For months now, I’ve been trying to find the words to write about Christian culture’s beauty standards. It’s hard to put into words, though, because much of it isn’t very explicit. What Christianity says is that women/girls (and those people it categorizes as such) shouldn’t care about their looks. Caring about looks is part of the sinful, superficial world, and a woman should only care about inner beauty: things like modesty, purity, gentleness, kindness, and most especially, innocence.
But what Christianity really means is far different. For instance, I just recently checked out a Christian magazine-type book called SHE Teen (Safe, Healthy, and Empowered) put together by Rebecca St. James. “Your remote control could tell you that we’re pretty much addicted to beauty” it says as it gives beauty tips that let you know that you better not think for a minute you can get away with not caring about your appearance. The message seems to be: you shouldn’t care about your physical appearance by worldly standards, but you definitely have an obligation to think and care about it by spiritual standards.
And it’s not just this — most Christian literature aimed at women links beauty with femininity and femininity next to godliness. This was the message I received from books like Captivating and from messages about what a woman was “supposed” to be.
While dismissing “worldly” standards of beauty, Christian culture actually holds women up to an even higher standard of appearance: your physical beauty is both entirely dependent on who you are as a person and how you conform to feminine standards of behavior and you should meet Christian standards of beauty appearance while pretending that you’re not focusing at all on your beauty.
And because beauty standards are linked to spiritual, Christian culture can move far beyond even the virgin/whore dichotomy and into realms where the fate of your soul is determined by the beauty image you cultivate.
The problem with these beauty standards is that, while things like femininity, purity, modesty, and innocence are what’s explicitly talked about, there is a very specific body type that Christian culture judges as acceptable manifestations of these traits. Chest size is probably the most obvious: the bigger the breasts, the more Christian culture judges you to be immodest, regardless of how you dress. Unless you wear a loose-fitting sack, but then you’ll probably be judged as not embracing your God-given femininity.
But it goes beyond that, too. You need to be thin. You need to have just enough curves as to not look like a boy (need to look feminine!) but not enough that you fail modesty standards by having a body boys might look at. You better be appealing to men, but not turn them on. You need to be innocent of all knowledge of sex and bodies. In short, you need to be, in both look and personality, a character from an Old West Christian novel.
It was this restrictive and impossible beauty standard that I navigated growing up in Christianity. See, I wasn’t raised by a mother who taught me how to put on makeup just so. The only time I can recall her (or me, for that matter) being especially feminine was when my parents were still together, and I’m sure it was solely to impress my father.
But I was still expected to be this kind of woman. Because it was considered the ‘natural’ God-given way of being, my mother simply assumed that I would grow into this kind of person on my own. Out of my own natural femininity, I would become someone who shaved my legs, would know how to apply the proper amount of modest makeup, because it was hardwired into my genes.
This wasn’t the worst aspect for me, though, because I assumed my failures in this regard stemmed from my failure of what I saw was a bigger aspect of proper feminine beauty: innocence.
You can’t really be a survivor of sexual abuse and be innocent. This is made blatantly clear in the amount of Christian literature I’ve read that tells women that pain and trauma stand directly in the way of their femininity. That’s the true crime of abuse and trauma – that the aftereffects mean you won’t be this adult-child, sweet, innocent, trusting soul with wide doe eyes and kind words for those that hunt you.
The problem was, growing up in conservative Christianity, my lack of innocence was fractured. I knew about sex, but had no words to explain it. I knew about my body, but only in a forced way, which left strange gaps in my understanding. But I didn’t know what about me was normal, and what was something wrong with me.
See, part of these beauty standards put women, and those they deem women, on a pedestal that’s the antithesis of humanity. Men are human, but a proper, pure, beautiful, Godly woman knows nothing of the sort.
So the kind of jokes about women that most people understand are jokes – things like “women don’t sweat” or “women don’t poop” – are, to a certain extent, considered the mark of a true, Godly woman in Christianity. Because bodies and bodily functions and, well, being human are all shrouded in mystery for the proper Christian girl, I knew only what my body did and no others. I lived my life in a secret shame of being made of this fleshy stuff that I assumed others with similar bodily components managed to overcome.
