As someone who grew up steeped in evangelical church culture, I will attest that I never once received specific church guidance on how to make myself look physically beautiful (or at least better than my reflection in the morning). Virginity pledges, sex-is-beautiful-because-God-created-it-and-God-doesn’t-create-junk talks, See You at the Pole, myths of evolution, evils of rock music, sanctity-of-life instruction – yes. How to make the most of the body and face God gave me – no. Apparently, physical appearance is just something that girls are expected either to know innately or to absorb through the constant bombardment of The Media (which, as we all know, belongs to The World, out of which nothing good can come and which sends the wrong message to impressionable minds not sufficiently girded with the Sword of the Spirit, et al).
It seems to me that the modern evangelical church lives in fear of the male sex drive* and does nearly everything in its power to deny its motivations. When I was in high school, youth group sex talks usually stressed the importance of “modesty.” It was important to dress modestly because if you didn’t, disgusting sex-crazed boys would think about you with lust, which was gross and wrong. (That’s enough to scare conscientious young girls into covering up. At that age, there’s no need to remind them of pervy old men, either.) The greatest sartorial enemies of modesty were low-cut tops and mini-skirts — ergo, any girl caught wearing such an item of clothing was immediately branded, if not outright, then definitely through knowing glances and innuendo, one of those girls. Wearing a short skirt was practically one step away from asking to be raped. Don’t tempt the brothers! Just being female is enough temptation!
In addition, evangelical girls are taught, almost as a catechism, that true beauty comes from Christian spirit and from nowhere else, on the basis of the following verses:
Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised. -Proverbs 31:30
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. -1 Peter 3:3-4
Never mind the fact that the Bible is brimming with beautiful women and that in some cases, it was the woman’s looks that made the difference between good and bad outcomes, and that an entire book of the Bible is devoted to the pleasures of sex and pleasing physical traits of the woman – isn’t it HOBBBVIOUS from these verses that looks don’t and shouldn’t matter? Other corollaries naturally follow, such as:
Physical appearance isn’t worth my time because I should spend all my time focusing on the Lord. Oppressed Chinese people need Bibles more than I need Mary Kay!
My looks will wither anyway, so why try to attract someone on the basis of something that won’t last?
If I spend any time trying to look really, really good, I will be considered shallow and not focusing on the things above.
And, possibly the most deadly:
My personality and character are where true beauty comes from, so anyone who evaluates me on the basis of my looks doesn’t appreciate true beauty or have his spiritual priorities straight. Therefore, I am free to condemn his rejection of me as sinful and hate prettier girls who get all of the male attention, because if they were real Christians, they’d be working on their personalities instead.
So, when you consider the sex fears that the church instills in young women, along with the imperative to downplay looks (I remember reading that classic tome I Kissed Dating Good-bye and being surprised that author Joshua Harris actually boasts at one point that his attractive female friends don’t dress to stun), and you end up with women who dress plainly, partly out of conviction and partly out of fear of being socially ostracized, and who do it as a badge of honor and courage.
*I am not not acknowledging the destructive power that a sex drive uncontrolled can wield. Certainly caution is prudent, given the number of men throughout history who have destroyed their lives and the lives of their loved ones on account of lust. However, I continually get the impression that many in the church would love nothing more than to completely snuff out male sexual impulse, along with all the good it can do when properly directed. Sex drive is like fire: incredibly productive when harnessed, devastating when not.