Revive Our Hearts Podcast

How Culture Influences Our Self-Image

Leslie Basham: We know all the adages: Beauty is only skin deep; beauty is in the eye of the beholder; pretty is as pretty does. But what really matters is what God has to say about beauty.

It's Monday, November 4; and you're listening to Revive Our Hearts with Nancy DeMoss.

How much effort do you put into the way you look? The fashion and cosmetic industries certainly hope you'll spend lots of money trying to improve your appearance. But how much thought (is given) to inner beauty? Revive Our Hearts has invited a special friend to address this issue. Here's Nancy to introduce our guest.

Nancy DeMoss: I first became acquainted with Carolyn Mahaney several years ago when we were both speaking at a conference called "Building Strong Families In Your Church."

At that conference Carolyn gave a message that I think is one of the most important messages that women need to hear today. It has to do with this matter of "true beauty." This is an area where the world sends to us so many confusing messages and there is a lot of pressure put on us as women today to adopt the world's way of thinking.

So this week as we air Carolyn Mahaney's message, I want to encourage you to not only listen yourself; but if you have teenage daughters, would you get them to listen with you? If you know others who have teenage girls, give them a call and let them know this is a message that will be very helpful for them as we contemplate what the Scripture has to say about "true" beauty.

Carolyn Mahaney: How do we cultivate our femininity? How do we enhance this gracious gift God has given us? Now, I have labored over how to best answer this question because there are so many valid and important points that could be made. However, I've chosen one section of Scripture that I think best captures a godly pursuit of femininity and it's found in 1 Peter 3:3.

Peter is exhorting the women. "Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as braided hair and the wearing of gold jewelry and fine clothes. Instead, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God's sight. For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to make themselves beautiful."

Now to summarize this, we could say that our femininity is cultivated by the pursuit of inner beauty. Pursuing the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit is what enhances our femininity as women. Therefore, I would like to spend the remaining time discussing the subject of beauty. We're going to first look at the beauty which our culture esteems: physical beauty. And then we're going to consider beauty as God defines it.

What is a cultural perspective of beauty? Well, needless to say physical beauty is very significant for women in today's society. However, I don't think it has only been important to women in our culture. Isn't it interesting to note (in the passage we just read) that Peter needed to address the topic of beauty in his day, way back when? I think it's accurate to say that women have always been concerned about their physical appearance.

Recently I read a fascinating article that illustrates this very point. It's entitled, "The Price of Perfection." In this article the author, Robin Marantz Henig, gives an overview (through the centuries) of the dangerous and mutilating procedures women have undertaken with their bodies in an attempt to pursue beauty as defined by their cultural standards. Let me just read to you a few of the illustrations.

*"In China, right up until World War II, upper-class girls had their feet bound, crippling them for life but ensuring the three-or four-inch long feet that were prized as exquisitely feminine. In central Africa, the Mangbettu tightly wrapped the heads of female infants in pieces of giraffe hide, to attain the elongated cone-shaped heads that were taken to be a sign of beauty and intelligence.

During the Renaissance, well-born European women plucked out hairs, one by one, from their natural hairlines all the way back to the crowns of their heads, to give themselves the high, rounded foreheads thought beautiful at the time."

The author goes on to communicate some of the highs and lows of fashion regarding a woman's breasts. He said, "In ancient Greece and again in 14th century Europe, breasts were hidden and tightly bound. The ideal torso was a flat torso, the same ideal that re-emerged for the flappers of the 1920's and the mod models, like Twiggy, of the 1960s."

The author said, "Despite the vagaries of vanity which changed the ideal notion of breast size every few decades, one factor has held relatively constant: most cultures through the centuries, have wanted their women to be slim."

"In England in 1665, a health pamphlet titled To Reduce the Body That Is Too Fat To A Mean and Handsome Proportion noted that one handy technique for losing weight was bloodletting. Overweight women...should be bled 'largely, twice a year, the right arm in the spring, the left in the autumn.' In the 1930s, women actually swallowed tapeworms to lose weight; the opera diva Maria Callas is said to have been one such desperate reducer."

The article also highlighted measures women have taken to erase facial imperfections. Listen to this: "In the Elizabethan age many women, in search of skin that looked like porcelain, whitened their faces using ceruse, a potentially lethal combination of vinegar and lead.

