Yesterday, a woman who purports to be a Christian teacher and “influencer,” shared a series of statements on Twitter urging Christian women to show respect for their husbands by improving their appearances.
Despite pushback from many other Christians who felt this message was shallow, disrespectful, and lacking in compassion, the author doubled down on her stance and continued to tell women, “If your husband likes long hair, wear it long. If he prefers you smaller, get smaller. Eat healthy and take care of your body. It’s not that hard.” Insert shrug emoji.
Frustrated, I wrote my own Twitter thread on the concept of women’s dignity beyond their physical appearance. But the topic is still turning over in my mind and I can’t stop thinking about it. In an effort to compose my thoughts, and (I hope) to encourage other people who may have been hurt in a similar way, I am compiling my words here.
On a surface level, the idea of “respecting your husband by trying to look nice” is fairly innocuous. “Do what your spouse finds attractive; this is different for everyone.”
Yet the author of this statement (whose work I am not linking here; I’m not interested in increasing traffic to her blog) spent a great deal of time in her Twitter replies defining “attractive” as long-haired, skirt-wearing, and that pearl of fatphobic euphemisms, “healthy.”
Since this is marketed with a Christian veneer, let’s look at the Scriptural commands to women to be attractive for their husbands. Turn with me in your Bibles to First Delusions, chapter 8. It’s right after, “thou shalt vote Republican; Jesus made Peter first head of the GOP.”
Yeah, that’s not in the Bible either.
The Bible, in fact, is brimming over with injunctions to value the fruit of the spirit over the beauty of mortality. Godliness over charm. Character over “attractiveness.” Popularity is deceitful, beauty is fleeting. From dust we came, and to dust we will return.
(It’s worth noting here that the narrator of Song of Solomon, famously sensual in descriptions of physical love, rhapsodizes about attraction to his lover. But he never says, “as I poetically compare your body to nature, I’ll remind you not to ‘let yourself go’ after having a baby.” Song of Solomon portrays lovers delighting in each other as they are. End of story. No “be this, do that, improve such-and-such.”)
But is this really harmful? you might wonder. What’s so bad about telling women to make an effort for their spouses?
Nothing is wrong with *wanting* to [fill in blank] for your spouse. It’s the dictatorial nature and the woman-shaming undercurrent of devaluation that are the problem.
Harping on the importance of a woman’s appearance carries an inherent dismissal of a woman’s intellect, spirituality, and inherent worth in the image of God.
As “purity culture” (a loaded topic that goes far, far beyond Biblical principles of abstinence before marriage) tells young girls to keep their mouths shut around boys lest they appear “too smart” or “intimidating,” it pushes the implication that their presence should be amiable and decorative. Women are told their body is a gift for their husband; i.e., that they are objects created for a man’s use. Not bearers of the Imago Dei and precious in God’s sight, but “methadone” for a man’s lust. (@sheilagregoire has some great resources refuting that nonsense.)
Women are frequently reminded that it is their responsibility to be (modestly!!) attractive for their husbands to help them avoid the temptation of other women. Translation: if he has an affair it’s clearly your fault for not trying hard enough to keep him.
I cannot overstate how much victim-blaming is included in discussions of men’s infidelity to their wives.
It is inexcusable. It is cruel.
Of course, in these conversations, no airtime is given to discussion of anyone who cannot make themselves fit into the “accepted standard of young, white, thin, able beauty” box. Disability and chronic illness are taboo topics unless we’re talking about being a living sacrifice and staying joyful.
And one of the heaviest and perhaps most damaging themes (to teenagers, at least) in all this propaganda is the importance of being THIN.
Oh, it’s not said in so many words. It’s cloaked in terms like “healthful,” “physically fit,” “graceful,” and “delicate.”
The meaning, though, is clear. “If you’re fat, you’re ugly, and you’ll never catch a husband. You owe it to the men who look at you to be slender and pleasing to the eye trained on a Western supermodel aesthetic.”
As a teenager who struggled with a negative body image, I cannot express how much that rhetoric harmed me. I am still working through the ramifications of my disordered attitude toward food, exercise, and my self-worth as anything other than a size small. I watched this concept of “thin equals pretty, pretty equals worthy” push anorexia on one friend, crash dieting on another.
As an impressionable 16-year-old thirsty for guidance on how to be a woman after God’s own heart, I read the words of one married woman who suggested “losing weight to return to your wedding-day dress size” as an anniversary gift to your husband.
And as a glasses-wearing, size 8–10, acne-scarred teenager, I worried I’d never find a man willing to put up with my inferiority. I wanted to conquer my body’s natural tendency to be anything other than skinny, right then and there. After all, I rationalized — I wouldn’t need to lose weight later in my marriage if I never gained it in the first place.
But in the end, I was one of the lucky ones. I married a man who loves my character and intelligence, who values me for who I am and not how I look or the number on my clothing labels. I didn’t end up with someone who weaponized my insecurities against me as a tool for abuse.
The thought of how many women have suffered that evil sickens me. Christians, we must do better.
This, by the way, isn’t the time for people who haven’t absorbed these messages to pipe up with “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I was never taught anything like that.”
Maybe you weren’t. Yet many of us were. Not necessarily by our parents or teachers. But in the books we read, the speakers we listened to, the conferences we attended. It was insidious. It crept in and preyed on young women longing to fit in and be accepted.
“Every word of this is my story too,” Courtney Sexton wrote in response to my Twitter thread (quoted here with permission). “I’ve grown mostly past a lot of this but it’s still a daily battle to listen to truth instead of those well-worn toxic thought patterns. I wept for my girls this morning praying they would never be in this bondage.”
God did not create women to be abused, undervalued, objectified, cheated on. He made women in His own image, and His redemption is offered as a free gift to men and women alike. His love persevered through my self-loathing and today, though I haven’t left behind my insecurities completely, I feel deeply comforted in the knowledge that I am beloved by Jesus and not dependent on what people think.
But I still carry the memories of how “beauty” was used against me — even with the “best of intentions.”
I have only been married for two and a half years. I am not qualified to give marital advice to anyone. I don’t have the experience to counsel and exhort.
From the very brief firsthand knowledge that I have, though, and from my observations of many others who have gone before me and my husband, I know this: marriage is an intertwining of two minds and hearts; a huge commitment and covenant in the journey through life. It’s full of opportunities for both parties to grow, to be unselfish, to love sacrificially. It is so much more than “being attractive for your spouse.”
True beauty is not found in diets and spray tans and hair extensions and designer clothes. Please, please, love your spouse for who they are. Don’t get caught up in petty things that won’t last. Age and illness and childbirth and exhaustion and grief and trauma will come for most, if not all.
Set your affection on things above, not on things of the earth.
People look on the outward appearance. God looks at the heart.