Her Body, Her Self, and Her God

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Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune (October 23, p. A18) carried Mary McCarty’s review of Joan Brumberg’s recent book, The Body Project. The book is about the difference between how girls saw themselves 100 years ago and how they see themselves today. Brumberg analyzes diaries of adolescent girls from the 1830’s to the 1990’s. Her conclusion, according to the reviewer: “In the 19th and early 20th centuries, girls’ diaries focused on ‘good works’ and perfecting the character. In the 1990’s, the diaries are fixated on ‘good looks,’ on perfecting the body.”

For example, one diary from 1892 says, “Resolved…to think before speaking. To work seriously. To be self-restrained in conversations and actions. To be dignified. Interesting myself more in others.” Contrast this with an entry from 1982: “I will try to make myself better in any way I possibly can with the help of my budget and babysitting money. I will lose weight, get new lenses, already got new haircut, good makeup, new clothes and accessories.”

From a biblical standpoint, what is remarkable about this shift from 1892 to 1982 is that it parallels exactly the shift described in the Bible away from what God wills for women. Consider the shift of focus from “good works” to “good looks.”

Likewise, I want women to adorn themselves with proper clothing, modestly and discreetly, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly garments, but rather by means of good works, as is proper for women making a claim to godliness. (1 Timothy 2:9-10)

Your adornment must not be merely external—braiding the hair, and wearing gold jewelry, or putting on dresses; but let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is precious in the sight of God…you have become [Sarah’s] children if you do what is right without being frightened by any fear. (1 Peter 3:3-4, 6)

Brumberg’s diagnosis of the problem seems to miss the mark. She writes, “Today, many young girls worry about the contours of their bodies…because they believe the body is the ultimate expression of the self.” That may be true. But it is not helpful, because it gives the impression that something else besides the body is the ultimate expression of the self. In other words, Brumberg seems to assume that self is the starting point, and expressing the self is what life is all about. The problem, then, would be just finding out what the “ultimate expression of the self” is.

The Bible has a radically different diagnosis of the problem. It has a radically different starting place. The verse I left out from 1 Peter 3 says, “In former times the holy women also, who hoped in God, used to adorn themselves, being submissive to their own husbands” (verse 5). The biblical starting point in dealing with the fear of looking unacceptable is God. Does a woman “hope in God,” or hope in the approval of men? This is the key to “not being frightened by any fear” (verse 6). This is the key to being free from bondage to the mirror.

The biblical goal of a woman’s life is not to find the ultimate expression of the self (neither “body” nor “character”). The biblical goal in life is to express the all-satisfying greatness and trustworthiness of God. Expressing God, not self, is what a godly woman wants to do. Excessive preoccupation with figure and hair and complexion is a sign that self, not God, has moved to the center. With God at the center—like the “sun,” satisfying a woman’s longings for beauty and greatness and truth and love—all the “planets” of food and dress and exercise and cosmetics and posture and countenance will stay in their proper orbit.

If this happens, the diaries of the next generation will probably go beyond looks and character, and speak of the greatness of God and the triumphs of his grace. And they will more often be written from Calcutta than from the comfortable cabins of rural America.

Pastor John