Queen Elizabeth herself used ceruse so consistently that it eventually ate pits into her skin, causing her to pile the paint on in thicker and thicker layers in hopes of camouflaging her growing imperfections. This, in turn, only led to more corrosion, and the Virgin Queen's face was ultimately so ravaged that she ordered all mirrors banned from the castle.

(In The Tyranny of Beauty, Arline and John Liggett write that Elizabeth's servants exploited the ban on mirrors in a wickedly mischievous way: Every morning they painted the Queen's face white with ceruse, but they painted her nose a cruel crimson.)"

Now, this article contains many more illustrations that describe the dangerous and drastic measures women have taken in their quest for beauty, which I won't take any more time to read.

However we see, from the few that I have read, the temptation for women to be preoccupied with their physical appearance has always existed. Women have always been susceptible to becoming absorbed with the pursuit of the physical ideal as defined by the time and culture in which they lived.

However, in our present-day culture, I think it's accurate to say that women are driven in their pursuit of physical beauty more than ever before. See, given the impact of modern-day technology and the blitz of media influence, we are bombarded continuously with voices and images that define what we are to look like.

Whereas a hundred years ago, women might have compared themselves with the other ten women in their village, today women compare themselves with pictures of the super-models put on display by the world-wide fashion industry. We must have bodies that are perfect and without defect.

Well, that eliminates the majority of us right at the outset. If we have an unwanted scar or an undesired birthmark, if we have a skin disease or walk with a limp, if we have varicose veins or stretch marks from having babies, if our nose is too big or our hair is too thin or our ears are too pointed, these features and many more are considered defects--defined by our society. I personally have half the defects from the list I just mentioned to you, so obviously, I'm disqualified.

Youthfulness. We are bombarded with the message, "to be beautiful, you must be young." So there we have it, ladies. In order to be beautiful in our society, we must have no defects, we must remain forever young, we must maintain a perfect figure and possess a "cover girl" face. Anybody here measure up? The fashion industry puts forth an image of beauty so narrow in its range that most women feel unattractive in comparison.

Nancy DeMoss: I think all of us as women can relate to what we've been hearing from Carolyn Mahaney about the pressure our culture puts upon us as it relates to this matter of physical appearance and beauty. That's why it's important we remember that our true femininity is cultivated and enhanced by the pursuit, not of external beauty, but of inner spiritual beauty. Why don't you join me now as we ask the Lord to give us that heart.

Father, we confess that so often we have let the world squeeze us into its mold. I pray that You would give us a heart and a hunger to have the kind of beauty that only You can give to us as women--a beauty that comes from within as You fill us with Your spirit and You conform us to the image of Jesus Christ. Make us women who are truly beautiful and who live to be pleasing, not to the world, but supremely to You. I pray in Jesus' name, Amen.

Leslie Basham: We'll know that prayer is being answered when our pursuit of God begins to overtake our pursuit of the perfect look. But this matter of inner beauty may be an entirely new concept to you. Or you might feel you need additional help in order to change your way of thinking.

You may find it helpful to have a copy of these broadcasts to listen to over and over again. They're available on either audiocassette or on CD. The tape can be yours for a donation of $5 and the CD for a donation of $7. Both can be ordered from our Web site, ReviveOurHearts.com or by calling 1-800-569-5959.

We aren't able to bring you every word of Carolyn's message this week because we just don't have time. But when you order the series, you'll get her entire message. That number again is 1-800-569-5959. Or you can write to us at Revive Our Hearts.

While you're writing, dialing or logging on, please take a moment to pray for the ministry of Revive Our Hearts. Be sure to join us again tomorrow when our guest, Carolyn Mahaney, talks about the false advertisement that surrounds the quest for physical beauty. I hope you can be here for Revive Our Hearts.

*Robin Marantz Henig, "The Price of Perfection."
Civilization magazine, April 1996, Available On-line: http://nasw.org/users/robinhenig/price_of_perfection.htm.

Revive Our Hearts with Nancy Leigh DeMoss is a ministry partnership of Life Action Ministries.

*Offers available only during the broadcast of the podcast season.