Why the church encourages young women to be plain.

28 Jun

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.


26 Responses to “Why the church encourages young women to be plain.”

  1. Ben June 28, 2010 at 4:25 am #

    After reading this article I see how a girl can get the impression that ugliness is next to Godliness while growing up in the Church.

    I believe my experiences combating a similar argument that “the only good Christian is a destitute Christian” might be similar. I have found that teachers rarely say this explicitly. When they do, they say it to young children who are not supposed to argue back.

    They will usually imply and insinuate things about pretty women/rich men. This is usually buried in the middle of a sermon or in a discussion on a different matter, so it is hard to address. When you do call someone on it, they will backpedal: “I’m not saying that making money is evil …”.

  2. Aunt Haley June 28, 2010 at 10:46 am #

    After reading this article I see how a girl can get the impression that ugliness is next to Godliness while growing up in the Church.

    It’s not so much ugliness as plainness, I think. Plainness keeps a pious young woman safe from the snares of men and social ruin by women.

  3. Josh June 28, 2010 at 3:01 pm #

    First off, I don’t believe that Christian girls are taught to be plain. It was never the Church’s job to give make-up tips, but I don’t believe that hurts Christian women. They read Cosmo just like everyone else. And they aren’t dumb. They went to school, went to youth group, and they know that looking put-together and being beautiful attracts male attention. Nobody is that clueless.

    The church culture enforces middle-class standards. Nobody is going to church in a miniskirt and fishnet. I think it’s unfair to say the church wants women to be plain. It just doesn’t want women to dress like prostitutes.

    You have to have some pity for the church. It’s a cliche to say this, but American culture is drenched in sex. Victoria Secret is not shocking anymore more, at all. Lady Gaga is trying her damned best to shock, but really, nothing works.

    The church doesn’t live in fear of the male sex drive, but in denial of it. It seeks to enforce the homogenizing androgynous nature of the modern workplace. Let me quote this excellent description by Camille Paglia.

    “In the discreet white-collar realm, men and women are interchangeable, doing the same, mind-based work. Physicality is suppressed; voices are lowered and gestures curtailed in sanitized office space. Men must neuter themselves, while ambitious women postpone procreation. Androgyny is bewitching in art, but in real life it can lead to stagnation and boredom, which no pill can cure.

    Meanwhile, family life has put middle-class men in a bind; they are simply cogs in a domestic machine commanded by women. Contemporary moms have become virtuoso super-managers of a complex operation focused on the care and transport of children. But it’s not so easy to snap over from Apollonian control to Dionysian delirium.

    Nor are husbands offering much stimulation in the male display department: visually, American men remain perpetual boys, as shown by the bulky T-shirts, loose shorts and sneakers they wear from preschool through midlife. The sexes, which used to occupy intriguingly separate worlds, are suffering from over-familiarity, a curse of the mundane. There’s no mystery left.”

    Again, the church enforces middle-class standards. The Church is boring and sexless because middle-class culture is boring and sexless. Ever since political correctness called gender a cultural construct, men cannot be men, nor can women be women. The two choices that are left are a boring androgyny, or a sexual jungle free-for-all.

  4. Rebekah June 28, 2010 at 4:42 pm #

    See You at the Pole! High school just came rushing back again in a major way. I think we may have extremely similar backgrounds as far as religion goes. Rushing out the door right now but looking forward to reading more later on tonight!

  5. Ben June 28, 2010 at 7:27 pm #

    I agree with your point. Possibly indifference would be the right word. Christians aren’t supposed to be slovenly but they shouldn’t do more than the minimum when it comes to looks.

  6. Rebekah June 28, 2010 at 8:41 pm #

    While modesty was definitely stressed at my house and at my church, women were never encouraged to be plain Janes. Maybe it’s because I grew up in the South and everyone seemed to love big hair and makeup.

