has ever told me this kind of stuff.

"I've always seen you as a creative, intelligent, and 'together' person, with a lot to offer people," he affirms.  "When I'm around you or even just talking with you on the phone, I feel a comfort and peace.  It's been true since the day I met you."

Typing this just now, I have to suppress the urge to laugh out loud in disbelief.  I think my friend has been in prison too long!  Then again, however, this illustrates Challies' claim that we believers sometimes carry too unbalanced an opinion of ourselves around with us.

I'm not sharing my friend's letter with you to pat myself on the back, or to prove to myself that somebody is willing to put such nice things about me into writing, or even to shame any evangelical friends of mine who might read this but have never said such kind things to me.

Although, yeah, I guess I'm ticked that they haven't.  Of course, I haven't done it to them much, either, if at all.

At his church, Challies says congregants make a point of trying to find opportunities of encouraging each other with things they see God doing in each others' lives.  At a Nazarene church I used to attend in college, they'd take a Sunday evening service once in a while and do "affirmations," standing up unscripted and offering short, encouraging words of support to specific people in the congregation.

For whatever reason, what Challies says his church does, and what the Nazarene church did, sound rather stilted.  I suspect that when God commanded us to encourage each other, He intended it to be more organic than "OK, now say something nice about somebody."  Our encouragement of each other should be a normal part of our conversation, don't you think?  Should we be waiting for specific times or seasons to support one another with how we see God advancing their sanctification?

Meanwhile, I'm resisting the urge to copy and paste my atheist friend's letter to my Facebook page!  I have to admit, having somebody say they see beauty in you is rather invigorating, isn't it?

Too bad I keep forgetting that God does it all the time:

"The LORD your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing."  - Zephaniah 3:17

1 comment:

  1. I love your perspective and how you always come back to making it personal. (Hearing or even agreeing with the truth doesn't do us much good - we must also be doers.)You are an encouragement to me.


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