Christian women smelled of body wash and lotion, their legs gleamed hairless, they walked like they had nothing between their legs. No Christians talked to me about things like periods or arousal or what was a normal-looking body. Sex never even occurred to Godly women, of course. Their bodies remained hidden from them.
My body was messy and complicated. I obsessed about sex, was aroused often (without even knowing what that was). My mother’s hands-off approach to equipping me to deal with anything meant that I had zero knowledge on how to take care of my body, let alone how to meet the impossible beauty standards of masking my humanity from others. I’d found my brother’s porn when I was 12, so I knew at least somewhat what bodies looked like, but I had internalized the idea that Christian bodies weren’t like that. Holy femininity meant you could shut off the “baser” elements of having genitalia. Maybe Christian women didn’t even have genitals. That seems rather ridiculous, I know, but the ways that ignorance is enforced as proper femininity, coupled with the silence surrounding real discussions of the human body, how was I supposed to know anything else but that my body didn’t measure up?
And even now, talking about this is difficult. I’m still ignorant. There are still aspects of my body that I don’t talk about because I see them as aberrations, as signs there is something gross and wrong with me.
But the more I think about it, the more I doubt I’m alone. Christian beauty standards for women foster contempt for your own body, because you can’t meet it. Christianity condemns Barbie doll and praises baby doll: the only difference one impossible ideal and the other is that in Christianity, you’re not even allowed to have a plastic sexuality.
Christian culture may say that the main goal is about inner beauty, but their ideas of what inner beauty does means you are judged for your outer beauty, too. Is a Christian woman considered Godly if she’s ugly? Not really. Physical beauty is important, and not only is it important, but it will tell you everything about whether you measure up spiritually or not. “The world” may judge you for your clothing and makeup choices, but Christianity can determine if you’re going to hell for them.
And Christian beauty standards are isolating. Because they are about creating an image that no one is supposed to know is an image. Be beautiful, but pretend you are trying to not be beautiful. Act in these specific ways, but pretend all these ways come naturally and are not practiced. You’re never allowed to set the mask aside, not even among friends. If your body doesn’t conform to these innocent, infantile standards, if you’re not purer than human, if you have thoughts that aren’t sweet and toothless, then for all you know, you are alone.
For all I knew, I was alone. I was a failure, I was something gross, something you should stay away and not touch. I was a fucked and fucked up survivor who thought about rape, I was a person who thought about sex. My body is one of smells and fluids, a body with lots of hair, a body capable of sex and sexual feelings. My mind churned through emotions and thoughts, and I felt like a failure that I couldn’t perfect the kind of speech and false-sweet attitude of Christian femininity. And I never did learn how to speak with that “Christian woman” voice – you know, the one that’s like 6 inches of store-made cake frosting.
This is one more thing in the mixed up pile of self-hate and body terror and loathing. Being a survivor, being a genderqueer person with a strange relationship with my body, and now still having all these Christian beauty standards linked in my mind to ideas of self-worth and morality. To care (or to not care) about your beauty, or your personality outside of Christian culture’s standards of femininity is to be ugly, sinful, and immoral.
This is an insidious kind of dehumanization because it functions by praising the more-than-human. It turns dehumanization into a compliment. And by its isolating nature, it creates a group of people who are required to spend every second of their life focusing on achieving a specific constructed front, because in your mind, all the women you know are really like that. Ugliness is not an option, because if you really had inner beauty, God probably would have given you some outer beauty to express it. To be human, to be a person, is a failure. To be a woman in Christianity is to be one specific type of person. Everyone creates a fake femininity and destroys all else about themselves. Everyone speaks in false tones, and preapproved phrases and the first person who holds up the “HELP” loses. No, it’s not the “worldly” standards of beauty. It’s far, far worse.