    The beauty of the women in the Bible was discussed frequently: Queen Esther’s beauty was extolled because she used it for good; Rebekah, {Biblical matriarch and my namesake} :) is also described as beautiful in the Bible, and this was specifically talked about. Additionally, it was taught that while it’s great to be beautiful, it’s more important to be a good person.

    Regarding sex, the extent of the message was don’t do it. There was so much I didn’t even know about until my 20’s. And I was also given the book, I Kissed Dating Goodbye. Dating, in a way, was kind of discouraged.

    I definitely think there should be more of healthy, realistic discussion about sex in church. I also think Christians should be encouraged to be the best they can be — including physical appearance. Nowhere in the Bible was anyone shamed for being attractive, unless it was used to somehow cause harm to another person. But this could be said of anything — like money, for instance.

  7. Aunt Haley June 29, 2010 at 10:13 am #

    First off, I don’t believe that Christian girls are taught to be plain. It was never the Church’s job to give make-up tips, but I don’t believe that hurts Christian women. They read Cosmo just like everyone else. And they aren’t dumb. They went to school, went to youth group, and they know that looking put-together and being beautiful attracts male attention. Nobody is that clueless.

    I think you are assuming two things: one, that Christian girls, by virtue of reading Cosmo and being bombarded by the media, somehow just KNOW how to be beautiful, and two, that Christian girls willingly accept that beauty attracts male attention and are therefore willing to accentuate their own looks to compete for men.

    But the truth is that a lot of women have very little clue how to dress well, nor do they have the skills or resources to achieve professional-looking hair and makeup results. There is a reason that celebrities have stylists working for them; looking good isn’t something that happens spontaneously by virtue of being female. In addition, the point of my post was that Christian girls are taught to reject looks as a starting point of attraction. So even if they acknowledge that good looks attract male attention, they see it as wrong and something to reject. Hence the attitude that “I shouldn’t have to change my looks; he should recognize what’s in my heart and how much I love Jesus instead.”

  8. Aunt Haley June 29, 2010 at 10:19 am #

    It could be that in the South, there is a different emphasis on appearance, but I have felt that in general, the church is interested in women looking only so good, but no more than that. Look clean, look decent, look reasonably contemporary – but nothing beyond.

    “Sex: Don’t Do It” as a message is HORRIBLE and almost completely useless. When I was in high school, the “sex as precious gift” idea was heavily promoted, but I still don’t think it was as realistic as it could have been.

    I Kissed Dating Goodbye – oh, man. Basically it was about Josh Harris feeling bad that he was a flirt and deciding to cut himself off from women until he found the one he wanted to marry – and in the process scaring an entire generation away from healthy dating.

  9. Will S. June 29, 2010 at 12:29 pm #

    Agreed, Haley, re: IKDG. I read it, and a book called I Gave Dating A Chance (I think the author’s name was Jeramy Clark, can’t check right now), around the same time, since, of course, iron is said to sharpen iron. I found little difference in the advice offered by either; both correctly discouraged dating the way the world does, in terms of the world viewing relationships as ends in themselves, whereas we would view them as opportunities to practice relating to the opposite sex, and to enjoy some fellowship with a fellow believer, and a way for two people to determine whether they are mutually compatible for the longer term. Frankly, I don’t think it makes much difference whether one calls it dating, courting, or betrothal, as long as one isn’t aping the world’s dating behaviour in all things. And it was pointless for Christians to set themselves up into different camps over the matter, if not outright counter-productive. And yeah, both books, as per standard evangelical practice today, were too much “me-me-me”, rather than focusing on the Word and what it says.

  10. Thursday June 29, 2010 at 8:47 pm #

    IKDG was all about what already very attractive people can/should do to slow things down. Its message is downright pernicious for those who don’t know how to attract the opposite sex in the first place. It’s like he’s never heard of the friend zone.

  11. Will S. June 30, 2010 at 3:35 am #

    Exactly, Thursday. The other problem with IKDG (and IGDAC suffered from this as well), as I’ve mentioned on here elsewhere, was its assumption that all its readers were within the leadership class within evangelicalism; it was pitched that a guy is a good catch if his leadership skills have demonstrated through having headed this or that ministry, and that a girl is a good catch if she has taught Sunday School, or ministered to the elderly, etc. So, either Harris was writing only for the natural leaders within evangelicalism, or, he was simply not thinking, and encouraging everyone to be a chief, not realizing that would leave no Indians. The implication, unspoken, being that no-one who hadn’t been in charge of something within the Church was fit to be either a husband or a wife, which is absurd, and also pernicious.

  12. Rebekah June 30, 2010 at 9:03 am #

    It’s been many years since I’ve read the book, but if I remember correctly, it seems like there was also the idea that if you dated someone and didn’t marry them, you basically just wasted whatever time you spent with them. My parents loved it! They said dating as we do it today is a new idea not done in the Bible. True, as are many things. People think it’s weird that I’ve only had one relationship in my life. I feel like saying, yeah, you have no idea.

    Speaking of talking about sex in church, a topic I find interesting is masturbation. If one is meant to abstain completely from sex, would this include masturbation? I mean, doesn’t it say somewhere in the Bible that thinking about something on any sort of regular basis is the same as doing it? And since the aforementioned practice usually requires some type of thought process, is it then wrong too?

    But what about people who abstain for years and years? Or what about people who live as Paul who said it’s better not to marry at all? What do we do with all of our sexuality?

    I think this could be an interesting conversation, but maybe it’s just me being a perv.

  13. Will S. June 30, 2010 at 12:20 pm #

    I don’t think you’re being a ‘perv’, Rebekah; I think this is the ultimate taboo topic amongst Christians, isn’t it? Nobody wants to talk masturbation, because nobody, if they do it, wants anyone else to know.

    Masturbation isn’t condemned in Scripture; neither is it condoned. Lust, however, is condemned; Christ said that if a man even looks upon a woman with lust in his heart, he has already sinned, i.e. commited fornication with her in his mind, even if not in actuality.

    Is masturbation possible without fantasizing about someone? Perhaps for some, it is; probably for most, not likely. And whether one resorts to pornography, which is obviously sinful, or whether one just imagines a particular person, that, too, is condemned.

    But what if one were to somehow be able to engage in that act without fantasizing about a particular person? Is that condemnable? Or not? A difficult question. Perhaps, then, one would do best not to engage in that activity.

    I suspect that Paul, and those who have his very rare gift, are able to just not even let their thoughts drift that way; whereas for the rest of us, i.e. 99.9999%, we’re the ones of whom Paul said “It is better to marry than to burn”, i.e. burn with lust, and risk burning for eternity, if we are willfully disobedient without remorse or repentance over sexual sins committed, whether in thought, word, or deed, as a result of giving into lust.

    The real problem is, people not getting married early enough, I think; if the Church would stop enabling bachelorhood / spinsterhood, and would instead strongly impress upon its young people the importance of marrying ahead of other life goals, and then exert social pressure upon them to find someone sooner rather than later, then masturbation questions would go back to being the non-issue they used to be.

  14. Rebekah June 30, 2010 at 5:59 pm #

    Thank you for the reassurance, Will. You know if I dared pose this question in church, everyone would just assume I had a “problem.”

    It all just seems so arduous. On one hand you have the idea that it’s better not to marry, but if you can’t control your lust, you should go ahead and do so. And then you’re not even supposed to think about sex a part from a clinical standpoint if you don’t marry. And THEN you have a body that’s engineered for sex and hormones that remind you about sex even if you try never to think about sex on your own. Just being honest, this is why I feel a little bitter sometimes about the whole setup for Christians.

    And I should say my parents were happy about the whole postponing of dating for ME. One parent had a very little problem dating after my parent’s divorce — MUCH more than I ever have. The other parent, however, never married or dated, despite potential suitors who still try.

  15. Will S. June 30, 2010 at 8:28 pm #

    It is hard, which is why I am convinced that most people aren’t cut out for lifelong singlehood, and why the Church really needs to work a lot harder to get its young people into marriage, early on.

  16. grerp July 30, 2010 at 9:50 pm #

    I read I Kissed Dating Goodbye. There’s nothing wrong with courtship as a mating ritual – if you can get enough guys to sign up for it and drag the ladies off the bar counters and get them to put their tops back on. It’s fine and good for Josh to say he didn’t have to date. But as a devout Christian, a successful writer, and a reasonably attractive man, was there any doubt he would find a girl to settle down with?

    If a woman wrote it, you’d have to subtitle it: And never walked down the aisle. Unless she was drop dead gorgeous.

  17. Ilíon August 8, 2010 at 4:35 pm #

    What better way to “grow the church” than via marriage and children?

  18. Will S. August 8, 2010 at 5:54 pm #

    Ilíon: Exactly! In my church tradition (Reformed), that’s the main way of growth, not through converts to the tradition, which are unfortunately relatively few (in comparison to evangelicalism), though not zero (I’m one, and not alone); but rather, big families with lots of kids, has been, and to a fair degree still is, the norm.

  19. anonymous October 1, 2010 at 9:21 am #

    It’s not even just that churches don’t encourage women to look beautiful and to make the most of what God’s given them, but that, at least in my experiences, they actively discouraged from it. I’ve been in church my whole life and went to a Baptist school where I was told daily something new. My top was too bright, it attracted too much attention. My heels were too high. My mascara too dark. My skirt too short. My earrings too long. My hair too straight (I have naturally curly hair) “If God wanted you to have straight hair he would of made it so”. The list goes on and on. All to discourage any male attention. To discourage any hint of sexuality. While placing the blame squarely on my shoulders if a man did fall out of God’s shadow long enough to think I was pretty.

    But if I went to school or church without any make-up, wearing drab clothing… Well, that’s a sin too, because we need to put our best face forward to help our testimony.
    So, as you can see, for most women, beautiful or ugly. It’s, quite literally, a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation.

  20. Joseph Dantes October 1, 2010 at 11:28 am #

    If it’s any consolation, God looks at the heart when judging your worth.

    And I just imagine you naked.

  21. Badger March 7, 2011 at 12:40 am #

    Just re-read this post as I’m working up a post about Boundless evangelical denialism about male sexuality and the importance of a wife keeping in shape.

    Sexual denialism is a huge problem in both Catholic and evangelical in America (Racer X has interesting thoughts on this). If any group should have a good handle on the issue true bible-based religion would be it, but they have confused overcoming the faults of human nature with denying them.

    I used to be active in a church social group (I grew apart from it for logistical reasons and a change in pastors for the worse). It struck me that many there were not just chaste but skittish about sex. Being chaste wasn’t a virtue, it was easy because they hated their naughty bits. And that was a key factor that had brought them to, or kept them in, that particular faith – their lack of acceptance of human nature, and their individual nature, was not just accepted but lauded as Godly.

  22. Aunt Haley March 7, 2011 at 10:30 am #

    The issue of looks is very hot-button in evangelicalism. I’m looking forward to your take on it.

  23. Old Guy March 7, 2011 at 11:49 am #

    Haley: Can you conveniently extend the length of your Recent Comments list? Often enough, people join in a conversation that has lapsed and their comment disaappears from view in sort order on a high traffic day.

  24. Jennifer August 19, 2011 at 10:26 pm #

    “that an entire book of the Bible is devoted to the pleasures of sex and pleasing physical traits of the woman”

    Yes, we’re all human, but the Bible’s also full of looks-before-personality turning awful. Anyway, if you love someone, you’ll find them gorgeous regardless (provided they don’t REALLY let themselves go Gollum on you). We don’t know how Solomon’s wife would rate today.


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